Newman plays herself, among other characters. Fall Down Get Up is a retrospective of her favorite roles, to help celebrate Traveling Jewish Theatre's 25th anniversary season. (Newman co-founded the group in 1978.) She weaves characters like "Bronia, the Yiddish Theater Star" and "Fredl Shtock, the Mad Poet" into a loose narrative about her own life, chatting with the audience between scenes about her girlhood visits to a vaudeville theater in Detroit, or about her mother's death. Not every actor can do that -- step onstage naked, without (apparently) the overcoat of a role. Newman can, and her personal segments are the strongest bits of the show.
The first act feels more like a revue than a self-contained piece of theater. We meet the characters but hear no story. Bronia sings "Zol Zayn (So Be It)" in a tender falsetto -- surprising because Newman herself has such a hoarse, crowlike voice -- and segues into "Vos Geven Is Geven (What Was Is What Was)," a bewitching, Dietrich-style torch song, performed earthily in Yiddish, with no music besides what Newman herself plays on a tabletop accordion. The effect is both sad and satirical. What could be less Dietrich-like than an old Jewish broad singing alone in a room, in Yiddish? But Newman's performance calls up the same melancholy.
"The Hag" is a homeless woman who resembles Trudy, Lily Tomlin's bag lady from The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe. ("People ask me, 'What's it like getting older?' And I tell 'em, 'Older than what?'" she says.) "Rifke, the Kitchen Table Philosopher" is a Jewish housewife who both complains and philosophizes about her hall closet. (We meet Rifke again in the second act.) "You know what I do when I get mad?" she says. "I complain. A long time ago they called it 'Lamentations' ... I will show you how."
Less engaging and funny than Rifke and the Hag are two grand eccentrics, Fredl Shtock and "Elsa Lasker Schuler, the Bohemian Exile." Fredl broods about linkages between English and Yiddish and then goes uncompellingly mad. Elsa talks with divalike flourishes about beatings by Nazi thugs in Berlin and her postwar life in Jerusalem. Both women are interesting, but not quite alive: They consist of artifice and posture. Newman is too professional to do a poor job with her postures, but the Elsa piece, especially, feels like an exercise in style.
In Act 2, Newman steps back from this gallery of characters to explain that Rifke was modeled on her own mother, who emigrated from a Lithuanian shtetl only to traumatize the future actress by locking her in a closet as a girl. ("But the closet worked!" says her mother in her old age.) A bare, halting segment tells the unpretty story of her mother's death. Newman sings a kaddish fragment to a melody by Ravel. This part of the show is the boldest, because Newman risks losing her audience; she insists on moving us through every wrinkle of awkwardness and grief. But she does it with authority and rewards us with a hilarious story about finding a lesbian lover at age 60 and trying to explain herself to her sister. Then comes a rousing vaudeville number by Max Perlman -- "Kh'vil Nisht Keyn Sakh (I Don't Want Much)" -- and a frank-talking segment to justify her career to the audience ("Fall down get up," she says, and "a straight line is the quickest way to the wrong place"), and the show could be over.
Unfortunately, she has to revisit all her characters in a final rush, as if we might forget them, and end with a self-written song called "Redwood Trees." This part of the show goes slack. Newman and director Ben Yalom try too hard to give Fall Down a big finish, or else they want, unnecessarily, to pad it (the play lasts a comfortable hour and 45 minutes). Yalom otherwise does a solid job of pacing Newman through her slower, more challenging routines. There's no need to force the finale.
Fall Down Get Up is about small griefs and failures as well as historical, earthshaking cataclysms like the Holocaust; it's an affirmation of life in a very Jewish mode. "It is possible to let the pain of the fall open your heart to greater compassion," writes Newman in the program notes, a bit stiffly. But the marvelous thing about Fall Down is that Newman, onstage, can be so fluid and alive.