The title of the play comes from King Lear: "Change places, and handy dandy, which is the justice, which is the thief?" This two-hander revolves around the prickly relationship between a hard-nosed judge and an aging activist nun who ends up in his court for trespassing while protesting nuclear weapons. Among its many earlier incarnations, Handy Dandy was performed by a slew of famous actors in various productions across the country as a fundraiser on one night of protest. It didn't raise much money but who's to say that a little bit of consciousness wasn't raised on that extraordinary evening?
Now, decades later, Gibson once again brings us the clash of law versus morality. This playwright's gift is his ability to reveal the humanity beneath what is largely a didactic story. The first act wobbles as the two polar opposites, the angry judge and the somewhat flaky nun, square off in a battle that seems more written than real. But when Gibson finally gives these two exceptional actors something to build on -- particularly in the second act -- they make us feel a deepening compassion for both of their characters' plights. In the end, we are moved. Manipulated? Perhaps. But the tears do come.
We commend the Colleagues Theatre Company for retrieving and reviving a worthy piece of work, directed here with dignity and resolve by Don Amendolia. The company's mission is to produce plays that feature roles for mature actors -- and it seems that they're producing plays with mature themes, as well. You can see some dandy acting going on in Handy Dandy through January 4.
Unless you're already one of the converted -- and we don't use that term lightly -- there is often a sense of duty about seeing a play in Yiddish with supertitles that loosely translate what the actors are saying. But the Folksbiene Yiddish Theater has been making that experience enjoyable for a long time with its engaging, audience friendly shows, and now the Folksbiene folks have really outdid themselves with The Lady Next Door, a revival of a play by Leon Kobrin that was first produced in 1916. This is a broad and zesty comedy that's also surprisingly moving; in a bold adaptation by director Allen Lewis Rickman, the piece captures the rich aroma of its period and yet is immediately accessible to present-day audiences.
A tempestuous young man named Velvel leaves his lovely, young wife and journeys to America, intent on earning enough money to send for his spouse a few months later. Instead, two years pass, during which time he takes up with the married "lady next door." Lo and behold, his wife and his father unexpectedly arrive in New York, leading to the play's winning finale.
The show is chock full of archetypes that might offend the politically correct, but viewed in the context of its own time, it's a joyful noise of language. What fun it is to hear the actors emoting in Yiddish but with American phrases such as "Gee whiz!" sprinkled like powdered sugar throughout their speech. Other pleasures abound, including a performance by Sam Guncler as Velvel that embraces the character's flaws without obscuring his ultimate loveability. Full of energy and comic gusto, Guncler brings to mind Paul Muni, who graduated from the Yiddish Theater to become a star on Broadway and in the movies. Also terrific are David Mandelbaum as Velvel's father and Elaine Grollman as "the other woman's mother," both of whom so completely inhabit their roles that you could plotz.
Chris Walken Always Stands Out in a Crowd
A fine performance in an unsatisfying show deserves special note, so allow us to praise the work of Peter Loureiro, who portrays Christopher Walken in Who Killed Woody Allen?.
We can be sometimes be won over by sophomoric shenanigans, but too much of this play at The Triad seems to be the work of theatrical freshmen. Perhaps that's why Loureiro's performance stands out; call it nothing more than mimicry, but he is so consistently funny in his every word and gesture that he had us laughing far more often than the quality of the play warranted. The most disappointing thing about Who Killed Woody Allen? is that the play isn't really about Woody Allen at all. We'd say, "Give Peter Loureiro a good script about Walken and you'd have yourself a killer of a one-man show," but he beat us to it; he starred in Citizen Walken in last summer's Fringe Fest.
He Writes News -- and Makes News
Andrew Gans is a fellow theater journalist. Many people who seek out news of the Great White Way have often read his byline at Playbill.com. We had never met him but knew his work as a writer.
Who knew he could sing? When we heard that Gans was doing two shows at Don't Tell Mama, we felt that we had to be there. (The last time he performed in a club, we later learned, was five years ago.) And what a relief it was to discover that he's damned good!
Gans is a winsome performer and just about the least pretentious entertainer you are likely to encounter. His self-deprecating humor makes him an endearing presence on stage, while his voice has an emotional vibrato in the lower register and an exciting cry when he goes for the high notes. In a program that consists almost exclusively of musical theater songs (what else?), Gans triumphs so completely that he has become the new poster child for journalists who sing. The second performance of his show at Don't Tell Mama is tonight (Tuesday, December 30) at 6:30pm. Better hurry!
[Editor's Note: Because of the New Year holiday, TheaterMania will post only one Siegel column this week; the regular Tuesday/Friday schedule will resume next week.]