Playwright Robert Sugarman says it’s “such a thrill” to make his Shakespeare & Company debut at 86. But that’s not the only unusual thing about the world premiere production of Sugarman’s play “Kaufman’s Barber Shop,” beginning performances Aug. 14.
There’s also the venue — Upstreet Barbers in downtown Pittsfield, where they will wedge in about 50 seats per show.
“It’s not a tiny shop, but it’s going to be tight,” says director Regge Life. “You’re going to feel like you’re waiting for a haircut.”
“I’m fascinated with the idea,” says Sugarman. “I figure, I’ve written it, they’ve got to do it.”
The play takes place in 1925, in a Jewish barbershop in Syracuse, N.Y. Barber Jake Kaufman (Robert Lohbauer) sees his shop as a haven from the prejudice that was aimed at Jews then: a complex but not always subtle maze of acceptance here, restriction there. He savors his conversations with jeweler Jesse Markowitz (Malcolm Ingram) and assistant district attorney Morris Schwartz (Jonathan Croy). They talk openly in front of Irish manicurist Maggie Fitzgerald (Kate Abbruzzese) and African-American shoeshine man Walter Henderson Jr. (Thomas Brazzle).
But then politics and prejudice begin to intrude on their conversation, and their safe space isn’t safe, not anymore.
“I was thinking about my father’s generation,” Sugarman says. “My father was the child of immigrants who came here at the end of the 19th century. My dad grew up in a Yiddish-speaking area of Syracuse, and then he and a number of his buddies eventually moved out and went to public school and became successful businessmen.
“I began to wonder what was it like in the 1920s when they were sort of living the American Dream, but still in the circumscribed — ‘restricted,’ to use the word — circumstances that Jews lived in at that time,” he says.
To be honest, Sugarman didn’t do a lot of research. “I’m fairly old,” he says with a laugh. “I knew these guys, or people of that period.”
Until he went off to college in the 1940s, he says, he always had his hair cut in a Jewish barbershop in downtown Syracuse. There was an African-American shoeshine guy there who also was a musician and played in the local black nightclub, and there was always a white female manicurist.
“I’m sure I give it more significance in my play than it had in actual life, but I did know the barbershop,” he says.
Doing the play in an actual barbershop helps define the action, Life says.
“A barbershop is a pretty relaxed place. People talk a lot, but they don’t move a lot,” he says. “I think for us it’s going to be trying to find that kind of natural behavior within that environment.”
The barbershop plays an important role in the African-American community just as in that Jewish community, Life says, as “the place where people would meet and greet and stories would be told and a lot of education was passed down from the elders to young people.”
“To see it through the Jewish lens for me was very interesting because you can realize a lot of similarities in how men relate to each other in that world,” Life says. “I think the barbershop, for so-called minorities, that becomes your safe place, where you can be yourself, where you can practice your culture without feeling like you’re being observed or judged.”
Sugarman, who lives in Shaftsbury, Vt., is retired from teaching humanities and theater at Southern Vermont College in Bennington. He has run a small publishing company and kept writing in retirement, but it’s been nearly 20 years since he’s had a play produced. Three years ago he showed an early version of “Kaufman’s Barber Shop” to friend Tony Simotes, artistic director of Shakespeare & Company. They began a two-year development process that has included readings of the play each of the last two summers and some significant rewrites.
Early on, Sugarman says, he and Life “got together for a power lunch at Friendly’s in Pittsfield,” and he mentioned that his father and his friends had grown up in awe of vaudeville, especially Jewish performers like Fanny Brice and the Marx Brothers, and often sang at home. “And Regge said, ‘We have to put that in the show,’ ” Sugarman says. So now there are a couple of songs, and a ukulele.
Simotes was the first to suggest producing the play in a barbershop, and when that became a reality, it meant changing the time of year in the play.
“Govane Lohbauer, our costume designer, said if we’re doing a site-specific production in the summer, it can’t be Christmas,” Sugarman says. “So I rewrote the play and moved it to July.” (The Lohbauers are married.)
Sugarman so enjoyed writing about Syracuse’s Jews that he has since written a prequel set in 1887 and a sequel set in 1932, featuring some of the same characters.
“I really like to find a context and then figure out what’s going on, and then the language seems to emerge from that,” Sugarman says. “Maybe I’m fooling myself. But it’s sort of the thing [E.L.] Doctorow does in his novels, where you get into an historic period and then find all kind of resonances that echo through now.”
If you want to see “Kaufman’s Barber Shop,” though, you better move fast. The six originally scheduled performances have sold out, according to Shakespeare & Company, and only two more have been added. Getting a haircut is easier — the shop will be open during its usual daytime hours.
‘Kiss Me, Kate’ coming to the Esplanade
Commonwealth Shakespeare Company and Boston Landmarks Orchestra will team up for a free concert performance of Cole Porter’s Tony-winning musical “Kiss Me, Kate” at the Hatch Shell on the Esplanade on Aug. 21. Broadway performers Marc Kudisch and Kerry O’Malley will star. Commonwealth Shakespeare’s founding artistic director Steven Maler and associate artistic director Adam Sanders will co-direct, and Landmarks music director Christopher Wilkins will conduct. Security entrances open at 5 p.m. for the 7 p.m. performance. The rain location is the Back Bay Events Center, 180 Berkeley St. For weather updates, call 617-987-2000 or text Landmarks to 27138.Joel Brown can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.