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New York Times Review: ‘Old Stock,’ an Immigrant Love Story Set to Klezmer

Chaim and Chaya do not meet cute. It’s 1908 Halifax, and these new arrivals — Jews who fled Romania — have been shunted into a line for the sick. He might have contracted typhus; he says it’s just a rash. She might have caught her sister’s tuberculosis; she thinks it’s just a cough. Will these two traumatized kids fall in love? Will immigration let them? Will they live long enough?

A work of mingled genres and strong flavors, “Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story,” produced by 2B Theater Company at 59E59 Theaters, mixes bitter herbs with apples and honey. Didactic and anarchic, tragic and comic, it’s a klezmer musical and a love story, a particular family history (Chaim and Chaya are based on the Canadian playwright Hannah Moscovitch’s own great-grandparents) and a broad allegory for the refugee crisis of the present.

The style is mostly story theater, narrated by the singer-songwriter Ben Caplan, who created the piece with Ms. Moscovitch and the director and songwriter Christian Barry. It’s Mr. Caplan we first meet, his top hat and bushy beard levitating above the shipping container. He looks like a rabbinical Deadhead and growls like a Yiddishkeit Tom Waits. To hear him recite euphemisms for sex (“forbidden polka,” “four-legged fox trot,” “doing the horizontal greased-weasel tango”) is to give celibacy careful consideration.

But by and large he is a noisy treasure. The musicians play all the roles, so a severe Mary Fay Coady takes on both Chaya and violin, a puppyish Chris Weatherstone handles both Chaim and woodwinds. Mr. Caplan also plays God, a bandleader’s privilege.

This is not the kind of piece that waits for an invitation to enter. It’s cavorting to spry klezmer as soon as the house lights dim and it rarely loses its sense of madcap urgency. The setting is ostensibly a century ago, but the title is borrowed from a 2015 comment by Stephen Harper, then the Canadian prime minister, who drew a distinction between refugees and “old stock Canadians.”

So while Ms. Moscovitch is writing about the past, she is also addressing mass migrations today and the people and countries who would oppose those migrants. A few of the play’s grimmer stories recall today’s emergencies.

“Old Stock” is overwritten, the book and lyrics both. It’s alternately sentimental and lewd (those greased weasels) and strains too hard for universality, spelling out its metaphors in marquee lights. “We all, sometimes, pound on the door, hoping to be let in, even if it’s the door to … the human heart,” Mr. Caplan says.

Still, it succeeds. A near catastrophe teaches Chaim and Chaya to care for each other, and it teaches us to care for them, too. The play is a reminder — salutary, obvious — that there’s a face behind each immigration form, a history attached to each petition for asylum.

Ms. Moscovitch is Chaim and Chaya’s direct descendant. That she exists at all means it’s not spoiling much to tell you that “Old Stock” ends in a cavalcade of numbers — Chaim and Chaya have so many children, so many grandchildren, so many great-grandchildren. Ms. Moscovitch’s own son is one of the great-greats. That’s a lot of babies. A lot of tangos. So many lives made possible because a young man and a young woman, hounded from their first homes, found a country humane enough to take them in and let them build another.

Original article via The New York Times, written by