From Yiddish Melodrama To American Comedy

From Yiddish Melodrama To American Comedy

Yiddish melodrama popped up last week, just yards from the elevated tracks of the 7 train in Queens, at a theater so discreet its name is Secret. Target Margin Theater there presented Allen Lewis Rickman’s enormously enjoyable translation of Isadore Zolotarevsky’s “Gelt, Libe, un Shande” – “Money, Love, and Shame.” Once, perhaps, a play with both pain and laughter, the passage of time has rendered it pure comedy.

Sonia, a good girl, is ruined by Albert, a good boy, who is forced to marry a slum lord’s daughter to save his aged mother, while Sonia goes to Denver’s pure air with her aged tubercular father. Once himself a rich man, he lost everything in the 1905 pogrom, and has come to New York to start anew. Sonia’s night of sin has left her pregnant, of course, and on her return from Denver she becomes a prostitute at the suggestion of the slumlord’s chauffeur. (Meanwhile, the chauffeur and Albert’s wife are paramours.)

In the penultimate act, Albert has become a judge. All the other characters come before him, lastly Sonia, now a drunken streetwalker. They recognize each other in horror and sorrow, and it’s time for her to expire. She becomes deathly ill, enormous gray circles ringing her eyes, her face dotted with wart-like growths the size of grapes. After a swift wedding (Albert has been divorced just in time), Sonia dies on cue, soon followed by Albert, who drinks poison.

Such a play gives ample scope for the comic talents of any cast, and Target Margin’s Lab Production did very well by it. Rickman’s energetic performance as the slumlord, Barney Bender, was perhaps most polished, but the whole cast offered a well-timed, precisely calibrated show. Yelena Shmulenson as Sonia turned in a particularly funny and bathetic performance, especially in her last moments as a living Edward Gorey cartoon. (Offstage, she and Rickman are married.) I wished for less shouting at critical moments, but such shows are loud by nature. Everyone froze expertly at key moments to let the audience appreciate the huge emotion on their faces ; Jacqueline Sydney was especially good at this. It’s a hammy but effective technique familiar from silent movies; and the connection to silent film was emphasized by Steve Sterner’s fluent and expressive piano accompaniment.

The nearly full house was enthusiastic, widely mixed in age, and star studded by the comedian Jackie Hoffman, who laughed as loudly as everyone else.

Elizabeth Denlinger curates a collection of rare books and manuscripts at the New York Public Library and is at work on a novel about a boarding school in 1955.

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