Ethnic Theater - Jewish
York Theatre, Manhattan
“Enter Laughing” is really Carl Reiner’s story, the tale of a little Jewish boy from the Bronx who harbored Broadway dreams. The son of Bessie and Irving Reiner of 174th Street, he would in fact move out of that restricted world and into the greater arena. As history indicates, he did become an award-winning actor, writer, director, producer--working on stage, screen, and television. In fact, he became…..Carl Reiner!
Reiner falls into the grand tradition of the Jewish comedians in this country—with early training in the Catskills, where heavy-handed Jewish wit and quick one-liners served as name of the game. It was a comic tradition that Jews honed during centuries of European persecution and survival. That Reiner would go on to become a staple at Sid Caesar’s “Show of Shows,” connecting with Caesar, Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, Neil Simon and others was a natural order of events.
As for “Enter Laughing,” this semi-biographical tale of Reiner’s early years as an aspiring actor would undergo many forms--from Reiner’s novel to play to film to musical. And now this endearing little musical is enjoying a run off-Broadway, at the York Theatre, to the joy of its audiences. Though not as hilarious or as well written as Neil Simon’s “Broadway Bound,” which covers similar terrain, “Enter Laughing” has its own quiet satisfactions.
In this account Reiner becomes David Kolowitz, a sixteen-year-old who works as delivery boy for a machinist’s shop. With a loving father and a mother determined to make him a druggist (even if she must borrow funds from brother-in-law Harry to do it!), he has formidable support. But not as an actor. Nonetheless, he gets his first break with a tacky theater company (which entails five dollars a week). But it turns out that they expect him to pay the five dollars in question, not the other way around. Still (and despite overwhelming stage fright), he makes his debut--and goes on, as we know, to fame and fortune.
The musical has a strong Jewish flavor, with a strong appeal to Jewish audiences. Reiner has never soft-pedalled his background, and, though not religious, has cherished his Jewish cultural heritage, describing himself as a Jewish atheist. Yiddishisms pop up, and the parents’ limited, prejudicial life-view is treated with affectionate humor. Much of this “hamische” approach is due to the book by playwright/librettist Joseph Stein, whose long show-biz history matches Reiner’s (with such successes as “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Zorba,” “Rags,” and the Sid Caesar television shows).
Though the York Theatre offers a small bandbox production, there are ample opportunities for musical numbers to shine, as David’s fantasies play out against the realities. Among Stan Daniels’ fetching tunes are “David Kolowitz, the Actor,” “My Son, the Druggist,” and “So Long, 174th Street.” Stuart Ross directs with spirit, and actors in general give first-rate performances, topped by the excellent Josh Grisetti as David. Michael Tucker is particularly moving as David’s father, and though his real-life wife, actress Jill Eichenberry, works hard to portray his stage wife, she seems uncomfortable as the prototypical Jewish mother. Others in the cast of fourteen do well in a variety of roles.
For those of us who are Carl Reiner fans, who remember the Sid Caesar shows, who are given to nostalgia, this mini-musical at the York is well worth seeing.
-- Irene Backalenick
Sept. 7, 2008