Inspired by Leivick's first few years in America working in a Philadelphia garment factory, the play observes the Mazes, a Jewish immigrant family in 1920s New York. Anchored by Mordechai, the patriarch who labors as a ragpicker at a local garment shop, the family is thrown into conflict when Annie, the middle child, unexpectedly marries Mordechai's boss. Like Harry, the youngest, who feels more at home on the baseball diamond than in the living room, Annie is quickly adapting to her new world—and leaving her parents unsure of their place in it.
Stories of generational conflict and assimilation can approach cliché, but "Welcome to America" stands apart because of its willingness to embrace the ambiguity and irresolution that mark the Mazes' status in New York. Mordechai speaks in inconsistencies. He wants to be alone but wallows in his loneliness. He gives up on getting respect but still insists that he is deserving of it. Because he can never verbalize his wants, the members of his family are the victims of his unfocused anger. Maurice Schwartz, the founder of the Yiddish Art Theatre, who originated the role of Mordechai, called his situation "the problem of the Eternal Immigrant": to have settled into a new life but unable to re-inhabit one's old self.
As Mordechai, Donald Warfield has mastered the mix of the comic tragedian. His deadpans are hilariously cutting, but in Mordechai's speech to co-worker and labor organizer Elye (Alvin Keith, whose calm, focused presence is an ideal foil for Warfield), his bleak resignation is heartrending: "A remnant's place is with other remnants…. First it gets shorn from something bigger, and then it gets discarded." The powerful metaphor inspired the original title; it's puzzling why it was cast aside in favor of "Welcome to America," a generic phrase that might fit any immigrant story.
Whereas Leivick's original version, in four acts, included scenes in the factory and of the strike, Perecman's adaptation smartly restricts the action to the spare front room of the Maze household. This focuses attention on the family dynamics, which subtly reveal more about the turbulence of the time than an overtly politicized representation could. But it also goes a bit too far, undercutting the tense relationship between Mordechai and Harry that drives the climax of the play. "You have completely marginalized me, erased all traces of me in your life," Mordechai yells at his son, but we rarely get to see why. While his other outbursts bespeak a complex struggle, this unprecedented ferocity turns into something shallow and sad.
Presented by New Worlds Theatre Project at the 45th Street Theatre, 354 W. 45th St., 2nd floor, NYC. May 2–20. Wed.–Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; (Additional performance Sun., May 13, 8 p.m.) (212) 868-4444 or www.smarttix.com.