What is a "Kuni-Leml"?
Nahma Sandrow couldn't believe the question.
"It's like discovering spring or summer," she replied. "You can't avoid it."
Nor should you try. A Kuni-Leml, it turns out, is the name of a lovable person--a poor schlemiel with a hump, a limp and a stammer who is also a leading character in a classic Yiddish farce by Avrom Goldfadn, widely considered the grandfather of Yiddish theater.
Adapted as a musical by Sandrow (book), Raphael Crystal (music) and Richard Engquist (lyrics), it became an Off-Broadway hit last season and comes to the Westwood Playhouse on Feb. 16 with comedian Shelley Berman. Director Richard Altman is staging, with previews beginning Feb. 7.
"It's a classic in Yiddish popular culture," said Sandrow, a Yiddish theater historian and teacher who's written a book about the Yiddish theater ("Vagabond Stars: A World History of Yiddish Theater") and who claims she was drawn to Goldfadn's farce ("The Fanatic or the Two Kuni-Lemls") "because the play really tickled me. Goldfadn coined the name because it's so funny."
In fact, the story is as old as theater itself. A free-thinking young woman would rather marry her handsome tutor than the man to whom she's betrothed: the hapless Kuni-Leml. In a complex plot, the tutor masquerades as his rival, unleashing a comedy of errors.
"Our version has even more of everything," said Sandrow, "more laughter, more tears, more schmaltz. There's only been professional Yiddish theater for one century, because it was frowned on by traditional Jews--still is by Hasidic Jews--but in this one century this kind of theater has covered a whole range of experience and since Yiddish-speaking Jews have scattered all over the world, it has developed a universal familiarity.
"We who wrote 'Kuni-Leml' are American, so we felt that we were writing the 'Kuni-Leml' Goldfadn would have written if he had been tuned in to our world. Let's say it's more human, less didactic, more delicate, even though subtlety is not its strong suit.
"This is our second show together, me and Rafe (composer Crystal)," Sandrow continued. "Rafe introduced me to Richard (Engquist). Rafe grew up in a Yiddishist home (a household committed to Yiddish language and culture). His father was an editor of the Jewish Daily Forward. "I come from a practicing Jewish home, which is not the same thing. And Richard is a Lutheran from the Midwest. Yet each of us brought things to the enterprise that seemed to mesh very well."
So how does it end?
"It's got to end with a wedding," Sandrow laughed. "It's a farce!"
THE RUMOR MILL: Is Betsy Hailey's stage version of her own novel, "A Woman of Independent Means," featuring Barbara Rush, coming to the Doolittle Theater?
"We're in discussions," said producer James A. Doolittle, under whose auspices the show would be presented. "We've been talking about it ever since the original production (at the Equity-Waiver Back Alley Theater in 1983)."
Rush, who was slammed by the New York press when the show went to Broadway last May, has been touring "Woman" in recent months to enthusiastic response.
"They've just opened, apparently brilliantly, in Houston," Doolittle said. More information should be forthcoming "in a day or two."
THE RUMOR MILL II: Wouldn't the Ahmanson just love to get "Pravda," the David Hare London hit that's become a personal triumph for actor Anthony Hopkins?
"I told them I'd like to bring it for 1986-87," said artistic director Robert Fryer, "but Hare won't let anyone but Tony (Hopkins) play it.
"It's up to him."
HAPPENINGS: The California Theatre Council is planning lots of big ones for its 10th annual conference to be held at the Los Angeles Theatre Center from Jan. 29-31.
Ellen Burstyn will give the keynote address and days of panel discussions, workshops, lectures, receptions, even a backstage tour and awards dinner will follow. More than 100 professionals will be participating. This is one not to miss.
For details and registration information, call (213) 622-6727.
--John Densmore, former drummer for the Doors, will take part in a post-performance discussion of "Tracers" on Friday with director John DiFusco and the cast at the Coronet Theatre. Densmore composed the epilogue for "Tracers," a play about the Vietnam experience punctuated by rock music of the period, including selections from the Doors. Information: (213) 659-6415.
COMINGS/GOINGS: "Boesman and Lena" at the Los Angeles Theatre Center closes in Theater 3 Feb. 1 and moves to Theatre 2 on Feb. 4. No, this is not a demotion, but an extension--through March 1.
--The irrepressible Shay Duffin has returned to the Odyssey Theatre with his rousing impersonation of his fellow Irishman, playwright "Brendan Behan."
--And Feb. 6. we can welcome El Teatro Campesino's newest production, "I Don't Have to Show You No Stinking Badges," at LATC.
PARTINGS: A celebration of Christopher Isherwood will be held Sunday, 5 p.m., at the Los Angeles Theatre Center. Among the celebrants will be Julie Harris, Ray Stricklyn, Jerome Lawrence, Robert Lewis, Michael Kearns and Alan Mandel. The occasion is free and open to the public.