Schlemiel The First, an unusual mix of broadly played ethnic humor, buoyant klezmer music, and charming folk tales, now getting its area premiere at Theater J, delivers big laughs and a bigger heart, which is just what theatergoers need this holiday season. Robert Brustein, the famed critic and playwright, has smartly blended several of author Isaac Bashevis Singer’s classic tales with a mix of traditional and new klezmer songs, adapted and composed for the show by Hankus Netsky and Zalman Mlotek. The upbeat score, performed by clarinet, violin, drums and piano, is not quite continuous, but dialogue sequences are brief and the 20 or so songs flow one into another to advance the storytelling.
The stories take us to the fabled Polish town of Chelm, a village of fools. The first part of the show is a collection of vignettes, with a focus on laughs, music, and dance, but motions deepen in act two as the frenetic pace slows down enough to focus on the main tale. The town elders decide the rest of the world should share in what they think is the collective wisdom of their village, so they send the passive bumbler Schlemiel (Thomas Howley) to visit other communities. But, he stumbles back into Chelm – and believing it to be a duplicate village, he ends up committing what he thinks is adultery with an "identical" Mrs. Schlemiel named Tryna Rytza (Amy McWilliams). The couple, who had grown jaded, rediscovers their love in the process.
The comedy wallows in Yiddish caricature, a problem of political incorrectness that some may find uncomfortable. But beneath the shtick is genuine warmth, enough to allow the ridiculous-seeming love story to seem quite touching. Much of that is due to McWilliams’ vibrant performance. She may be a long-suffering wife with a lazy husband, but McWilliams lets us see that the fire in Tryna’s heart has not been entirely extinguished. Thus, it can be both silly and authentic when she grapples with lyrics such as "I’m a goulash with no meat" after she finds her husband is being sent away.
The love story may be the crux of the play, but local stage veteran Donna Migliacco overpowers it as crusty, bombastic Yenta Pesha, the wife of chief village sage Gronam Ox (richly played by Dan Manning). She is omnipresent, whether pushing the action or punctuating it. When all else fails, she beats her husband or anyone is sight with a massive pickle. Fortunately, it works, as does the rest of her high-powered comic characterization. Constantly breaking the fourth wall, she mugs for the audience as if to say, "This is as much fun as it looks." And it does look fun.
Migliacco’s unfettered performance might be the result of the fact that Nick Olcott, Theater J’s resident director, was forced to leave the production because of a family emergency, and actor and director Michael Russotto stepped in to replace him. The change in directors may also be partly responsible for the abrupt change in tone from act one to act two, although that may also be a function of the shift in storytelling. Still, Schlemiel the First provides a pleasant bit of warmth on a cold winter night.