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Fern Siegel

Fern Siegel

Posted: August 18, 2010 11:48 PM

Here's why theater festivals can be fun: There is a small, intimate play at the SoHo Playhouse, part of FringeNYC. It has no scenery, scant props and four actors -- and it's a winner. Just in Time: The Judy Holliday Story deserves a bigger stage and longer run. In 88 entertaining, heartfelt minutes, audiences fall in love with its cast, particularly its lead, Marina Squerciati, who beautifully captures the funny, sad and extraordinarily American story of Judith Tuvim.

Never heard of Tuvim? She's the smart Jewish girl from New York better known to millions as beloved actress Judy Holliday.

Holliday, the Yiddish equivalent of Tuvim, was the antithesis of her stage/screen presence. An Oscar-winner for Born Yesterday, Holliday had a gift for comedy, playing the seemingly dim, but street smart Billie Dawn with a touching vulnerability. Few who saw her performances realized the sizable intellect behind the funny voice.

Blessed with a genius IQ, she graduated high school at 16, but was denied admittance to Yale Drama School due to her youth. Instead, she worked briefly for the legendary Mercury Theater before meeting two other teens, Betty Comden (Catherine LeFrere) and Adolph Green (Adam Harrington) who, along with studio moguls, helped change her life.

Comden, Green and Holliday formed a theatrical troupe called the Revuers and wrote sketches together, performing at Greenwich Village clubs. Just in Time cleverly recreates those moments, along with Holliday's relationship with her mother (Mary Gutzi). What's wonderful about the show -- it manages to be clever, mournful and celebratory. A brief portrait of show biz in the '40s and blacklisting '50s, it's also a tribute to a versatile talent cut down in her prime.

Written and directed by Bob Sloan, who gets fantastic mileage out of his cast, Just in Time should transfer to the Lucille Lortel or Theater Row. It boasts a lively script and polished pacing. You'll be ordering Judy Holliday's films the moment you leave the theater.

Farther uptown at the Kirk, The Punishing Blow showcases British Jew Daniel Mendoza. His story is also a portrait of an age; Mendoza was an 18th-century prizefighter and considered the father of scientific boxing. But the set-up is more problematic. The French philosopher Sartre called anti-Semitism "poor man's snobbery... It is propagated mainly among the middle classes," he noted. It's equally at home among the educated, judging from The Punishing Blow, a one-man show written by Randy Cohen, the man behind "The Ethicist" column in The New York Times, starring Seth Duerr.

Arrested during a drunken, anti-Semitic tirade, Duerr's character, an unnamed professor, has a choice: jail time or community service. He chooses the latter, and is ordered to give a talk on a prominent Jew. He chooses Daniel Mendoza, though we never learn why.

Blow pummels us with information about boxing and English Jewish life; both were brutal. The Jews, having been mistreated for centuries, were expelled from England in 1290. When Cromwell welcomed them back mid-17th-century, resettlement was difficult, and they were often attacked in the streets. Mendoza's success helped gain respect for Jews, as did his lessons in self-defense. He is said to have been the first Jew to talk to King George III.

What's difficult about the production -- and Duerr plays contemptuous academic well -- is two fold: First, it's timing; we don't learn the reason for the lecture until late in the show. Or, why he mixes his own marital woes into his talk. The drama's larger point -- that education fails to enlighten bigots -- is disquieting. One wishes Mendoza was there to beat some sense into him.