In traditional Jewish communities, a schnorrer was not just any old freeloader. He was an artiste. As Leo Rosten wrote, "he did not so much ask for alms as claim them."
"King of Schnorrers," Judd Woldin's little musical at the Westwood Playhouse, does not translate schnorring to contemporary terms. Based on an 1894 novella by Israel Zangwill, it's set in 1790 in London's East End.
But neither is it an arcane, academic exercise. It has the light touch and the simplicity of the stories that might be told around a Jewish family's holiday table.
It treats not only the theme of schnorring, but also the class division that existed between Sephardic Jews, descended from pre-Inquisition Spain, and the nouveaux riches among the Ashkenazic Jews, more recently arrived from Eastern Europe.
A Sephardic Jew, Da Costa (Don T. Maseng) is the self-proclaimed King of Schnorrers. He lives by his wits--and quite well, at that. We see him wheedle a salmon and a dinner invitation out of the Ashkenazic businessman Grobstock (Steve Liebman).
When Da Costa's headstrong daughter Deborah (Jeanne Montano) and Grobstock's resourceful son David, a cabinet maker (played by director Avi Ber Hoffman), meet, romance is in the air. Naturally, both fathers are opposed to any "mixed marriage" between Sephardic and Ashkenazic Jews.
In order to make his case with Da Costa, David decides to become, well, the prince of schnorrers. He extracts a challenge from the King: If David can get a notorious miser (Richard Kinter) to invite him to dine at the man's table, Da Costa will reconsider his opposition to the nuptials.
The book, by Woldin and Amy Seidman, has structural problems. The conclusion of the first act leads us to believe that the two fathers will collaborate on a plan to upend the romance, but then David's dad disappears until the wedding is virtually a done deed. Deborah makes noises about resenting David's efforts to get her father's blessing, rather than just her own blessing, but she retreats quickly when David turns on the charm.
None of this matters very much. Reinforced by the simple fabric dividers that make up John Farrell's set, the whole show has a deliberately flat, artificial look; this is a story for our entertainment and reflection rather than a documentary or a stirring drama.
Woldin's tunes are jaunty, his lyrics witty, with a particularly clever quartet devoted to the subject of chutzpah. A three-man band led by pianist James Mironchik often sounds like a klezmer band, complete with wailing clarinet (played by Mike Vaccaro).
With klezmer music of Eastern European origin and with the very word schnorring derived from the German schnorren ("to beg"), not to mention the plot itself, the show has a definite tilt in the Ashkenazic direction. But even though the snooty Sephardic King of Schnorrers is forced to change his tune, he isn't required to drop his dignity--and indeed, the script explicitly notes that the King himself passes some of his wages along to those even less fortunate than he is.
In this world, even a schnorrer must give what he can. Not a bad message for a recessionary era.
"King of Schnorrers," Westwood Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave. Wednesdays through Sundays. Ends Feb. 28. $20-$30. (310) 208-5454.