Allen Lewis Rickman and Yelena Shmulenson smile a lot more in real life than they did as husband and wife Velvel and Dora in the shtetl prologue to the Coen Brothers’ film “A Serious Man.”
For that, they auditioned separately, and as they tell The Jewish Week, she got laughs at every moment in the Yiddish script (“even the commas,” Rickman chimes in, crediting Robert Benchley with the line) and his turn was more “like Dostoevsky’s funeral.” They think they got the parts since they were a real married couple.
“The Yiddish Lunt and Fontaine,” says actor and stand-up comic Jackie Hoffman of the couple. “They breathe Yiddish, give us the gift of Yiddish and since they’re married, they bicker in Yiddish.”
The two will be playing an unmarried duo with a tenement tryst in a rehearsed reading of “Breach of Promise” at YIVO on July 31. Set on the Lower East Side, the play was written in Yiddish by Leon Kobrin in 1912 and has been newly translated into English by Rickman as part of YIVO’s Treasures from the Archives series. Rickman describes Kobrin as a protégé of Jacob Gordin, although Gordin (“The Yiddish King Lear”) is much better remembered.
“Kobrin’s pieces are time capsules,” Rickman says, adding that the play feels contemporary in its transition between humor and drama. Shmulenson plays an unmarried 28-year-old whose parents worry about her prospects, alongside Rickman and several other professional actors.
For Shmulenson and Rickman, it has been a year in which they were “farshmayet biz iber di oyern,” or “up to our ears in work.”
Together they did “Kvetches of 1932,” a Yiddish Vaudeville revue performed in Montreal and at a Yiddish Theater Festival in Romania, and the third leg of the Off-Broadway run of the acclaimed “Tevye Served Raw” (Garnished with Jews), an original take on the work of Sholem Aleichem, and performed a selection from it at Carnegie Hall in the concert “From Shtetl to Stage” (a scene recalling the red-hot temper and distinctive vernacular of Aleichem’s stepmother, who hurled Yiddish curses for all occasions). They also recorded the audiobook “The Last Witnesses” by Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich, in which Shmulenson took on the female storytellers and Rickman the males.
Also, Rickman wrote the subtitles for six restored Yiddish movies, recently screened at a Yiddish film festival at Film Forum, and delivered lectures and taught workshops on Yiddish theater at the National Yiddish Book Center, the Queens Public Library and at YIVO’s Yiddish summer program. He’s about to start work on a developmental reading of a play about Gracie Allen that he’ll be directing.
Both actors have recent television credits: Rickman played Red Skelton on the first season of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” and Shmulenson played inmate Boyle on “Orange is the New Black.”
Shmulenson, who was born in Belarus and immigrated to the U.S. with her family as a teenager in 1993, had never heard of Broadway, but fell in love with musical theater. After graduating from Marymount College, where she studied acting, she learned Yiddish at YIVO. Rickman grew up in a Yiddish-speaking household in Far Rockaway, attended Modern Orthodox schools and Brooklyn College, where he studied film.
They met in 1999, when she was working for the Folksbiene on translations and he was one of the leads in the company’s production of “Yoshke Musikant.” They got married at the storied Players Club in 2001.