Don’t be a putz! Get to Brustein’s ‘The King’

Alex Pollock, Kathy St. George, Remo Airaldi an Ken Cheeseman in "The King of Second Avenue." Photo: Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures

Alex Pollock, Kathy St. George, Remo Airaldi an Ken Cheeseman in “The King of Second Avenue.” Photo: Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures

WATERTOWN –– The millions of Jews who emigrated from Eastern Europe to Western Europe and America in the late 19th-early 20th Centuries brought with them their hopes, their dreams, and a language: Yiddish.

And as an increasing number of Yiddish actors arrived on these shores, the Yiddish theater thrived. At the time the U.S. entered World War I, there were 22 Yiddish theaters and two Yiddish vaudeville houses in New York City alone.
But what happened when the music stopped, when the havoc wrought by two world wars, the Holocaust, and lower levels of Jewish immigration shuttered the theaters and put the Yiddish actors out of work?
Playwright Robert Brustein, the founder of both the American Repertory Theatre and Yale Repertory Theatre, explores the result in the New Repertory Theatre’s production of his musical “The King of Second Avenue.”
It’s a delightful romp about veterans of NYC’s once-thriving Second Avenue Yiddish theater scene who eventually find themselves adrift.
The piece was adapted from the 1893 novel “The King of Schnorrers,” by Israel Zangwill, and takes place in the mid-1960’s and concerns a group of five schnorrers, which according to the, is a term of reproach for a Jewish beggar having some pretensions to respectability. “In contrast to the ordinary house-to-house beggar, whose business is known and easily recognized, the schnorrer assumes a gentlemanly appearance, disguises his purpose, gives evasive reasons for asking assistance, and is not satisfied with small favors, being indeed quite indignant when such are offered.”

Will LeBow and Jeremiah Kissel in "The King of Second Avenue." Photo: Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures

Will LeBow and Jeremiah Kissel in “The King of Second Avenue.” Photo: Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures

And while no one in the group has anything, there seems to be a hierarchy recognized by all. Will LeBow heads a terrific cast as DaCosta , a member of the Sephardim, (Jews of Spanish/Middle Eastern descent) and the leader of the band of genteel beggars/schemers who looks down on his fellow schnorrers, who are Ashkenazic (German/Eastern European descent) Jews.
LeBow is most friendly with Schmuelly (Remo Airaldi), while Ken Cheeseman, Kathy St. George and Alex Pollock portray fellow schnorrers.
Jeremiah Kissel is inspired as Joseph E. Lapidus, a not-too-thinly-disguised takeoff on the late movie mogul Joseph E. Levine, who, as a producer, rode sword and sandals spectacles starring the late Steve Reeves, such as “Hercules,” to fame and fortune.
Indeed, the movie poster of “Hercules” on the movie theater that once housed the Yiddish troupe is a nice touch.
Sporting an outrageous super stogie, Lapidus intends to aid the downtrodden actors who instead profess indignity at the amount of his charity.
DaCosta chafes at even taking money from someone he considers an uneducated buffoon, but invites himself and the others to Lapidus’s Purim feast.
Despite his wealth, Lapidus has his problems at homes with his tuckus-pinching wife, Rosalie (the ever-scene-stealingSt. George); his unmarried, none-too-swift son Joseph E. Lapidus Jr. (Pollock); and an English butler named Wilkinson (Cheeseman), who looks down his nose quizzically at his employers.
Lapidus Jr. lusts for DaCosta’s daughter Delores (Abby Goldfarb) the “zaftig” girl of his dreams. That’s bad news for the senior Lapidus, because the scheming DaCosta is determined that Delores and Schmuelly will be wed, and that Lapidus Sr. — unbeknownst to him at the time — will end up funding the whole thing. That’s right: he was swindled by a schnorrer.
The play is sprinkled with Yiddish references that are not hard to understand — klutz, putz, schlemiel, and references to certain anatomical parts.
Director Matthew “Motl” Didner makes sure the cast is all in with Brustein’s vision, which evolved through a series of staged readings under the direction of Melia Bensussen.
The energetic klezmer-flavored orchestra led by music director David Sparr energetically cranks out Hankus Netsky’s spicy, spirited music and Brustein‘s score contains some inspired lyrics — some will have you chuckling, some groaning and some will you laughing out loud.
There‘s plenty of fun to be had in “The Schnorrer Song,” “A Piece of Fish,” “A Pair of Pants,“ and “The Purim Spiel.”
Add some manic choreography by Merete Muenter — some of it recalling the best of the Marx Brothers — and a savvy scenic design by Jon Savage that recalls the Second Avenue Theatre where it all began.
You don’t have to be Jewish to enjoy “The King of Second Avenue.” You don’t even have to be a schnorrer, a schmuck, a putz or a klutz. Just come equipped with a sense of humor and be prepared to laugh.

The New Repertory Theatre production of Robert Brustein’s “The King of Second Avenue.” Book and lyrics by Robert Brustein, music by Hankus Netsky. Based on the 1893 novel, “The King of Schnorrers” by Israel Zangwill. Directed by Matthew “Motl” Didner. Choreography and assistant direction by Merete Muenter . Scenic design by Jon Savage. Costumes by Frances Nelson McSharry. Sound design by Mike Stanton. Through March 1 at the Mosesian Theatre at the Arsenal Center for the Arts.