On Second Avenue
nytheatre.com review by Lauren Marks
October 23, 2005
In some ways, On Second Avenue is quite a usual play: A talented cast, remarkably well-dressed, do a little song and a little dance, in front of an ever-changing backdrop.
What makes it not just a usual play is that fact that most of this production is in Yiddish.
Presented by the Folksbiene Yiddish Theatre at the Jewish Community Center, On Second Avenue works in a surprising way. It functions as both a review, and a revue, of the Golden Age of Yiddish Theatre in New York City. It works well as both. As a review, the play casts a backwards glance to the days when Jewish immigrants flocked to Second Avenue for their melodramas, their musicals, and their vaudeville—all in the language they understood, Yiddish. The play lovingly tells the story of the rise and the fall of the Yiddish theatre, and remembers some of its most worthy contributors. However, this text aptly resembles a revue more than a traditional narrative. In the midst of the stories about the Yiddish theatre, 20-some-odd songs and routines straight from its stages are interspersed—some in English, but most in Yiddish. (The Yiddish-skittish need not fear. Supertitles appear above the stage for all the lines that would otherwise be baffling to non-speakers.)
All of the actors are flawlessly well-cast. The play features strong performances from Lisa Fishman, Elan Kunin, Lisa Rubin, and Rebecca Brudner. The clarity of voice that issues forth from City Opera vet Robert Abelson is completely enthralling. The onstage presence of musical comedienne Joanne Borts is quirky and bustling with kinetic energy. But the best reason to see this show is, without question, Mike Burstyn. Famous for his roles on Broadway (Barnum, Ain't Broadway Grand), Burstyn has a history with the Yiddish theatre that makes his presence in this cast irreplaceable. Raised by two of the era’s greatest stars, he performed in the original Yiddish theatres as a child. His place onstage in this show that honors many Yiddish theatre stars, including his parents, feels a little bit magical—as though he stepped out of another time and place.
Director Bryna Wasserman brings forth a show with unusually high production values. There are dozens of intricate costumes, each as apt as the next. The set is clever and functional, with changes and surprises for nearly every scene. The lights are subtle, then explosive, in turn. There are also a number of well-placed and well-used film clips featuring stars from the Yiddish theatre's heyday. Authors Moishe Rosenfeld and Zalmen Mlotek also do a fine job, keeping the musical engaging, with just enough upbeat tunes to balance out the ballads.
Many in the audience were clearly enraptured by this show, but those most so seemed to be the elderly patrons—who looked engrossed as On Second Avenue revisited and captured something of the stages from their youth. The nostalgia in the house quickly ignited into an almost tangible joy, and soon into the production many audience members could be heard singing along to familiar tunes, or finishing the punch-lines to jokes they had forgotten they remembered. Like the one about the Jewish cannibals; or the one about the man whose mother-in-law wants to jump out the window.
But you don’t have to be nostalgic about Yiddish theatre to get excited about this show. It’s a little schmaltzy, but in a good way. Those who don’t know much about the Yiddish theatre are likely to enjoy this as much as, if not more than, those who know a lot, because they have the opportunity to be exposed to the material for the very first time. The show is playful and entertaining, and you might even surprise find yourself, picking up a word or two, here and there. Once you see it, you’ll probably kvell about it too.