Stanley Tucci understood what Joey Russell’s son was trying to ask him: To be his onstage “Shabbes goy.”
The year was 1985. Tucci and Oliver Platt were in New Haven to perform on the Yale Rep stage in John Guare’s Moon Over Miami. An aspiring actor enrolled in Yale’s drama school, Reuven Russell, got a break by landing a supporting role.
At the time, Russell was starting to be more religiously observant. He was trying to figure out how to make that gibe with his budding acting career. A product of the New Haven Hebrew Day School and the son of Joey, the late comedian and New Haven Channel 8 show host, Reuven hadn’t grown up observing the Sabbath. Now he was beginning to.
The rules of observance prohibited him from clicking on and off an electrical device. All the actors on stage were required to do that in one scene in Moon.
“The actors had these little contraptions. It was as if we were sitting at a cafe table. The table was attached to our bodies. Wherever we moved the table was able to go. There was a little light in the middle of the table. Stanley Tucci is standing next to me in the scene.
“It’s a Friday night performance. Here I am trying to juggle everything. I say to him, walking on eggshells, ‘Stanley do me a favor. It’s a Friday night. I’m trying to observe the Sabbath the best that I can. The end of the scene is a blackout. They want every actor to turn off their light at the table. Would it be possible maybe ...’”
Tucci cut him off.
“He says, ‘Oh you want me to be your Shabbes goy?’
“I said, ‘Stanley, how do you know about that?’
“And he ended up doing it. He was really very nice about it.”
Russell, who is 55 years old and lives in Beaver Hills’s growing Lubavitch Hasidic enclave, recalled the story during an appearance on WNHH radio’s “Chai Haven” program. It was one of several anecdotes the New Haven-bred and -based actor and comedian told about how he gradually incorporated Jewish ritual practice and values into his life while building a successful career on stage and film (Chaplin, The Properietor) and television (ER), as a stand-up comedian, and as a teacher. (He teaches public speaking full-time at Stern College.)
In 1985, he could walk to the Yale Rep to play that role on the Sabbath. That meant he wouldn’t violate the prohibition against driving. He was already keeping kosher.
And he could argue that he wasn’t technically “working” by acting in the play. He was a student, not getting paid. But he eventually came to agree with the prohibition against work-“like” activities on the Sabbath.
His last Friday night performance occurred in Chicago. He was part of the touring company for Neil Simon’s The Sunshine Boys. He’ll never forget that opportunity, even though he had only a walk-on part with four lines. “I got to watch from the wings a master like Mickey Rooney and Donald O’Connor. It’s ingrained in my mind,” he recalled.
He made sure to book his own room close enough to the theater to be able to walk on the Sabbath.
But then he completed his journey to full observance and stopped taking roles that required Friday night or Saturday daytime work.
In one instance, he turned down a role, only to have the company adjust its schedule to keep him on the cast.
The year was 1999. The role was as a rabbi in a stage adaptation of the film The Quarrel by The Writers Theatre in Madison, N.J..
At the audition, the director offered Russell the role.
“Thank you,” Russell responded. “But I’ve just got to tell you. Like the character you’re asking me to play, I also observe the Jewish Sabbath in real life. Performing on Friday nights and at Saturday matinees—I won’t be able to do it.”
He suggested the company hire an understudy to fill in for those performances. The director responded that such a small company couldn’t bear the cost.
The two shook hands. Russell left.
The director subsequently telephoned Russell.
“Reuven,” he said, “I just want you to know. We thought about it. We decided to change the schedule of our theater around — not have Friday night performances and Saturday matinees — so you can do the role.”
It turned out that the director had checked the reservation book. It was filled with reservations for Wednesday, Thursday, and Saturday night performances, as well as the Sunday matinee. Not for Friday night or Saturday afternoon.
“I took this,” the non-Jewish director told Russell, “as a sign.”
That instance was an exception. Overall Russell simply doesn’t pursue stage gigs that include Sabbath performances. He also turns down scripts that include material that he wouldn’t want his five children to see.
Some might see that approach as limiting. Russell said it has enriched his career and made him pursue meaningful work. And he has gotten plenty of it, from commercials to supporting spots on TV series and films, which tend to shoot on regular weekday schedules.
Russell’s latest role is “Uncle Avi” in a new web series called Soon By You. It features six young Orthodox Jews living in New York who navigate a secular world while seeking to stay true to their religious principles and community.
Click on or download the above audio file to hear the full episode of WNHH radio’s “Chai Haven.”