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Two “not to miss” One-Act Plays by Murray Schisgal at Lonny Chapman

Posted By Karen Young On August 12, 2009 @ 1:31 am In Arts & Culture,Theater | 3 Comments

jackiehouchin110BY JACKIE HOUCHIN

The Lonny Chapman Group Repertory Theatre in NoHo is currently offering two wonderfully entertaining plays by veteran playwright Murray Schisgal (co-writer of the Oscar winning screenplay “Tootsie” starring Dustin Hoffman).

Originally part of a trilogy of plays that won attention at New York’s National Yiddish Theatre, “The Pushcart Peddlers” and “74 Georgia Avenue” reveal glimpses of Jewish-American life with light-hearted humor and soul-searching pathos.  The first is set on a New York City Waterfront on a day, many years ago. The other takes place in a renovated apartment in contemporary Brooklyn.

To introduce the plays, vocalist Laurie Morgan strummed her guitar and sang familiar  ditties of the day, as well as folksongs and Jewish liturgy – in Yiddish, English and Hebrew. An excellent segue from the bustle of the day to the business of the play. She began with “Oh yes, we have no bananas…”

Lloyd Pedersen and Ren Bell in "The Pushcart Peddlars." Photo: Doug Engalla

Lloyd Pedersen and Ren Bell in "The Pushcart Peddlars." Photo: Doug Engalla

In “The Pushcart Peddlers,” Lloyd Pedersen plays Cornelius, a “successful” immigrant businessman who sells bananas.  His loaded pushcart is situated conveniently on the wharf just where disembarking passengers are sure to pass. Confidently he picks up his newspaper and awaits business.

A ship’s horn sounds and a wide-eyed young man in an ill-fitting suit enters carrying a battered suitcase.  Dustin Loomis plays the new immigrant Shimmel, who is so amazed at the sights and sounds of his new country that he stumbles unwittingly into the seated banana salesman.

What follows is an extended exchange (Shpiel) so typically Yiddish in tone and gesture that the knowing audience begins to chuckle and snort in delight. (Even we Goyim find ourselves laughing.)  It seems the two are from the same part of “the old country” and know the same people (Think: “Fiddler on the Roof,” the rest of the story).

Then Cornelius demonstrates “free enterprise” and the “American Dream” by selling the newcomer his banana business, then becoming his partner, and finally watching with smug pride as the boy slips into the role of a young entrepreneur. “Welcome to America!”

Peterson and Loomis are skilled performers who can portray a wide range of expressions from the sublime to the ridiculous, while never loosing that suspension of disbelief so necessary in theatre.

Loomis, as well as Alyce Courtney (playing a pretty flower-seller with dreams of Broadway and a gleam in her eye for Shimmel), are exceptional understudies, never slipping character, missing a cue, or dropping a line. Bravo!

*********

In “74 Georgia Avenue,” a black man, seemingly alone in rundown apartment, is startled, then angered by a white stranger who suddenly enters his home, looks around, and exclaims, “It’s the same!”

“How’d you get in here, Honky?” yells Joseph. “Do you know where you are? Even white cops don’t come around this neighborhood!”

“I want to move in… for a week, a month,” says the nonplused stranger, setting down his duffle.

“No!  How dare you! GO!”

“Just one night….”

And so begins the explosive, moving, infinitely poignant story about wanting to remember and longing to forget.

Malcolm Devine (another exceptionally talented understudy) plays Joseph Watson, who lovingly “does for” his terminally ill wife in her final days. Unseen, but invasively “there,” she signals her occasional needs with a tinkling bell, to which Joseph flies in response. There’s only one thing that can take his thoughts away from the upcoming, unspeakable loss.

Larry Margo plays Martin Robbins, a man who was born and raised in the house where Joseph and his wife now live before it was an apartment, when Brooklyn was still a Jewish enclave. He’s left some painful memories behind, ones that haunt him, especially now that his own family is breaking up. He longs to face them and get closure. But how?

These two disparate men have one thing in common; the old Synagogue where Martin attended with his father and grandfather, and where Joseph and his father were janitors. “We turned on the lights when you couldn’t,” the black man teases when the white man can’t remember.

The clothes and the articles of Jewish worship that the old Patriarch left behind when he died, and which Joseph saved; these too are links, particularly when the black man puts them on…

In a series of eerie fugues, signaled by dimming lights and a faint howling wind, Joseph takes Martin through the painful days of his growing up.  There are bittersweet parts that make you laugh through your tears, but there are also intense scenes when your heart nearly stops from the raw pain revealed.

The final scene when both men – now bonded in death – begin to recite Kaddish is so emotional, so heart wrenching, you are grateful the blackout lasts a few beats longer than normal.

The highest praise and applause go to Malcolm Devine and Larry Margo for their extraordinary acting and to Murray Schisgal for his moving play. A must see!

The plays run only through August 22: Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 and Sundays at 2:00.Tickets are $17 and $20.  Call (818) 700-4878 for reservations and information.  To purchase tickets online, visit www.lcgrt.com or call (866) 811-4111. The Lonny Chapman Group Repertory Theater is located at 10900 Burbank Blvd. No Hollywood, CA 91601

Jackie Houchin is a freelance theater reviewer, covering plays, musicals and readings for the San Fernando and San Gabriel Valleys. She also reviews books for several mystery magazines and writes articles for a local biweekly newspaper.  www.jackiehouchin.com

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