(New York Jewish Week) — Lou Bettinger, a stubborn but discerning businessman, has run a dingy luggage shop on the Lower East Side for 60 years when the new play “Bettinger’s Luggage” begins.
“I know everything about luggage,” Lou (Richard MacDonald) says, as he give an interview promoting his family’s store on a fictitious news program. “Luggage is my middle name.”
Set on Delancey Street in 1974, “Bettinger’s Luggage” follows Jewish patriarch Lou Bettinger and his hapless son, George (Connor Chase Stewart), who eschews taking over the family business in favor of pursuing his dreams of stand-up comedy. The father and son spar about the future while their neighbors flirt and fall in love, reminisce about their lives before they came to the U.S., and come together to heal when tragedy strikes.
With its liberal use of Yiddishisms, combined with fast-paced, pithy dialogue stuffed full of 1970s pop culture references, “Bettinger’s Luggage,” now running at Midtown’s AMT Theater taps into a powerful nostalgia of a bygone New York.
But unlike the real-life 1970s, which saw a New York City besieged by “white flight,” economic woes and violence, “Bettinger’s Luggage” envisions a New York without racial or ethnic strife. “I needed to write something that showed that people really can get along,” playwright Albert Tapper said of his semi-fictional Lower East Side, which places the Jewish-owned luggage store next to a Greek restaurant and a hardware store owned by an Irish immigrant.
A veteran producer, composer and playwright, Tapper’s version of the Lower East Side has characters unite in a shared New York identity without compromising what makes them unique. Lisa (Katherine Schaber) shares pastries from her family’s Italian bakery with the Bettingers while Lou attempts to teach her Yiddish. Meanwhile Lou, fearing that his son, George, won’t succeed in comedy confides in Lisa that he doesn’t want his son to be “a balagula, a schlemiel” — Yiddish for a person of low standing and a fool.
“Oh, a stunad,” she replies, using the Italian word for an idiot or stupid person, eliciting laughter from the audience.
“The idea of my writing this was to be able to have a neighborhood filled with people of all different nationalities and ethnicities and [show] how well they get along,” Tapper, who is in his 80s, said. Even when Lou calls his luggage shop worker Angel (Sean Church-Gonzalez) a “dumb shaygetz,” or non-Jewish man, he does so in jest — and fights off a racist patron who threatens the store.
Tapper’s inspiration for the play, directed by Steven Ditmyer, is based on his late real-life friend George Bettinger, a comedian and the son of a luggage store owner. The genial image of a bygone Lower East Side business community got the wheels turning in Tapper’s head, and he ran away with his own vision of a family-owned luggage store.
Many of the neighborhood denizens in the play, however, were inspired by Tapper’s own family and his upbringing in Worcester, Massachusetts. Tapper would “merge George’s father with my father” throughout the writing process, he said, creating a world that is both familiar to Jewish New Yorkers and unique to Tapper’s milieu.
The comedic nature of the play strikes a comforting chord for Jewish New Yorkers and differs from other Jewish theatrical fare of the past year. Unlike recent Broadway hits “Parade” and “Leopoldstadt” — which are both focused on historical stories of violence and antisemitism — “Bettinger’s Luggage” uses a father and son’s day-to-day life to begin a conversation about discrimination and cross-cultural communication.
“I’ve written seven or eight shows — none of them have dealt with antisemitism,” Tapper told the New York Jewish Week.
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At the same time, however, Tapper admits that antisemitism — where it comes from, how to combat it, or why it has increased so much in the United States — keeps him up at night. “It’s just my life’s quest, and I know that sounds dramatic,” Tapper said. “But my life’s quest is to find out why people hate the Jews.”
That driving question has led Tapper, who splits his time between Midtown Manhattan and Boca Raton, Florida, back to his alma mater of Boston University, where he co-wrote the musical “National Pastime” with Tony Sportiello when he was 20. After finding success as a playwright and producer of film and television, including the documentary “Broadway: The Golden Age,” he’s endowed scholarships for lower-income students. His goal is to increase the diversity of the student population at B.U., which the Elie Wiesel Center for Jewish Studies estimates is about 25 percent Jewish.
Tapper is also working with Clark University’s Strassler Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, where he has endowed a graduate scholarship, and with Brandeis University. “I told [university president Ronald D. Leibowitz], who’s a personal friend of mine, that I would like to contribute money to the school if they would put a course on antisemitism in their curriculum,” he said. He hopes that the scholarly research will be able to pinpoint why “people have hated the Jews for 3,000 years.”
Tapper is giving back to the theater community as well. When he and Sportiello, his frequent artistic collaborator since the 2008 musical “Sessions,” struggled to find an appropriate space to workshop “Bettinger’s Luggage,” they reasoned that raising the funds to buy a new theater space would both ensure their success and allow them to pay it forward for other artists. Sportiello now serves as the artistic director of Midtown’s AMT Theater, and Tapper as the venue’s main producer. “There’s not that many of them,” Tapper said of Off- and Off-Off-Broadway theaters. “And the demand for theaters is enormous. So I said, ‘Well, let’s build our own theater.’”
Plenty of emerging artists create their own theater ensembles, but affording and securing a physical performance space is a different ball game. Tapper recognizes this and is proud that the theater is now rented out to other artists through the end of 2024. Now, said Tapper, “We can do our shows, and we can rent it out to others who are doing other works. We have the combination and it serves us well.”
Like the Bettingers and the other characters who populate their Lower East Side storefront, Tapper knows that people thrive best in community — whether a community of artists, of Jews, or both. When that sense of community is breached, we may feel that we face our struggles alone.
Another reason that Tapper felt compelled to write “Bettinger’s Luggage” in this moment is because of the loss of the real George Bettinger, who died by suicide five years ago. “I spent a great deal of time with him when he lived in New York, and he would tell me his life story with sadness and humor,” Tapper said. “I felt it was everybody’s story, so I put pen to paper.”
“Bettinger’s Luggage” is at AMT Theater, 354 West 45th St., through Oct. 25. Details and tickets here.