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Folksbiene Spins Revolving Doors of Comedy

For its 89th season, the Folksbiene Yiddish Theater is presenting Leon Kobrin’s comedy on immigrant life — “The Lady Next Door” (in Yinglish, “Di Next-door-ike”). The Folksbiene is the only professional Yiddish theater in America, and its performances and future plans are particularly significant to the Yiddish cultural world. This year, for the first time, the company has rented out the theater space in the new Jewish Community Center on Manhattan’s Upper West Side — not quite a fully professional stage, but comfortable enough.

Ever since 1998, when its longtime home in midtown’s Central Synagogue burned down, members of the troupe have, to use Sholom Aleichem’s phrase, been “wandering stars,” and this current location is their third since the exile. The advantage of performing at the JCC is that the large Jewish population located there can just walk to the theater and come to the Saturday-night shows — a time that has proven weak for the Folksbiene. Judging by the audience at the time of this review, many West Siders were indeed coming to the show and enjoying themselves a great deal.

Di Next-door-ike” was written by Kobrin in 1915, and 70 years have passed since it was last seen on stage. In 1916, Boris Tomashevsky’s theater produced it with Tomashevsky in the lead role of Velvl. The only printed version of the play was quite different from the one that Tomashevsky used, and so the director of this production, Alan Rickman, adapted the printed version with the staged version in mind.

In May 2003, the Folksbiene performed the work as a dramatic reading; at that time, it was hard to visualize much drama in the play. The story essentially takes place in two adjoining apartments on the Lower East Side of New York, and the action consists of entering and exiting the two rooms. To his credit, Rickman has livened it up for the stage version with comic bits, and one is barely aware of the dramatic shortcomings of the work.

The cast is solid: Sam Guncler plays Velvl, the blacksmith who married a young pious woman, Hindele (Yelena Shmulenson-Rickman), in the old country. When he comes alone to America, he falls in love with the “lady” next door, Clara (Debra Frances Ben), who is married herself — to Gimpl (I.W. Firestone). Living with Clara is her disapproving mother, Gitl (Elaine Grollman), and in yet another adjacent apartment live Velvl’s sister Khyenke (Alison Cimmet) and her husband, Ben-tsion (Amitai Kedar), who brought Hindele to America in an attempt to reconcile her with her husband.

The comedy turns on the crazed ambivalence of the hero, Velvl, who goes back and forth from loving the “lady” to caring for his wife. This character flaw of indecision in the hero was used more powerfully by Kobrin in his classic tragedy “Yankl Boyle.” In this comedy, though, it wears thin by the end. Still, the audience is kept laughing by the language — most especially the Yiddish curses of Velvl’s father, Kulye (David Mandelbaum), who arrives with Hindele from Europe, and the absurdly trite expressions that Velvl drops every now and then. Kobrin understood that an immigrant comedy for his time needed such elements to keep it going, and judging by the audiences’ reaction, things have not changed much since then. The newly introduced English supertitles above the stage keep the non-Yiddish-speaking theatergoer in tune with the show.

Though some members of the cast speak Yiddish with distinctly American accents, one can accept this as realistic since the play is about immigrant life. Only a few seasons ago, the Folksbiene produced another Lower East Side immigrant drama with success, and this might be the way to go in terms of a broader audience. At the time of the original production of the play, the audience laughed at themselves; now, almost 100 years later, audiences are still enjoying such comedy — thinking not of themselves now, but of their parents and grandparents.

Itzik Gottesman is associate editor of the Yiddish Forward, from which the above article was translated.

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