Off-Broadway review - This production transferred to the Brooks Atkinson Theatre on February 18, 1989.
The audience - and it may not be the youngest audience you'll ever meet at the Public Theater - oohs and ahs in unison twice at the revival of ''Cafe Crown,'' a 1942 Broadway play by Hy Kraft. The first peal of delight is prompted by Santo Loquasto's stunning set: a plush, sconce-lighted replica of an old Second Avenue cafe, with pickles at every table and autographed photographs on every wall. The second round of cooing occurs at the start of Act II, when we discover the set filled to capacity with the production's large cast. Not every night do we find almost 20 actors on stage in a nonmusical comedy, the entire company rewarded with real, speaking roles.
Those two moments encapsulate the broad nostalgic pleasures of the entire, elaborately catered affair. ''Cafe Crown'' is a sentimental journey back through time, into the warm glow of two nearly extinct forms of theatrical endeavor. The play's setting and characters are drawn from the Lower East Side's once-thriving Yiddish theater. The Cafe Crown is a stand-in for the old Cafe Royale, which served as a Second Avenue schmoozing and kibbitzing ground, a Sardi's with schnapps, to the legendary likes of Maurice Schwartz and Jacob Ben Ami. The second vanished theatrical world on stage is the one now represented by Kraft's play itself. Though ''Cafe Crown'' was utterly typical of the Broadway theater of its era, today a light comedy with its costly cast and modest aspirations would not even be considered for uptown production.
That Joseph Papp has exhumed it - and done so with a loving fidelity the New York Shakespeare Festival rarely bestows upon Shakespeare - says a lot about the producer's own relation to the past that Kraft has chronicled. Mr. Papp belongs to the genealogy of larger-than-life Yiddish theater impresarios: showmen of high and often adventurous artistic ambitions, infinite cunning and towering egos. In ''Cafe Crown,'' the type is represented by David Cole - a thinly disguised Jacob Adler - a flamboyant actor-manager and director who hopes to improve upon ''King Lear'' by giving Shakespeare's protagonist a wife and a palatial apartment on Riverside Drive. Surely it's no coincidence that Cole, marvelously played by Eli Wallach, has been outfitted to resemble the public image of Mr. Papp.
Don't expect to care whether Cole scrapes together the money and cast needed for his ''Lear,'' or about the rest of the ''Cafe Crown'' plot, either, with its trivial, most un-''Lear''-like family feuds. No one should go to ''Cafe Crown'' hoping to see a good play. No one did so in 1942, when it ran four months at the Cort. As Elia Kazan, whose first modest success as a Broadway director came with the original production, wrote in his memoirs this year: ''Hy Kraft, a Hollywood screenplay writer, had the thinnest talent of any playwright I've worked with - but he did have a talent. It was for the Jewish anecdote.'' In other words, ''Cafe Crown'' is a feast of Jewish waiter jokes and Jewish theater jokes, heavily laced with schmaltz.
And such waiters! They are Bob Dishy, his expression so dill-sour that even his tufts of hair seem exasperated, and Fyvush Finkel, tall and slightly stooped and sure to say ''You'll love it!'' to any irritating customer who alights upon one of the less palatable daily specials. Mr. Dishy's role is a classic Jewish comic type: a conniver and sometime theatrical investor with a secret soft heart. (No wonder Kraft would later write a musical for Phil Silvers, ''Top Banana.'') Mr. Finkel, a longtime Yiddish theater performer, is priceless, the soul of meticulous clowning whose every contemptuous glare and shambling step reflects decades of comic practice.
As extravagantly led by Mr. Wallach - who turns every entrance and exit into a cane-waving, stentorian-toned megillah - the theater crowd, all self-anointed ''geniuses,'' is just as amusing. Particularly funny are Marilyn Cooper as an actress reduced to Cleveland engagements in ''The Kosher Wife,'' Harry Goz as a prolific hack dramatist whose idea of a ''very short'' play is seven acts long, and Felix Fibich as a bit actor hysterically torn between a standing pinochle game and his ''Lear'' role of Kent. Joseph Leon, as a critic who writes his Jewish Daily Forward reviews in advance of opening night, and Anne Jackson, cast true-to-life as Mr. Wallach's actress wife, are also good, though Ms. Jackson could part with some of her modern comic restraint.
The director, Martin Charnin, has recruited pleasant young actors (David Carroll among them) as the old timers' straight men. Although the pacing could use some George Abbott drive, his staging smartly follows Mr. Kazan's advice for this play. Writing that it would ''be a bad mistake'' to pump up ''Cafe Crown'' into ''anything better'' than the ''small folk piece'' that it is, Mr. Kazan made sure, as Mr. Charnin does, that the jokes stayed front and center.
While one indeed shouldn't make ''Cafe Crown'' into anything more than it is, the play inevitably carries rueful history now that it didn't in 1942. When Kraft was writing, he could not have known that the Yiddish theater would soon be exterminated entirely in Europe, or that the American Yiddish theater, like American Yiddish culture in general, would shrink of natural causes to the point where both the Cafe Royale and Maurice Schwartz's Yiddish Art Theater across the street would be defunct by 1950. In ''Cafe Crown,'' the assimilationist second-generation Americans (one of them presumably based on Stella Adler) are already following Second Avenue defectors like Paul Muni to the glamorous English-speaking show business of Broadway and Hollywood. But the depletion of the ranks is still treated mostly as a joke; the Yiddish theater's woes seem grave but hardly terminal.
''Cafe Crown'' remains what Mr. Kazan labels it: ''slight stuff.'' Yet to see the play in 1988, performed with such authenticity at a theater in the same neighborhood as its demolished setting, proves an occasion not just for laughter but for paying a grand, departed theatrical universe affectionate final respects.