Alma Cuervo and Danny Aiello in The Shoemaker
(© Ben Hider)
Alma Cuervo and Danny Aiello in The Shoemaker
(© Ben Hider)
There have been Holocaust plays and there have been 9/11 plays, but Susan Charlotte's The Shoemaker, now at The Acorn Theater at Theatre Row, may boast the distinction of being the first-ever drama that combines both devastating events into one ambitious whole. Sad to say, the drama has little other distinction -- unless you count Danny Aiello's return to the commercial stage in a title role that may not be as well suited to him as he hopes.

In the work -- which was previously seen as a one-act -- the always earnest and effectively humane Aiello plays Guiseppe, the long-time proprietor of a recognizably shabby Manhattan shoe-repair establishment (evoked by Ray Klausen's predominantly institutional-green set with numerous signs and images on the walls, among them a print of a Modigliani portrait and a photograph of a large pile of shoes).

He's an Italian Jew who listens to opera on his vintage radio and is conversant with the 1970 film The Garden of the Finzi-Continis and who emigrated from his homeland in the late 1930s with his mother, but without his father and paternal grandmother. As the show opens, a deep-in-thought Giuseppe is interrupted by the distraught Hilary (Alma Cuervo), who pushes her way into the closed-for-the-day store demanding that its proprietor fix a hole in the sole of her right flat. Perhaps we're also meant to immediately understand she also has a figurative hole in her soul.

Initially refusing to accommodate her, Giuseppe relents to such an extent that within minutes he's discussing shoes other patrons have left to his care -- a red-on-white leather flat a woman needs to wear at her newborn's bris and, more significantly, a pair of black stiletto pumps belonging to a petite investment banker who works much farther downtown. Hearing his musings, Louise slowly indicates she may know the stilettos' owner, or at least know something about her.

Going into more detail about the plot would be giving away too many of Charlotte's surprises -- which is not to say that several of them aren't easy to figure out long before the author pops them. Shying away from the action's in-and-outs doesn't mean they can't be categorized as, at the least, embarrassingly contrived, and, at the most, irritatingly manipulative as references to the unforgettable mid-20th-century murder of six million Jews and the early 21st-century brutal slaughter of 3,000 lives slowly emerge.

Aiello has to put himself through a range of theatrical antics; but it's an ultimately shallow role, despite all the meaning that Charlotte wants to impart. Cuervo is also required to pull off some impassioned histrionics, which the actress does with her usual aplomb, and Lucy DeVito brings some welcome charm to Louise, a short woman who relies on her shoes to give her power she otherwise feels bereft of. (The voice of a fourth character, played by Michael Twaine, is heard at odd moments.)

However, their efforts, as well as those of directory Antony Marsellis, can do little to save this play, where shoes are not only the focal character's business, but are eventually a symbol that audience members may understandably resist.