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Translating Singer: When in Doubt, Send in the Schlemiels

May 16, 1997|LAURIE WINER | TIMES THEATER CRITIC

Robert Brustein, the esteemed critic and artistic director at the American Repertory Theatre, has many talents. Comedy is not chief among them. His idea for a klezmer musical based on a play by Isaac Bashevis Singer (which in turn was based on Singer's stories for children) resulted in "Shlemiel the First," which opened Wednesday night at the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood. Buoyed by a terrific klezmer band (the Golden State Klezmers), "Shlemiel" is an odd entertainment: It has wall-to-wall-jokes and yet it isn't funny.

"Shlemiel" is culled from Singer's stories about the village of Chelm, the most charming and slyly funny of his tales for children. Chelm is a village in which the town elders issue idiotic decrees that appear to make life better. In "Shlemiel," they come up with the ultimate politician's solution. They decree that "good" will mean "bad" and vice versa, so that the complaining townspeople will soon be singing their praises. The hopelessly hapless Shlemiel (Thomas Derrah) is picked by the chief wise man, Gronam Ox (Charles Levin), to travel the world on foot in order to dispense Gronam Ox's wisdom.

Once on the road, Shlemiel goes to sleep with the toes of his straw boots pointing away from Chelm, to remind him in which direction to walk when he wakes up. An itinerant rascal (Benjamin Evett) turns the boots around, just for the hell of it. And so Shlemiel marches back to Chelm, believing that he has found a new village that simply looks exactly like his own.

Convinced that he is another Shlemiel from a parallel universe, the town elders allow him to live with his long-suffering wife, Tryna Rytza (Alice Playten), but forbid him to sleep with her. Seeing each other with new eyes, husband and wife are surprised by how much love they feel for this familiar-looking stranger.

Singer's parable is funny because it parodies our ability to weave more and more elaborate theories in order to rationalize one bad misconception. Since Shlemiel is such a schlemiel, we can laugh at him and secretly recognize ourselves. And, like any good folk tale, the story also gives us a larger insight into what we value and why we value it.

*

Yet Brustein and director David Gordon have not transformed this parable into satisfying entertainment. They stretch the story's built-in pleasures to the breaking point. They strew some words of wisdom into their frail denouement--which has Gronam Ox suddenly realize that he's not so wise after all. When Gronam Ox gains real wisdom, it's not for any discernible reason, but because the evening has to end somehow.

Gordon directs and choreographs as if every line were side-splitting, which gives the humble tale of "Shlemiel" a manic sheen. The zaniness almost never feels organic--no matter how many times a wife hits her husband with a huge pickle or a gaggle of bearded scholars run into walls and knock one another to the ground with Talmudic gesturing.

The actors both help and hurt. Derrah is not an endearing Shlemiel; he seems mean-dumb rather than sweet-dumb and his torpid energy is a bit creepy. As his wife, Playten has much more warmth and humanity and her bright musical-comedy voice beautifully rides the bittersweet tunes (by Hankus Netsky, additional music by Zalmen Mlotek). The bearded scholars, who have names like Mendel Shmendrick and Dopey Petzel, occasionally spin gold from their busy pantomimes. Charles Levin is the most adept, especially when he implores us with his almost-crossed eyes to recognize the brilliance of Gronam Ox's pronouncements.

Robert Israel's crooked stage and sloping floors, where all the doors and walls are likewise crooked, gently recall Marc Chagall's jumbled shtetls. The band is great, separated into two sections, one fitted into a corner where the stage should be, the other raised high on a platform. From up there we can get a good view of the wonderful Zinovy Goro, wailing on his eloquent and rousing clarinet.

Arnold Weinstein's lyrics (additional lyrics by Gordon) are filled with Jewish folk wisdom ("and if you're not happy . . . where is it written you've gotta be happy?") but too often go by the book's assumption that a Yiddish phrase sounds funny and therefore is funny. The character details in the lyrics cry out for more invention, such as when Shlemiel defines himself several times as: "I'm a beadle with a dreidel for a mind." So, what else is new?

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

"Shlemiel the First," Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood, Tuesdays-Thursdays, 7:30 p.m.; Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 4 and 8:30 p.m.; Sundays, 2 and 7 p.m. Ends June 8. $27.50-$37.50. (310) 208-5454, (800) 233-3123. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.

Alice Playten: Tryna Rytza (Mrs. Shlemiel)

Thomas Derrah: Shlemiel

Maureen McVerry: Gittel, Sender Shlamazel, Yenta Pesha

Remo Airaldi: Mottel, Moishe Pipik

Vontress Tyrone: Zeinvel Shmeckel, Man in House

Benjamin Evett: Mendel Shmendrick, Chaim Rascal

Will LeBow: Dopey Petzel, Zalman Tippish

Charles Levin: Gronam Ox

Victor Bun~o, Wendell Goodrum, Al Nowicki, Arianna Ortiz: Ensemble

Michael Larsen: Conductor-pianist

The Golden State Klezmers: The Band

The Geffen Playhouse presents a co-production with the American Repertory Theatre and the American Music Theater Festival. Based on the play by Isaac Bashevis Singer. Conceived and adapted by Robert Brustein. Direction, choreography and editorial supervision by David Gordon. Music composed, adapted and orchestrated by Hankus Netsky. Musical arrangement, musical direction and additional music by Zalmen Mlotek. Lyrics by Arnold Weinstein. Sets Robert Israel. Costumes Catherine Zuber. Lights Neil Peter Jampolis. Sound Christopher Walker. Production stage manager Ed Fitzgerald.

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