Unraveling the indelible history of ‘Uncle Philip’s Coat’

SHARE Unraveling the indelible history of ‘Uncle Philip’s Coat’
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Gene Weygandt in Matty Selman’s play, “Uncle Philip’s Overcoat,” at The Greenhouse Theater Center. (Photo: Evan Hanover)

He calls himself an “Expert in the Field of General Merchandise.” And to watch him hawk second-hand brassieres to passersby on the Coney Island boardwalk — with his “shop” located inside his tattered overcoat, whose pockets are filled with other trinkets, and pieces of candy — is to see a master at work. True, he barely manages to make a nickel, but no one would argue with the fact that he is an artist — a salesman whose innate theatrical instincts are a wondrous combination of King Lear and Borscht Belt comic.

‘UNCLE PHILIP’S COAT’ Highly recommended When: Through Dec. 31 Where: Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Tickets: $34 – $48 Info: www.greenhousetheater.org Run time: 70 minutes, with no intermission

And there you have it — Matty Selman’s exquisitely written one-man (three character) play, “Uncle Philip’s Coat,” first produced in New York in 1998, and only now receiving a wondrous Chicago premiere. Why did it take so long? Probably because very few actors could pull this work off with the sort of brilliance and heart-wrenching truthfulness that veteran Chicago actor Gene Weygandt is now bringing to the story. The production, part of the ongoing Solo Celebration series at The Greenhouse Theater Center, is masterful in every way, and clearly Weygandt and his director, Elizabeth Margolius, felt a specially affinity for this tale, which is being told so beautifully.

Gene Weygandt in Matty Selman’s play, “Uncle Philip’s Coat,” at The Greenhouse Theater Center. (Photo: Evan Hanover)

Gene Weygandt in Matty Selman’s play, “Uncle Philip’s Coat,” at The Greenhouse Theater Center. (Photo: Evan Hanover)

“Uncle Philip’s Coat” is an immigrant’s story — one that unfolds in the present tense, but carries us back more than a century, as the Jews of Ukraine were subjected to brutal pogroms, and as some of those who managed to survive headed to America.

It all begins when Matty, 55, and a mostly unemployed New York actor, takes the tattered overcoat bequeathed to him by his uncle Philip (who died of hypothermia, after living in an essentially homeless state), to the museum at Ellis Island. This had been Philip’s port of entry when, many decades earlier, he arrived with his younger brother, Mickey, now Matty’s father. As it turns out, the coat, with its overpowering odor and questionable provenance, is rejected by a museum curator, but it becomes a treasure chest of memories for its inheritor.

From the start, Matty understands that Philip was, like him, “a luftmensch,” the Yiddish word for “a dreamer” — a man with his head forever in the clouds (poetic sounding, yes, but also a mode of survival). And as embodied by Weygandt, Matty is easily up to the task of conjuring his uncle’s life, spirit, and tragicomic soul. It is a tale worthy of the great Russian writer Gogol, who left a major imprint on world literature with his own tale of a man and his overcoat. And Weygandt brings it vividly to life.

Philip was just a child when his mother frantically hid him in a suit jacket and “hung” him in a closet as marauders ransacked their town during a pogrom. His baby brother, Mickey, also was saved. But a tension clearly developed between the immigrant brothers once they became adults, and grew into men who made very different choices, or were simply psychologically tuned to different fates.

Matty’s father, a bitter and rather cold-hearted man, spent his life holed up in a little stall in New York’s Diamond District, where he worked repairing jewelry. (Weygandt brings a touch of genius to the devastating scene in which Philip visits Mickey at work and is coldly dismissed by him in favor of a client.) Philip, a poet of second-hand goods and found objects, spent his life hustling in every way he could devise. A man with a huge heart, a way with words, and a gift for living with plenty of nothing, Philip also easily charmed the young Matty throughout his childhood years. And the play indirectly poses the question: Who had the better existence?

Weygandt’s quicksilver shifts from Philip, to Matty, to Mickey — and from tragedy to comedy, kindness to cruelty — are accomplished with breathtaking skill, and his Yiddish inflections are ideal. And both he (and the playwright) deftly dance around any hint of sentimentality as they bring to life the delight of an old Waterman’s pen or a Coney Island hotdog.

“Uncle Philip’s Coat” is, above all, a play about memory — a crucial element of the Jewish religion. And nowhere is that aspect more beautifully captured than when Uncle Philip holds a china teacup and talks about how the souls of his relatives live in it: “Mine Papa, Baba… Mahtus – killed by the White Army… Fiera and her sisters from Lodz… the little Abie, died in his sleep in Kiev… all of them… here… here they are, right here… and I hold them and I take care of them.”

Gene Weygandt in Matty Selman’s play, “Uncle Philip’s Coat” at The Greenhouse Theater Center. (Photo: Evan Hanover)

Gene Weygandt in Matty Selman’s play, “Uncle Philip’s Coat” at The Greenhouse Theater Center. (Photo: Evan Hanover)

Gene Weygandt in Matty Selman’s play, “Uncle Philip’s Overcoat,” at The Greenhouse Theater Center. (Photo: Evan Hanover)

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