Shlemiel the First
nytheatre.com review by Avi Glickstein
December 14, 2011
If you visit an American synagogue on any given Friday night or Saturday morning—and if you stick around for the sermon—odds are there will be a story about the Wise Men of Chelm thrown in somewhere. Long a part of Jewish oral tradition, they are the sagest fools in a village of fools, and the tales of their completely upside down rulings and pronouncements make for a good chuckle in the midst of making a point. One might think they would also provide great fodder for a musical, especially a Klezmer musical. And maybe they would—but the revival of 1994’s Shlemiel the First, playing through December 31st at NYU’s Skirball Center, is just not that musical.
Based on the play by Isaac Bashevis Singer (which was based on his own series of stories, which were, in turn, inspired by the traditional tales of Chelm), the show follows the Shlemiel of the title, his wife Tryna Ritza, and six undeservedly revered Wise Men. Other characters make appearances as well, with many of the actors admirably pulling double duty and a life-size, jelly-limbed (literal) dummy standing in for absent Wise Men. The story is appropriately simple. The head sage, Gronam Ox, tasks the beadle Shlemiel with journeying out into the world to spread Ox’s wisdom. As per usual for the people of Chelm, this simple task is soon made complicated and Shlemiel returns merely one day after leaving, believing it to be another Chelm with another Gronam Ox, another Shlemiel (conveniently absent), and another Trina Ritza. This leads to the evening’s best scene, a lovely duet called “The Screen Song” between Shlemiel and Tryna Ritza, in which he tries to resist his attraction to a woman he believes to be another man’s wife.
Even this scene, though, suffers from the production’s main problem—a lack of full commitment to the ideas the creators talk so much about in their extensive production notes. There is passion, humor, and eroticism in Shlemiel and his wife’s seduction of each other, but when the inevitable moment of connection arrives, what we get is saccharine when what we want is red hot. The director/choreographer David Gordon and the company clearly have a great time with the material, but there’s a timid and almost mechanical undercurrent that runs beneath everything on stage. This could partly be attributed to the height and vastness of the Skirball Center. Scenic designer Robert Israel’s intentionally skewed set is surrounded by so much black masking and the stage seems so far removed from the house that feeling any connection to the world of the play is near impossible. The show may have been better served by a somewhat smaller, more intimate space.
Even excusing the performance space and some of the clunkier staging, some of the blame has to fall on the material. I can attribute many of the problems I had with the show to one central dramaturgical conceit. I’m not sure if it was Singer’s or adaptor Robert Brustein’s, but in this version of Chelm, the women of the town are not fools. More than that, they’re aware that they’re stuck married to fools and are miserable. As I remember the stories, everyone in the town is blissfully ignorant of their own stupidity, and I’m not sure why the creators felt the need to deviate from this idea. True, the stories concentrated on men and Brustein/Singer may have felt that it would create another layer of complexity, but all it does is make it harder for us to laugh at these poor women’s husbands. It’s easier to laugh at someone else’s stupidity than it is at their misery.
I love Klezmer—and the band led by conductor Zalmen Mlotek is fantastic here—but as a collection of songs, created by lyricist Arnold Weinstein and composer Hankus Netsky, it just doesn’t work. There is simply little flow or build to the score’s trajectory. And, yes, there is no logic or sense to Chelm, so perhaps this was somewhat intentional, but the result is disappointingly dull. And this isn’t for lack of trying on the part of the performers. As Shlemiel, Michael Iannucci is an able clown and Amy Warren lends a sweetness to Tryna Ritza, but there just seems to be very little engine to the night.
Despite my own misgivings, much of the audience I sat with clearly enjoyed themselves—some to tears. So whatever fault I found in the show may lie solely with me. Still, I couldn’t seem to shake the very distinct feeling of being a sensible person trapped inside the gates of a little village called Chelm.