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A CurtainUp Review

The Lady Next Door

or Temptation in the Tenements

Maybe God created America so Jews could get a rest.
---Ben-Tsien, contemplating the emigrant's alternative to the hardscrabble existence of the Russian Shetl.
Yelena Schmulenson-Brickman,  Sam Guncler, Debra Frances Ben
Yelena Schmulenson, Sam Guncler, Debra Frances Ben
Yiddish was once spoken by more than eleven million people and could be heard in theaters around the world. Nowadays, even The Folksbiene Yiddish Theatre, the only survivor of the once vibrant New York Yiddish theater, uses English supertitles so that those not yet Social Security eligible can fully understand and enjoy the plays the company has been putting on for eighty-nine seasons.

The Folksbiene's first main stage production in its comfortable new home in the Jewish Community Center (JCC), is a handsomely staged production of The Lady Next Door a.k.a. Di Next-Door'ike by Leon Kobrin. Kobrin (1872-1946) was born in Russia and came to New York when he was twenty, forty years before Velvel, the anti-hero of this classic comedy. It wasn't until twenty years later that his career as a Yiddish novelist and short story writer began with the publication of a short story entitled "A Moerder aus Liebe (A Love Caused Murder)." Many of Kobrin's some twenty plays were adaptations of his novels and stories, with his playwriting reputation built on his realistic and sensitive handling of the problems of the assimilating immigrant.

The Lady Next Door which premiered in 1916 at Boris Thomashefsky's People's Theatre in Brooklyn and starred Thomashefsky himself as Velvel, the quickly assimilating "Greenhorn" whose love for the young wife he left behind in the old country is eclipsed by the appeal of a woman who seems to him the very essence of an American lady. Velvel is a typical Kobrin anti-hero whose less than heroic traits are illustrated by his complicated love life. The comedy which pivots around him is staged with all the elements of an old-fashioned comedy with lots of complications intact.

The story begins in Russia as Velvel (along with his sister and the Rabbi's son she plans to marry) are leaving for New York, where his wife Hindele will eventually follow (a common emigration pattern). When the scene fast forwards to New York two years later, Velvel has found the better and freer life he sought. He's nattily dressed as becomes a Union speech maker and has succumbed to the charms of a woman in an adjoining tenement apartment. His wife's unexpected arrival (along with his father) and the interference from relatives (his sister, the "Next-Dor'ike's" husband and mother) cause all manner of complications that lead to Velvele's ambivalence about divorcing his wife -- and a de rigeur happy ending which leaves everyone properly paired.

For all its old world, somewhat melodramatic comic style, Korbin's play has a remarkably timely satiric edge that pokes fun not just at the Jewish immigrant but all to whom assimilation into a new life style means abandoning their old value system. In short, you don't have to come from a Shtetl to fall victim to worshipping false idols.

Much of the success of this play's first staging in seventy years can be attributed to the multi-faceted Allen Lewis Rickman. He is responsible for the adaptation, translation and the excellent supertitles, directs with a sure hand and makes two brief appearances on stage (at the beginning as Beri-Leybtse, the guardian of the Shtetl's values and towards the end as a flower vendor).

The main characters are ably portrayed by Sam Guncler as Velvel, Yelena Schmulensen-Rickman as Hindele and Debra Frances Ben as the femme fatale who's appeal to Velvel turns out to be as false as her fluffy hair extension. But some of the best performances come from the supporting players. I. W. Firestone is hilarious as the frustrated husband of the fickle Clara (he also does a brief turn as Yekhiel the Goat) as is David Mandelbaum as Velvel's father Kulye the blacksmith, who is more than a little bemused, bothered and bewildered by the ladies he encounters practicing his skills in New York. Alison Cimmet, who stood out as a typist in an Off-Off Broadway revival of Machinal (my review) once again makes a strong impression as Velvel's sister Khyenke.

Ken Goldstein's set is simple but detailed enough to show that what spelled a good and prosperous life to these characters was in fact a far cry from luxury. Gail Cooper-Hecht has dressed everyone in colorful and authentic costumes, with Velvel's checked suit making its own amusing statement about the assimilation process.

While the audience at the matinee I attended was old enough not to need the supertitles and the show will more than likely draw its core audience from the various Jewish Center Senior Citizen groups in the greater metropolitan area, younger audiences might just find this play a sort of magic carpet transporting them back to their grandparents' world.

The Lady Next Door
Written by Leon Kobrin
Directed by Allen Lewis Rickman
Cast: I.W. Firestone, Elaine Grollman, Amitai Kedar, David Mandelbaum, Yelena Shmulenson-Rickman, Sam Guncler, Debra Frances Ben
Set Design: Ken Goldstein
Costume Design: Gail Cooper-Hecht
Lighting Design: Mark F. O'Connor
Sound Design: Don Jacobs
Running time: 2 hours and 15 minutes, plus intermission
Folksbiene at JCC , 334 Amsterdam Avenue (at 76th Street) 212) 239-6200
10/25/03-- 1/04/04; opening 11/06/03.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on 10/30 press preview performance

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