The story is based on “King of the Schnorrers” by Israel Zangwill that takes place in early 20th century England. Robert Brustein has transplanted the play to New York’s Lower East Side in the format of the long dead Yiddish Theatre. It also throws in a bit of Brustein’s affection for Shakespeare in the form of a “Romeo and Juliet” theme, which when you add music and disagreeing tribes of Jews instead of Puerto Ricans and whites, harks on the Leonard Bernstein-Stephen Sondheim masterpiece of “West Side Story.” Many Yiddish words and Klezmer music add to the atmospheric by-gone days. What has been created is a 1920s time piece that takes place in the 1960s. Go figure.
The play is a comedic gem, especially appealing to the older Jewish audience the evening I attended. It also provides a window into what – more than a century ago – was a schism between Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews. In the Zangwill/Brustein view the Sephardic in the persona of an out of work actor named Da Costa is a kinder, gentler, smarter man than his Ashkenazi foil named Lapidus. In the course of the play Da Costa outwits Lapidus conning him out of his pants, his food and especially his money.
The play has a many one liners, catchy songs and dance numbers with Klezmer music, often called Jewish Jazz. The orchestra is perfectly matched to the performance and actors. The music by Hankus Netsky, who is founder and director the New England Conservatory’s Klezmer Conservatory Band has served up a plate of music that had the audience clapping and toe tapping to the hypnotic tunes.
Matthew ‘Motl’ Didner’s direction was precision perfect, bringing out the best of the actors.He also assured exactness of the timing between actors and orchestra while using the scenic designs of Jon Savage and costume designs of Frances McSherry to portray the rundown areas of the Lower East Side along with the schnorrers (beggars), fishmongers, early 1900s police.
As for the actors, Da Costa, played by Will Lebow was excellent, his con man-schnorrer convincing and humorous. His singing was well done and even his attempts at Eastern European dancing did nothing to distract from the action on stage. The same can be said of Jeremiah Kissel’s Joseph E. Lapidus who played the snookered foil as if he were one himself. Kathy St. George as Lapidus’s wife Rosalie played her dual role – she was also one of the schnorrers – flawlessly and her take off on a torch song would probably be a show stopper on Broadway. Dolores, Da Costa’s daughter was finely portrayed by Abby Goldfarb, Ken Cheeseman was a funny butler, perfect “ nothing, see nothing” policeman, fishmonger and schnorrer. Remo Airaldi (Schmuelly), who kept reminding me of Danny DeVito was one of the highlights of the evening with his singing and acting. If there was one disappointment it would be Alex Pollack as Joseph E. Lapidus Jr. in that he was hard to understand and, while his character was not likeable, one felt he was not up to the task.
The play has proved popular enough to have several performances added to its stay at the New Rep and if you can find a ticket to this mostly sold out run, pay the money and go see it, on one of these cold, snowy days. It will bring you warmth, perhaps make you qvell.