Reviews

Tuesdays With Morrie ****1/2

By: Samuel L. Leiter

April 11, 2024: As is well known, sports writer Mitch Albom’s 1997 book, Tuesdays with Morrie: An Old Man, A Young Man and Life’s Greatest Lesson, one of the best-selling memoirs ever, tells the story of Albom’s weekly visits to Morris S. “Morrie” Schwartz, his former sociology professor at Brandeis, after he learned that Schwartz was afflicted with ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), a.k.a. Lou Gehrig’s Disease. The sentimental yet uplifting story was made into a 1999 film, Tuesdays with Morrie, starring Hank Azaria and Jack Lemmon, and then a successful Off-Broadway play, cowritten by Albom and Jeffrey Hatcher, seen at the Minetta Lane Theatre in 2002. 

Chris Domig and Len Cariou.

By: Samuel L. Leiter

April 11, 2024: As is well known, sports writer Mitch Albom’s 1997 book, Tuesdays with Morrie: An Old Man, A Young Man and Life’s Greatest Lesson, one of the best-selling memoirs ever, tells the story of Albom’s weekly visits to Morris S. “Morrie” Schwartz, his former sociology professor at Brandeis, after he learned that Schwartz was afflicted with ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), a.k.a. Lou Gehrig’s Disease. The sentimental yet uplifting story was made into a 1999 film, Tuesdays with Morrie, starring Hank Azaria and Jack Lemmon, and then a successful Off-Broadway play, cowritten by Albom and Jeffrey Hatcher, seen at the Minetta Lane Theatre in 2002. 

Len Cariou

The play’s universal warmth and humanity proved so affecting that it was produced repeatedly all over the world. My good friend, Daniel S.P. Yang, for example, has directed it several times in his own Chinese translation with great success in both the People’s Republic of China and Taiwan, its message clearly transcending political differences. Happily, it’s now receiving its first New York revival in a moving Off-Broadway production by the Sea Dog Theater, sensitively directed by Edwin Maas; it stars Broadway legend Len Cariou (Sweeney Todd and so much else), now 84, as Morrie, and actor-musician Christopher J. Domig (Dirt), who is also Sea Dog’s artistic director, as Mitch. Unlike the film, these are the only two characters we see, although we eventually hear the offstage voice of Mitch’s wife (Sally Shaw) singing, with heartbreaking pathos, Ray Noble’s “The Very Thought of You.”

Mitch, 37, begins the play by playing cocktail lounge-style jazz (written by Domig himself) at a grand piano, the only notable scenic unit visible on the long, narrow floor of the towering, columned chapel within St. George’s Episcopal Church, where the play is being performed. After being joined there by the willfully spirited Morrie, 78, who leans on the piano for support after tossing away his cane, Mitch tells us of his last class at Brandeis with Morrie, on the Meaning of Life, in which he was the only student. Its topics, like those in the play, included, “love, work, aging, family, community, forgiveness . . . and death.” The student and the prof met regularly, Albom even calling Morrie “Coach.” What follows combines direct address and standard dialogue circling about issues of life, dying, and death.

Chris Domig and  Len Cariou.

Mitch is an established sports writer whose parents—in contrast with what Morrie advised–discouraged him from a career as a jazz musician; having heard on Ted Koppel’s TV show, “Nightline,” of Morrie’s condition, he visits the ailing prof at his Massachusetts home after a 16-year separation. Soon, feeling emotionally unsettled, he agrees to continue visiting every Tuesday, flying there from Detroit. Thus begins an odyssey of growing friendship, conversation, learning, and care that sees the pair through Morrie’s final days, when his illness grows increasingly dire, finally, as our tears fall, his voice is little more than a whisper. 

Morrie allows his fury at what he’s facing to explode early on, but for the most part he’s philosophically resigned, a knowing smile more often brightening his face than an angry scowl, his wisdom usually expressed in witty maxims, like, “Age is not a competition.” He uses his time to respond to the many letter writers who seek answers to their own problems of mortality, while ever conscious that he himself will soon need someone to wipe his ass, as he puts it. “The truth is,” he tells Mitch, “Once you learn how to die, you learn how to live. I wish I’d been aware of death every day of my life.”

Chris Domig 

Both actors underplay with great discretion, their byplay continually natural and convincing. Domig’s emotions are meticulously controlled as Mitch seeks to find answers to the questions of life’s meaning, while Cariou’s elderly wise man is forced to come to grips with the very beliefs on which he’s based his life. Although Cariou is best known for musical theatre, he’s also recognized for his dramatic gifts, never more well-represented than in this intricately rendered portrayal of a man refusing to go gentle into that good night.

The audience is seated at one end of the chapel on hard wooden chairs placed on risers overlooking the lengthy acting space, only the half closest to the stage being used. The night I went police car lights in the street outside spilled through the stained-glass windows at the far end of the space, reminding us of the world outside. Maas’s staging is tasteful and nonintrusive, props being confined to the rollator and wheelchair used by Cariou. Within the room’s classical architecture, however, de Lancey’s gorgeously atmospheric lighting demonstrates how little the play requires of traditional trappings. On the other hand, while Eamon Goodman’s sound design adds greatly to the production, there’s little he can do to prevent the room’s echoing acoustics from muffling many speeches. I did not notice assistive listening devices being available. (I understand the company chose this venue when no suitable Off-Broadway theatre was available. I’m sure it would have been even stronger in a more intimate environment.)

Chris Domig  and  Len Cariou.

Tuesdays with Morrie runs an uninterrupted 95 minutes. Despite its discerning avoidance of schmaltzy emotionalism, it will hold your interest throughout and, while provoking occasional laughter, also cure any dry eye problem you may have.

Tuesdays with Morrie ****1/2
St. George’s Episcopal Church
209 E. 16th Street, NYC
Extended through April 20, 2024
Photography: Jeremy Varner