Isaiah Sheffer is in a bind.
The artistic director of New York’s Symphony Space and the host of National Public Radio’s “Selected Shorts,” Sheffer was asked by the National Yiddish Theatre-Folksbiene to direct a staged reading of Neil Simon’s “The Sunshine Boys” in Yiddish for a January 7 benefit. In and of itself, this shouldn’t pose a problem. He has a nimbly rendered script to work with, courtesy of translator Miriam Hoffman, and the roles once played by Walter Matthau and George Burns will be in the capable hands of Yiddish theater legends Fyvush Finkel and Theodore Bikel. The difficulty, Sheffer said, begins where the dialogue leaves off.
“It’s only a staged reading,” Sheffer told the Forward. “It’s not a full stage production. And the question is, what do we do with Neil Simon’s physical comedy? I concluded the only way to do this is to have someone read the stage directions. Then the question becomes, read the stage directions in what language?”
Some argued that they should be in English. Theatergoers may want to hear Yiddish, but they may not know it well enough to follow pure narration. Then again, Sheffer said, if the actors are “rattling off this good comic stuff in Yiddish,” an English intrusion could break the rhythm. And then there are the supertitles to worry about, which are no small matter, seeing as how in recent years the Folksbiene, out of deference to a growing audience from the former Soviet Union, has been running them not just in English but in Russian, as well.
“In the end, I figured we could make a final decision during rehearsals,” Sheffer said. “They’re two very funny guys, and it’s a funny script. I’m ready for anything.”