Saturday, July 18, 2009

review - Murray Schisgal One-Acts @ LCGRT

Murray Schisgal's One-Acts:
The Pushcart Peddlers
& 74 Georgia Avenue
directors: Chris Winfield & Frances Mizrahi, respectively
LCGRT (Group Repertory Theatre)
through August 22
Murray Schisgal has the uncanny ability to portray the Jewish culture both comedically and dramatically - with equal ease. In the one-act The Pushcart Peddlers he shows us Jewish immigrants at the turn of 20th Century America, learning how to survive in their newfound land of golden opportunity. written, this is hardly overbearing. It's slapstick and vaudeville at its finest. A middle-aged banana peddler and wannabe Broadway producer Cornelius (Lloyd Pederson) teaches newcomer, young and green Samuel the ins and outs of capitalism. First of all, how can one survive on the streets of New York with a name like Shimmel Schitzman (Ren Bell), so Cornelius sells the greenhorn a new American name, Sam Stone - and he is not only quick to accept but even to invest everything he owns to go into the banana selling trade with Cornelius at a 60/40 split. Get the picture? Therein lies the plot's complications. Oh, a young Irish girl, who is passing herself off as a blind beggar, Maggie (Melissa Soso), but who really wants to be a Broadway actress, enters the picture, and Sam becomes instantly smitten with her. Sam works his charm on Maggie, Maggie works her charm on Cornelius and...
This is your typical Come to America, land of plenty, and see just how far you can go to get everything you can lay your hands on! Schisgal's humor comes totally out of character. The threesome compete and top one another with more aplomb than the Marx Brothers. It's cute, fun, and under Chris Winfield's expert direction, the actors shine, shine, shine, especially Bell as Shimmel. Reminding me of a Matthew Broderick/Jonathan Silverman rolled into one, Bell is energetic, resourceful and utterly charming.
In the second one-act 74 Georgia Avenue, Schisgal moves 360 degrees away from the schtick of Peddlers to produce a very serious and heartwarming piece of theatre. The setting is contemporary Brooklyn where a disillusioned man Martin Robbins (Larry Margo) visits the tenement where he grew up and encounters an intiguing black man Joseph Watson (Disraeli Ellison), who strangely enough finds solace in connecting to dead Jews. How did this come to pass? Joseph's father was a janitor at the nearby temple and as a little boy he came to respect and admire the Yiddish culture around him.
Robbins is at present having marital difficultuies with his much younger wife; Watson is taking care of his terminally ill wife, who lies dying in the bedroom offstage. This is the very apartment in which Robbins grew up, and he never put closure on the relationship with his deceased father-or on his grandfather's, for that matter, who considered the young man a failure. Watson, in possession of the old Yiddish garb from the temple, dons the costumes and channels the dead spirits of these people. The spirits, called dybbuks, exist between the two worlds of the living and the dead in a state of unrest.
What results is a very touching confrontation between the two men, who had an instant distaste for one another at the play's onset. Each helps the other through his time of personal grief.
On top of the unusual nature of the dybbuk here is the fact that Jewish traditions are dying away like the people themselves, and it is extraordinary that a man of different racial background would relate to them and be able to provide the necessary consolation.
Margo and Ellison are both wonderful in their emotional attachment to these roles, especially Ellison who goes in and out of the many characters with strength and assurance. For the most part, director Mizrahi keeps the pacing on the right track.
This is a lovely spiritual journey that keeps kaddish (Jewish death prayer) alive and unites mankind for a common purpose.
Laurie Morgan opens both pieces as the vocalist with guitar. She has a lovely voice and her choice for Act II of the music from Streisand's Yentl is highly effective.
5 out of 5 stars


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