October 26, 2022
Review by Arthur Dorman
"Anybody wanna buy a coat?" Those are the first words exuberantly uttered by JC Cutler as Matty Selman, hurling himself on stage while holding said coat out for all the world to see in Uncle Philip's Coat, a one-man play written by Selman and now running at Six Points Theater. The coat–an enveloping fur-trimmed garment that appears to be as heavy as a chest freezer–was brought here from the Selman family's Ukrainian homeland when they fled the pogroms of the early twentieth century. Because the coat was once instrumental in saving Philip's life (we come to know that story and many others), it was passed on to him. Philip, with no children of his own, bequeaths it to Matty upon his death. This is the event that precipitates Matty's animated sales pitch that opens the play.
In addition to Matty, Cutler assumes the personas of Uncle Philip and his father Mickey, along with brief passes at other relations and associates. The play is a somewhat disjointed collection of semi-true accounts of Matty's memories and of stories passed on to him. The play's anecdotes and character sketches mostly take place in Manhattan and Brooklyn, with the names of streets, neighborhoods, high schools, and local landmarks regularly dropped, establishing a specific sense of time and place and serving as a treat to those with even a morsel of nostalgia for the Big Apple, circa 1910–1980.
The narrative meanders around Philip, Matty and Mickey. Matty is a middle-aged wannabe actor earning a living enacting critically ill patients for medical students in training. Mickey implores his son Matty to quit the acting bug and do something
JC Cutler Sarah Whiting photo
"real," while wearily accepting his own lot repairing jewelry at the rear of the diamond exchange. Philip offers flavorful anecdotes about his life and the colorful characters he has known while struggling to earn a living selling all manner of goods.
Ah, but Philip does not just sell merchandise. He entertains passersby, drawing attention to himself and his goods with theatrical energy, shameless mugging, and ribald humor. The first thing we learn about Philip is that he used to sell brassieres on the Coney Island boardwalk, pinning the goods to the sleeves of his enormous coat and waving them about, like flapping seagulls, as he sang out the cup available on a given day. Matty acknowledges his uncle's failure to actually earn a living, but harbors a romanticized notion of Philip as having experienced life with a depth not available to those who settle for commonplace security.
Cutler is terrific, exuding heart and affection for the people whose lives he inhabits on stage. He captures both their unique gifts and their proclivity for meeting the disappointments life has dealt them with denial. With a mere change in his manner of speaking and an adjustment to his posture, Cutler transforms wholly from one of the Selman men–and sometimes a Selman woman–to another, never leaving the audience behind.
Cutler is almost always in motion, cavorting about the stage with grace, while revealing the weight of the loads these people carry through life. Director Craig Johnson draws from him a performance that wraps its heartbreaking core in Yiddish-infused humor and schtick.
Uncle Philip's Coat is only about eighty minutes long, but long enough to give us a vivid sketch of the life lived by Philip Selman, and the different turns taken by his brother and his nephew. The narrative's meandering is a function of Philip's, meandering mind. He routinely digresses from one story into another, only to come to a dead end, admit to us "But that's not the point," and return to the earlier thread. The stories unspool in a stream of consciousness manner, as Philip's memories branches off into others, but the narrative faithfully returns to brother Mickey and nephew Matty's perspectives, like a needle darting in and out, stitching together the pieces that create the whole cloth of this family.
There is a bittersweet feeling to the play. The Selmans are unlike many of the families we meet in immigrant stories who, with sufficient sweat, tears, and faith in the future, overcome the odds so that their life rises to attain a piece of the American dream. The Selmans are more akin to the much-burdened Berger family in Clifford Odets' Awake and Sing, scraping day by day, trying to believe that one of those days their hopes will be realized. Yes, the Selmans are safer in New York than under the nightmare of pogroms, but they still contend with antisemitism, and unlike those of immigrant stock who are points of pride for their rise to the top, including many in the entertainment industry, Philip, Mickey, and Matty Selman all aspire for such success without ever tasting it. At least, that is how Uncle Philip's Coat lays things out. The real life Matty Selman has made his mark as a playwright, composer, lyricist, author and actor, but that is not that Matty Selman appearing on stage.
Eleanor Schanilec designed a costume that speaks to the wear and tear the characters have suffered beneath the cloth. The coat itself is a beauty, torn seams and all. Its faded glory is a remnant of the dignity and dreams Philip sought to hold onto throughout his life. In the amusing story of Matty's attempt to offer the coat to the Ellis Island immigration museum for their collection–after all, Philip had the coat with him when he disembarked from a ship and first set foot on American soil, beneath the lamp of Lady Liberty herself–Matty is nonplussed by the curator's reference to the coat as an "artifact." It is as if the word turned the coat from a living to an inanimate thing, removed from his life. Matty understands then that the coat, much as he tries to get rid of it, is a link to his past that cannot be so easily discarded.
The stage setting for this production is simple but provides everything needed for Cutler to unleash his magic on stage, complete with a boardwalk. Reid Rejsa's sound design includes the clarion horns of arriving steamships, the sounds of wind at the beach and other indicators of their setting, and the force of elements beyond their control. Paul Epton's designed the atmospheric lighting.
While Uncle Philips's Coat is a short and slender piece, it is brimming with heart and humor. JC Cutler's performance lifts it up even higher, making it a show I can highly recommend. It is exactly the kind of work that makes Six Points Theater an essential part of the Twin Cities theater ecosystem.
Uncle Philip's Coat runs through November 13, 2022, at Six Points Theater (formerly Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company), Highland Park Community Center, 1978 Ford Parkway, Saint Paul MN. Tickets: $25.00 - $40.00, $15.00 Student Rush (with valid ID) Rush. For tickets and information, please call 651-647-4315 or visit www.sixpointstheater.org.
Playwright: Matty Selman; Director: Craig Johnson; Scenic Design: Robin McIntyre; Costume and Property Design: Eleanor Schanilec; Lighting Design: Paul Epton; Sound Design: Reid Rejsa; Stage Managers: Miranda Shunkwiler and Scott Gilbert
Cast: J.C Cutler (Matty, Mickey, Philip and others).