The National Yiddish Theatre-Folksbiene continues its current season with
Shpiel! Shpiel! Shpiel!, at the JCC of the Upper West Side, an uneven and overlong bill of three one-acts written by veteran playwright Murray Schisgal, in which the best is saved for first.
That work, The Pushcart Peddlers, is a 30-year-old play that reaches back to the early 20th Century to tell a tale of a Jewish fruit peddler calling himself Cornelius J. Hollingsworth (played by Stuart Marshall) who gives swift lessons in New World business sense to a younger man fresh off the boat (Michael L. Harris). In an amusing take on the American dream, it’s not always clear who’s getting the best of whom in this somewhat vaudevillian piece. Even the archetypal blind flower girl who shows up (Dani Marcus) has some unscrupulous tricks up her sleeve.
All three actors manage, for the most part, to keep up the comic pace despite the fact that the dialogue is entirely in Yiddish (with English and Russian supertitles); but a few moments would be much funnier if director Motl Didner didn’t push his players to overact. Still, Harris is particularly disarming as the young immigrant with the loving heart who, nevertheless, will stoop to his mentor’s level to get what he wants. He is the Leo Bloom to Marshall’s Max Bialystock.
Conversely, it’s a mystery what veteran director Gene Saks saw in Schisgal’s world premiere, The Man Who Couldn’t Stop Crying, the story of a fabulously successful businessman who can barely hold himself together emotionally. The show is low on plot and lower on laughs, despite the presence of Folksbiene veterans I. W. Firestone and Suzanne Toren.
Rounding out the evening is the U.S. premiere of 74 Georgia Avenue, a play that Schisgal published nearly two decades ago, about a middle-aged Jewish man named Marty (portrayed by Harry Peerce) who returns to the East New York apartment in which he grew up. The work — which seemed under-rehearsed under Bob Dishy’s direction at an early preview performance — has its fair share of dramatic problems; for instance, it’s never satisfactorily explained why the apartment’s current tenant, a cranky and reclusive African-American man named Joseph (Tony Perry) allows Marty inside at the outset. And once Marty does settle in, the device that enables him to confront some ghosts from his past is a little tired. Still, there is something quite touching in those mystical confrontation scenes, which help both characters reach back to a lost part of themselves.
As if all this wasn’t enough, singer Lisa Fishman performs musical interludes in Yiddish — ranging from Boris Thomashefsky’s delightful Second Avenue classic “Lebn Zol Kolumbus” to “What a Wonderful World” — to connect the three plays into an intended survey of the Jewish-American experience over the last century in New York. It’s a worthy goal, but one which could be more effectively reached by cutting out the middle play and reworking the finale.