It is 8:30 p.m on a Monday night in New York City, and Mandy Patinkin is yelling at a finance bro. The finance bro has done what Mandy and I agree is unthinkable: He has shown up almost an hour late for Mandy's Yiddish concert, held to benefit and honor New York's National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene. Mandy's tone is playful, albeit laced with the sort of unbridled intensity that's gotten him into trouble before, as he pauses mid-song to take the bro to task for swaggering dick-first into his primo floor seats halfway through the show.
"Are you just getting here?" asks Mandy, who is clad in all black but for his white sneakers and is sporting a very flattering belt. "You'd better not be moving a big donor to get in your seats.” The audience, nearly all of whom are old enough to have given birth to or contributed to the conception of Mandy, roars appreciatively. I am rapt. Mandy continues: "What business are you in? What kind of business are you in? You run a financial technology — who were you writing an email to? Are you very wealthy? So you are about — I'm saying 25 minutes late, to be kind. I'm gonna be nice. Do you think you can give $25,000 to the Folksbiene?"
Let me pause here to explain why I, a 28-year-old woman whose only experience of Yiddish is my grandmother angrily threatening to give me a poch en tuchus after I accidentally dangled my cousin from a balcony, am at Mandy Patinkin's Yiddish concert. I don't know Yiddish, but I know the language of lust, of unshakable admiration, of two golden eagles making love atop a shooting star.
I first fell in an unlikely but feverish love with Mandy as a young girl watching The Princess Bride, more intrigued by the Semitic Spaniard clad in leather separates than by Cary Elwes's basic-ass Aryan prince. When Mandy brought that same fiery, bearded gravitas to Homeland, I kvelled. When Mandy came to our shared hometown of Chicago in 2013 for a charity concert with Patti LuPone, I dragged my boyfriend to the theater and nearly had an apoplectic fit over the duo's sparkling chemistry. When Mandy returned to Chicago for a rival magazine's cover party, I snuck my way in — risking certain death — then chased him into the streets, where I told him in no uncertain terms that I loved him. I blacked out the rest of my insane speech, but at the end of it, rather than have me arrested, Mandy looked deep into my eyes, grabbed both of my hands in his, and thanked me. When I finally got the chance to interview him for work a few months thereafter, he told me I had a "thrilling mind" and he hoped I'd "go on to be a real writer." This unintended insult was both startling and erotic. Later in our interview, Mandy apologized for it, and told me he'd just meant he wanted me to "go on and write all kinds of things." In other words, Mandy and I have A Past.
In an age where chill is the ultimate virtue, Mandy Patinkin is, consistently, too fucking much. Mandy is face-meltingly intense. He's unapologetically passionate and openly emotional about literally everything on this godforsaken earth. During our one and only interview (... FOR NOW), Mandy expounded loudly and joyfully about everything from his own internal life ("My imagination has been my life preserver") to the power of art ("When I see something creative or beautiful, a piece of music or a painting or a dance or a play or a piece of writing or acting, it gets me in the kishkes. I lose it"), to the temporary shaving of his celebrated beard ("[My] character’s gotten so much attention because of the wonderful public receiving of Homeland that I feel like I’m wearing this mask. I wanted to take it off and see who I am without it").
Mandy Patinkin is also a "handful," according to his Sunday in the Park With George director, James Lapine. He spontaneously but permanently walked off the set of Criminal Minds — a show he was starring in — because its dark subject matter was too upsetting for him to confront on a daily basis. His anxiety is so acute that, according to the New York Times, before one performance of a Broadway show he "ingested so many Klonopin ... that he went blank 20 minutes in and had to start over." He admitted in the same New York Times piece that he was a "spoiled" and stubborn young actor who struggled so deeply with criticism that he refused to listen to directors, and that his behavior was "abominable." "I’m not proud of how I was then, and it pained me," he said. Even here, among an audience who have paid to be in his presence, he is considered "difficult": Before the show starts, I overhear an older man explain to his friend, "We saw Mandy on Charlie Rose once. He has a very odd personality."
As someone who has also been accused of all these things — oddness, intensity, too-fucking-much-ity — I find Mandy to be a #relatable hero. But on a grander scale, and as a terrifying thought experiment, try to imagine literally any young, modern-day leading man speaking this way, acting this way, being this earnest, this weird, this vulnerable. Perhaps Shia LaBeouf is the closest thing we have, but unfortunately, he is an actual cannibal. The fact of the matter is, we're living in an age of Miles Tellers and Zac Efrons; Mandy's brand of raw humanity isn't a thing anymore. Stack 25 Chris Pines on top of each other, poke them with 10,000 flaming cattle prods, and they'll still be less alive than Mandy Patinkin.
