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Ethnic Theater - Jewish

"Shpiel! Shpiel! Shpiel!"
National Yiddish Theatre--Folksbiene, Manhattan

The venerable Folksbiene, the National Yiddish Theatre, has moved in a different direction with its current production--combining past with present, Yiddish with English, mainstream with Jewish legacy. Though now 94 years old (the oldest continuing theater in this country, Jewish or otherwise), the Folksbiene takes a daring new step and pulls off a coup!

It is an evening of three one-act plays by award-winning Broadway playwright Murray Schisgal (“Luv,” “All Over Town,” “Twice Around the Park”). These particular Schisgal pieces, written originally in English, have undergone a Yiddish metamorphosis (courtesy of Moishe Rosenfeld). The opening pieces--“The Pushcart Peddlers” and “The Man Who Couldn’t Stop Crying”—are entirely translated, giving them the added richness and humor that only Yiddish can provide. The third play, “74 Georgia Avenue,” is essentially English, but with moving passages in Yiddish.

“Shpiel! Shpiel! Shpiel!” is blessed with an array of top talent. Not only is Schisgal on board, but the plays’ three directors—Bob Dishy, Gene Saks, and Matthew “Motl” Didner—also have an impressive list of credentials. Didner is the Associate Artistic Director for Folksbiene, while Dishy and Saks have made their marks in theater, film, and television. The show’s cast of seven—I. W. Firestone, Michael L. Harris, Dani Marcus, Stuart Marshall, Harry Peerce, Tony Perry, Suzanne Toren, and troubadour Lisa Fishman—round out the company for this highly professional production.

The two opening pieces are mere warm-ups for what is to follow. Yet “The Pushcart Peddlers” does make its points, using broad comedy to show how a new immigrant, a “greenie,” learns the ropes and moves ahead in the land of golden opportunity. “The Man Who Couldn’t Stop Crying,” however, is a mere bauble which adds nothing to the evening. Yet performances by players Harris, Marshall, Marcus, Firestone, and Toren are admirable, with the actors outstripping their material.

It is all preparation for what is to come—the second half of the program. In “74 Georgia Avenue,” Marty, a Jew, returns to the home of his childhood—a home now ensconced deeply in a black neighborhood. Joseph, the current black tenant, greets him with suspicion, but is gradually won over. It turns out that Joseph’s father had once been the janitor for the nearby synagogue, and he, the son, has saved old clothing from the synagogue. As the evening progresses, the men begin to bond. Joseph dons one jacket after another, turning into those old Jewish characters, rather like the Dybbuk of medieval legend. In the process, the black man launches into perfect Yiddish commentary, Hebrew prayer, and cantor’s chants. In the final, moving moments, Joseph and Marty daven together, saying the prayer for the dead—for their own lost family members.

“Shpiel! Shpiel! Shpiel!”—which runs until April 5th, is one more triumph for the Folksbiene.

-- Irene Backalenick
Mar. 19, 2008

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