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Stage Review : Ellis Island Immigrants: A Day In 1906

June 25, 1986|DAN SULLIVAN | Times Theater Critic

To prove that we're all immigrants, the Colony-Studio Theatre lists the ancestry of those involved in putting on its new show, "A Day Out of Time--Ellis Island, 1906."

Several have forebears who actually did land at Ellis Island. Assistant director Sandy Schuckett's family almost got sent back to Russia because one of the children had come down with whooping cough on the boat. Luckily, her grandfather was able to bribe an official to pass them through.

It would be interesting to know more about Schuckett's grandfather. Was he a wily fellow who had salted away a few extra rubles for just such an emergency? Was he an honest man who chose to act dishonestly to save his family? Perhaps he misread the situation and needn't have offered a bribe at all.

At any rate, one can picture him as a real person. That's a problem with "A Day Out of Time--Ellis Island, 1906." Playwright Alan Foster Friedman has tagged his greenhorns as rigidly as the U.S. Immigration Service has and no one ever breaks out of line.

The scene is a holding room on Ellis Island, where a group of newcomers are awaiting further investigation. They include:

Number 1109, Mordecai Rabkin, a gentle Russian Jew with a cough (John Banach). He believes that "you don't slap people; you reason with them." Can it be doubted that at the climactic moment, he will stand up and fight?

Number 428, Haroutoon Sundookian, a bossy Armenian rug dealer (Bob Ari). He looks like an operator, but somehow we know that he'll turn out to have a heart as big as his moustache.

Number 961, Ivan Klimenko, a sullen Russian Cossack (Arnie Shamblin). He does believe in hitting people, and it's no surprise to see him slip some rubles to Inspector Ryder, another malcontent (Gary Cearlock.)

On the other hand, Rider's boss, Chief Inspector Cione (Russ Marin) is a mensch. "One day the world will break your heart," he tells Rabkin's boy (Adam Carl), like an uncle. "I'll do my best to make sure it's not today."

This is the stuff of the historical TV miniseries, with every line either picturesque ("You make strange love words") or portentous ("We all bring something to this country--you bring the hate.") Everyone in the waiting room--and it's a long wait--is aware that he is enacting a significant chapter in American history. Nobody ever needs to change the baby.

All this is true to our image of our ancestors as bigger than life, but as we know in our hearts, they weren't, why this need to idealize them? Why not show them as being as confused, tired and un noble as we would be after a week in steerage--as today's immigrants are when they cross the border?

Of course, that's asking Friedman to write another play. For this one, he should at least work in a stronger sense of what a teeming place Ellis Island was at its height, processing up to 25,000 people a day. His immigration officials ought to seem as hard-pressed as doctors in an emergency room. In fact, they stroll in and out of scenes like floorwalkers.

Director Michael David Wadler can be faulted there. But in general he has served Friedman's script well. He hasn't tried to turn it into another play, but to make its stereotypes seem archetypes, and from time to time they do.

The acting is as strong as it would be on a miniseries and sometimes stronger. The faces are right, the accents plausible and the characters' lives as full as the writing allows. RoZa Horvath as Rabkin's wife, for instance, is quintessentially beautiful, loyal and true--every son's image of what Mama must have been like when she and Papa first came "across."

The character that comes closest to breaking out into some kind of independent life is the wily Armenian. Bob Ari makes him a kind of Zorba in a business suit, and his presence warms up the play considerably. In a much smaller role, Keith Mills rings true as a peddler for whom America didn't quite work out.

Todd Nielsen's waiting-room set has the idealized quality of the writing, with a polished hardwood floor instead of a dull one marked by thousands of feet. When the doors to freedom finally open, a golden light streams through. (Jamie McAllister did the lighting.) You leave wondering, what was it really like?

'A DAY OUT OF TIME --ELLIS ISLAND, 1906'

Alan Foster Friedman's play, at the Colony-Studio Theatre. Director Michael David Wadler. Assistant director Sandy Schuckett. Set design Todd Nielsen. Lighting Jamie McAllister. Sound Gary Christensen. Costumes Jeanne Harriot. Incidental music Jeffrey Rockwell. Scenic art John Thomas Clark. Furniture and properties Hollywood Central Props of Glendale. With Russ Marin, Keith Mills, Gary Cearlock, John Banach, RoZa Horvath, Arnie Shamblin, Don Woodruff, Bob Ari, Kristen Peckinpah, Kent Stoddart, Bonita Friedericy, Nick DeGruccio. Understudy: Bob King. Plays Thursdays-Saturdays, at 7 p.m. Sundays. Closes Aug. 3. 1944 Riverside Drive. (213) 665-3011.

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