Which brings us back to Lincoln Center, where Mandy is raining his trademark, glorious hellfire down upon the most deserving of subjects. Remember, he has just instructed the finance bro to pay the Folksbiene Theatre $25,000. I am holding my breath and wondering/hoping that Mandy is going to go full Criminal Minds on this bitch. Apropos of nothing, a woman behind me loudly whispers to her friend, "I love Homeland, but I can't watch it. It's too heavy." Mandy inhales deeply, motions to his infinitely patient accompanist, and launches into a passionate mash-up of "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" and "God Bless America" in Yiddish (!). But before he begins to sing, he looks back at the bro sternly. "I'm not finished with you," he says.
I'd be remiss not to address the actual concert itself, so, a word or two about that: Much of Mandy's two-hour repertoire feels spontaneous and improvised; off-the-cuff but deeply committed performances interspersed with fervent monologues about Yiddish culture, New York, theater, art, and human connection. Broadway classics give way to dark Yiddish laments, which give way to goofy Yiddish renditions of songs like "White Christmas." Mandy pauses in the middle of one song to start over because he's forgotten the words. "It's in Yiddish!" he chuckles. "Can you blame me?"
After one particularly bleak Yiddish ode, Mandy launches into a speech about the importance of honoring and preserving Jewish culture — about how, decades ago, theater producer Joe Papp told him it was his "job" to learn and sing the language. For Mandy, performing in Yiddish is about connecting not just with his Jewish ancestors, but with the entire history of the human race. Mandy's boundless zeal for the language, for the culture, for the music, is plainly obvious: At various points throughout the evening, Mandy kisses (1) his pianist, (2) his violinist, and (3) the evening's honoree and the Folksbiene's artistic director, Zalmen Mlotek, on various parts of their faces. During one song, he mimes straining to carry a giant rock (I think). During another, he does an impression of a police officer taking down crime-scene notes. That same song sees him playing a young girl who has dropped her basket and is extremely unhappy about it. He imitates a police siren, twice. He does an impression of a train.
The whole thing is randomly plotted, impressively fast-paced, moving, bizarre, verging on manic. In other words, it's Mandy. And it's all performed with such a beautiful vibrato, and with such dynamism, such enthusiasm, and such aggressive physicality that it keeps bringing me to tears. Repeat: I am repeatedly crying at a Yiddish concert. Partly because I am worried for Mandy, who is 63 and who squats very low and nearly does the splits several times, who's singing so hard he keeps his eyes scrunched shut about half the time, who's sweating so much that his hair is matted flat to his head. But partly because it's so rare and lovely to see somebody give so, so many fucks.
Eventually Mandy returns to the bro and recommences his efforts to make it rain at the Folksbiene. "How about $10,000?" he asks. "How about $5,000? How about 1,000?" The bro says no to all three. Mandy sighs. "This couple that has done something so upsetting I almost need to call my therapist. Anybody here have $25,000 to calm my heart?" A sixty-something woman who cannot figure out how to turn off the flash on her iPhone takes a photo.
From the top of the auditorium, there is an unintelligible but distinctly male scream. It is vitriolic in nature. A hush falls over the crowd. The man clears his throat and yells, "Let it go!"
Mandy laughs, shakes his head, smiles to himself as if at some private joke. "Let it go. OK. I'm so ashamed," he jokes, though not without a hint of hurt. "I tried to earn $25,000 for the Folksbiene." The audience applauds apprehensively at this, encouraging him to go on. So he does. "Schnorring is a thing that I learned in my temple on the South Side of Chicago. There was no limit to what they'd say or do or ask to keep an organization going. And I have to tell you, sir, of course I'm gonna let it go. But the good fun I have in maybe having the good fortune in having somebody pop that kind of dough for an organization that means more to me than almost anything I can think of — I'll go to any limit. I don't care whether you hate me or yell at me or what. God bless all of you."
For some reason — the vulnerability? The very schnorr-y God shout-out? — this little aside renders the crowd so loud, so rapturous, that the finance bro is swallowed whole, rendered invisible and inaudible. When he goes home, he will lie awake, staring at the stack of $25,000 bills he keeps in his bedroom, contemplating this moment and his own mortality. But right now, he's still watching Mandy, who's grinning wildly, walking around the circumference of the stage and speaking directly to his now-enthralled constituents. "I think this is the first benefit where there's actually been the danger of a riot," Mandy laughs, having found his way back into the calmer recesses of his mind and the good graces of his fellow humans. "'Thousands of people were injured, the likes of which we've never seen.'"
The next morning, both Page Six and the Jewish Press will paint the kerfuffle as typically diva-esque on Mandy's part (he later promises to match a $5,000 donation offered up by another vocal concertgoer). But I think Mandy himself characterizes it much more accurately near the end of the concert. Setting up a performance of "Children and Art" from Sunday in the Park With George, Mandy explains that James Lapine — that same director who called Mandy a handful — wrote the book for the musical and, as Mandy put it, included "a phrase that defined my life, for better and worse." Here, Mandy gestures pointedly at the finance bro, partly as if to apologize, partly as if to indicate that he can't help himself, he just gives too many of those fucks. "Connect, George," quotes Mandy. "Connect."