‘The Bespoke Overcoat’: Gogol’s giggles, ghosts and class struggle
Bruce Nozick, Tobias Echeverria, Robert Lesser / James Morris

VENICE, Calif. — Wolf Mankowitz’s The Bespoke Overcoat is a theatrical adaptation of “The Overcoat,” a short story written in 1842 by the Ukrainian-born Nikolai Gogol, who along with Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Turgenev, and Gorky is one of the most renowned contributors to Russian literature. The one-acter’s plot seems simple enough, except that it is rendered more complex with an otherworldly dimension Mankowitz derived from the original story—and what would you expect from someone who wrote Dead Souls, also from the year 1842?

Scenic designer Rich Rose’s set deftly combines the locations delineated in the play (although there is no samovar, alas!), which takes place in London’s East End at some unspecified time in the early to mid-20th century. Fender (a cherubic Harry Herman) is an aging Russian émigré Jew and shipping clerk, who has worked decades for a family business at a desk located on stage right, in front of racks and racks of overcoats. Despite the expertise he has accumulated over the years, Fender has little pay and even less respect than Rodney Dangerfield to show for his lifelong labors. As even those with just a smattering of Yiddish will be able to guess, the play is set right in the belly of the shmatte business—the clothing business.

Fender’s longtime friend Morry (Robert Lesser) likewise appears to be a Russian Jewish immigrant. He’s self-employed as a tailor – a beam or eave on Rose’s set notes this and is inscribed with words in Hebrew. The hardworking Fender is very cold, and with his ancient overcoat in tatters, commissions an overcoat literally tailor-made for him by Morry to warm him up, saving up his shekels with the shtik of a Shecky Greene to pay for the garment. Audrey Eisner designed the costumes for this play with a garment in its title.

The nattily dressed Ranting (Bruce Nozick) is the brash son of the original owner of the family business; he takes for granted the servitude of longtime employee Fender, who can remember the British-born Ranting when he was just a lad. Apparently, Ranting is not an immigrant, although he may or may not also be Jewish (it’s never specified). But he is very definitely a capitalist, probably an heir, although in one straphanging scene, he rides the London underground, and one wonders how rich Ranting can be if he takes the Metro?

In any case, the aptly named Ranting’s mistreatment of his senior citizen shipping clerk is at the heart of Mankowitz’s story, which is a metaphor for class warfare. A familiar face on L.A.’s stage scene, Nozick has played capitalists onstage before, such as in 2023’s superb Fetch Clay, Make Man, wherein the actor depicted the movie mogul William Fox. The overly self-assured Nozick’s cigar-chomping braggadocio put me in mind of gruff character actor Jesse White, a staple on television from the boob tube’s early days through Seinfeld in the 1990s, who delivered bossiness and assertiveness with a comic edge.

Nozick has also excelled onstage in Rogue Machine plays, including the sci-fi-palooza Come Get Maggie and the Hollywood Blacklist-themed Finks, and acted in movies and TV shows like Chicago Med, too. As the exploitative Ranting in The Bespoke Overcoat, Nozick personifies the man you love to hate.

On the other hand, Fender and Morry are much more heart-warming, affectionate characters. Their playful interplay reminded me of the good-natured shtik of older men, usually Jews, kibitzing with one another, as in Neil Simon’s comedies The Sunshine Boys and The Odd Couple (although Nozick isn’t one of the kibitzers per se, he appeared in the national tour of Simon’s Lost in Yonkers), and more recently, Curb Your Enthusiasm.

But the heart of the matter is the class struggle aspect of The Bespoke Overcoat, wherein Ranting runs roughshod over Fender, callously disregarding and discarding him using a trifle as an excuse: His real crime is growing old and living beyond his shelf life of usefulness for maximizing profit for his bottom-line employer, despite his years of faithful, skillful service. This blithe betrayal is reminiscent of what happens to Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. When a new, younger shipping clerk (Tobias Echeverria) replaces Fender on the job and commits the imbecilic mistake of confiding his dreams to his boss, the only thing Ranting can do is ridicule his employee’s aspirations and belittle the young man.

With its class conflict theme, plus the fact it was written by a “native son,” it was only natural that Gogol’s The Overcoat would be adapted for the silver screen by Soviet filmmakers, which the notable Grigoriy Kozintsev and Leonid Trauberg did in 1926, as early Bolshevik filmmakers were concerned with the plight of the “little people.” (In 1960 Trauberg also helmed a film adaptation of Gogol’s Dead Souls.) There have been many different versions of The Overcoat, starting in 1916 with a version by American director Rae Berger. Mankowitz, who was a novelist and screenwriter as well as a playwright, wrote a 1954 TV movie iteration plus another production ca. 1955, which became the first Academy Award winner in the Best Short Subject category. Like the 1926 Soviet rendition, Mankowitz’s The Bespoke Overcoat is considerably different from Gogol’s version, which emphasized the czarist bureaucracy from a Kafkaesque perspective.

Co-directors Marilyn Fox, Pacific Resident Theatre’s Artistic Director, and Dana Jackson helm their ensemble admirably, eliciting finely etched, memorable performances. From his very first utterance of (nu, what else?) “Oy!” Harry Herman is delightful as the impish, much put-upon, long-suffering Felder. As for the aforementioned supernatural element to Gogol’s masterpiece, I won’t spook Bespoke with any plot spoilers. Is it ethereal—or just a nip too many of Morry’s Napoleon Brandy? In any case, suffice it to say that The Bespoke Overcoat is sort of Ghost Busters meets proletarian agitprop meets Yiddish theater, with a side of Neil Simonesque humor thrown in. A good time was had by all, on- and offstage. As that old song goes, “Button up your overcoat….”

The Bespoke Overcoat is about 80 minutes long and performed without an intermission, playing Thurs., Fri., and Sat. at 8:00 p.m. and Sun. at 3:00 p.m. at the Pacific Resident Theatre through April 21 at 703 Venice Blvd., Venice 90201. There is free parking behind the theater. For more info call (310) 822-8392 or see: www.PacificResidentTheatre.com.

PRT is joining forces during the run with the appropriately named non-profit organization One Warm Coat to collect coats for Venice Community Housing.

Bella bioplay

And speaking of helping the needy and proletarian theater: Before there was “the Squad,” the House of Representatives had Congressmembers Shirley Chisholm and Bella Abzug. While the former is dramatized in the new Netflix movie Shirley, the latter is paid loving tribute in Bella Abzug: That Beautiful, Ballsy Broad Who Gave ’Em Hell!, powerfully written and performed by Amy Simon, who brought the feisty, lefty New York congresswoman to vivid life in a staged reading on March 17 at Theatre West. Thoroughly entertaining as well as educating, Simon’s engrossing one-woman show directed by Karen Ragan-George greatly deserves to find a theater space for a full run of this one-act, one-actor play about “Battling Bella” once it is ready to hit the boards.

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Ed Rampell
Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell is an LA-based film historian and critic, author of "Progressive Hollywood: A People’s Film History of the United States," and co-author of "The Hawaii Movie and Television Book." He has written for Variety, Television Quarterly, Cineaste, New Times L.A., and other publications. Rampell lived in Tahiti, Samoa, Hawaii, and Micronesia, reporting on the nuclear-free and independent Pacific and Hawaiian Sovereignty movements.