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Howard Mase And Marla Mase’s “Being Somebody” At Tada Theatre Tuesday, April 18th, 2023 Reviewed

As we walk through this wicked world once in a great while you meet somebody who simply blows you away, who is such a perfect emersion of time, place, and person, that despite them not necessarily being a famous celebrity becomes one in your world. He gets stanned. It is just strange how you crave his approval, how you admire him, and how honored you feel that you know him and respect him. Dr. Howard Mase is one such person. Close on the heels of the passing of his beloved wife Roberta of 62 years less than six months ago, he revisits his youth and draws us in to a place that is legendary, Brooklyn in the first half of the 20th century. His one man play (with his daughter featured) doesn’t tell you how he became the man we see before us, we don’t hear much hear about college for instance, it gives you the beats, the moments, that got him there.

Directed by the famous acting coach Elizabeth Browning with music by the actress, pop singer, playwright and the good doctor’s daughter Marla Mase, and True Groove CEO Tomas Doncker, for two hours Howard sends us on a recherchez de temps perdu, a look at himself (and us) from the position of his childhood, ending with him finding the love of his life. This is very good stuff. And while its tagline is “Growing Up Brooklyn… a father/daughter tale” that isn’t quite it. Marla uses herself as a time machine, she can deal herself as a pre-teen and teen girl so you can jump the story forward without interrupting Howard’s backwards flow. Add to that not one but two surprise twists towards the end and you can see where we are heading, an autobiography scaled as a story of life snapshots and you can join. Howard might be a superstar to us but on stage he isn’t afraid to bare his emotional frailties even as he jumps to the beginnings as an octogenarian looking back with a sort of joyful understanding of his youth and insecurities.

The play begins with Marla Mase singing “Hold Back Your Dreams” -composed by her mother with words borrowed from other mediums, then we find a pre teen Marla playing with her friends on the streets of Brooklyn before her father whistles her home for dinner; she walks in to find her parents dancing, Howard an excellent dancer and her mother standing on his feet because she can’t dance till ten year old Marla slips between them for a snapshot of a good family life. It works as a juxtaposition of what Howard did with his own relations in Brooklyn and how he constructed his own family life. Put it this way, he puts the lie to Tolstoy’s “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way…”

Marla has written one of the best plays you will see, “The Pill”, it had its debut run at La Mama in 2018 and is a family tragedy but the tragedy occurs much later and not on stage. At first I thought Marla’s performance was affected, it didn’t sound like any Marla I know, but the reason was that it wasn’t the Marla I know, it was the younger Marla and she personifies it with her pixie haircut and boyish physique and while she isn’t a foil for her father she allows him to be in three places at the same time: far past, past, present as the story kicks into gear.

There are precedents for Brooklyn Semites looking back down from Brooklyn roads. The most obvious one being Mel Brooks one man show (here), Mel Brooks came of age in the 1930s and by the 1940s was immersed in WWII -he lived above a butchers shop and dealt with a not untypical cast of characters when he was young, got a job in the Catskills and that was that. Caught in the snarls of WWII where he served in the army and anti-semitism, he came out the other side.

Despite Howard’s absolute identifying as a Jew, the 1940s weren’t the 1930s, and the question of Semitism isn’t really expressed. It doesn’t need to. With his height, taunt physique and blonde hair, blue eyes, there is one reason why that might be. The question doesn’t loom till he lets it loom. Meanwhile, his Grandfather was a belligerent drunk who terrified Howard with his rages, his father a gambler who once asked his son to borrow $5 and sent his son into a whirlwind of fear and anguish at the man’s humanity. His mother was a typical Jewish mother with an enema in one hand and a passion for his bowel movements in the other.

Howard himself was a reticent diplomat, anybody who has grown up in a belligerent family knows the form, it leaves you a nervous wreck where every raising a voice could be a meltdown: children raised like that are born to either repeat it or improve it and after a childhood of a constant warring family, he knew he didn’t want that. While how he got out of it is for a different one man show entirely. This is, if not a happy play, a real study of humanity and masculinity, how to be anybody for anyone else, you must first be somebody for yourself. Beautifully constructed, Howard’s understanding of himself and ability to share it is even more central than his working with his daughter. “Being Somebody” becomes a how to story that doesn’t tell you how to.

I believe the play is still in development, though it is an honor to spend two hours in the company of people who make you feel both nostalgic for a time and place you are not a part of, and thrilled by the 20th Century Jewish experience.

1 Comments

  1. Dawn Stanley on April 28, 2023 at 7:19 pm

    Love the message and the people that reflected such hope and personality

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