Israel Zangwill, a ferociously intelligent, passionate champion of multiculturalism, escaped poverty in London’s East End thanks in part to his education at the Jews’ Free School, where he also subsequently taught for a time. He went on to become a writer, political thinker and activist. He was the first to use the phrase ‘the melting pot’ to describe what he also calls ‘God’s crucible’ – America – in this play, endorsed enthusiastically and vocally by then US president Theodore Roosevelt at its 1908 premiere in New York. Now Bitter Pill Theatre produces the first UK revival of The Melting Pot since 1938.
You almost certainly know the venture ends in failure and tragedy but what a gloriously exhilarating and entertaining evening JT Rogers makes of the journey. It’s 1991 and the US-sponsored Middle East Peace Conference is going nowhere, with the excluded PLO still ensconced in Tunis. Norwegian power couple Mona Juul, a diplomat posted to Cairo, and Terje Rod-Larsen, her foundation-running sociologist husband, get a chance to see first hand the conflict in Gaza, Jerusalem and the West Bank.
“All gone to look for America” sang Simon and Garfunkel in 1968. In 1974 oral historian and broadcaster Studs Terkel found America by conducting a series of free-form interviews with so-called ‘ordinary’ people – from labourers to teachers – about their working lives. Uninterrupted by their interviewer, they spoke freely about the meaning they found in their work – and its part in the meaning of their lives. The resulting book is a bestseller still.
The theatre is a storage room in an LA veterans administration hospital. The date is 11 November 1989 – Remembrance Day. Three veterans of three different conflicts, emblematic of a 20th-century world torn apart by war, represent the soldiers scarred by their experiences in the theatre of war. Sporting poppies, they prepare in this makeshift waiting room to be decorated for valour. Private Leslie R Holloway, who saw service (and unnamed horrors) during World War I, is slumped in a wheelchair when Sergeant John MacCormick Butts breezes into the room in his brash suit. His voice is even louder as he whiles away the time by cheerily proving that his prowess at the piano is equal to his prowess in World War II, accompanying himself reprising rousing ditties from different conflicts, from Keep the Home Fires Burning to Over Here. His best endeavours are not enough to rouse Holloway, however, so it’s a relief when the immaculate, dapper figure of Colonel Walter Kercelik marches smartly into the room, so highly decorated during the Viet Nam War that he’s appeared on the cover of Time Magazine.
What follows is an unravelling that is as unpredictable as it is terrifying, until it becomes apparent what deep psychological traumas all three men have endured. The sort of damage evident in Holloway’s slouched form is disguised by Butts, with his over-cheerful bonhomie, and Kercelik with his extraordinary outward self-control, encyclopaedic retention of facts and glowing efficiency.
Reviving Murray Schisgal’s 1964 show, unashamedly a mix of absurdist humour and traditional Broadway comedy, is a gamble, especially given our current perspectives on matters of love, sex and the human condition. In lesser hands the gamble might not have paid off, but director Gary Condes has a fine understanding of the material and nudges his cast to find just that right blend between reality and cartoon that made the play a hit over 50 years ago.