Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Theater review: 'Knish Alley' good concept, but play needs work

A scene from Knish Alley.

By Hap Erstein

Part historical fiction and part shameless collection of vintage punch lines, South Floridian Tony Finstrom’s Knish Alley is a good idea for a play still waiting to be developed.

The script, being premiered at Coral Spring’s Broward Stage Door, has already had several readings at area theaters, yet it still seems at least one draft away from being ready for production.

Knish Alley -- an ideal title for luring Jewish theater parties -- refers to Second Avenue on New York’s Lower East Side, the heart of Yiddish theater in the early 1900s. It is the desired destination of a ragtag troupe of European actors, traveling to America in steerage class aboard the S.S. Atlantic, working menial jobs by day and performing their Yiddish-language plays to bewildered passengers at night.

In the inert, exposition-heavy first act, we meet the characters and learn about their hopes and dreams. For starters, there is put-upon Zelig (Kevin Reilley), who serves tea and sews costumes for the troupe, but yearns for them to perform his unproduced script, Yankee Doodle Boychik. The company’s overbearing major domo Yoseph (Steven A. Chambers) and his nagging wife Fanny (Miki Edelman) are desperate to meet the theater owner traveling in first class, to secure a playhouse from him for their American debut.

Yoseph’s daughter Sophie (Kally Khourshid) wants to graduate from male roles and, maybe, find a husband of her own. Very pregnant featured player Minna (Jaime Libbert), also husbandless, simply wants her baby to be born on American soil. And then there’s stagestruck cabin boy David (David Hemphill), the fish-out-of-water Gentile, whose goal is to break into show business.

If it sounds from that description that Knish Alley is overstuffed with characters and subplots, you’re right. Worse, many of those yearnings get resolved in a perfunctory conclusion that is emotionally unsatisfying. And the troupe’s final onboard performance, The Merchant of Venice with a Yiddish spin, is a great comic opportunity which largely goes squandered.

Broward Stage Door deserves credit for venturing into the risky terrain of new plays, but director Dan Kelley needed to nudge his playwright to edit down Knish Alley for its own good. The cast is as uneven as the writing. They are not the problem, but nor do they give the material much assistance.

If Finstrom could weed out some of his exposition, simplify his plot threads and punch up the humor, he might have a more satisfying evening of theater. Certainly the bygone days of the Yiddish theater amount to a rich lode worth mining, but so far, his effort is in vein.

KNISH ALLEY, Broward Stage Door, 8036 W. Sample Road, Coral Springs. Continuing through Aug. 30. Tickets: $32. Call: (954) 344-7765.

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