It's nice, it's sweet and, to a degree, heartwarming. It's also slight. It's "The World of Sholem Aleichem," the late Arnold Perl's dramatization of four Jewish tales that was seen Off Broadway almost 30 years ago and that returned last night at the Rialto with Jack Gilford not merely repeating a role he created but starring in all four.
Aleichem, pen name for the Russian-born New Yorker Solomon Rabinowitz, is best known for "Tevya and His Daughters," which was also dramatized by Perl and later provided the book for the musical "Fiddler on the Roof." But his story-telling was limitless, and the ones included here are excellent examples of his work, brought to the stage very much in the style subsequently utilized, though more broadly, by Story Theater.
It comes as something of a surprise to find that the opening work, "A Tale of Chelm," quite obviously furnished Neil Simon with the idea for his last play, the failure "Fools." In this case, an angel, carrying bags of smart souls and foolish ones and flying too low, has snagged one of the bags on a tree branch and unloaded foolish souls on the village of Chelm with predictable results, mostly involving a stupid husband's attempts to acquire a female goat for his wife.
The role Gilford recreates is not from an Aleichem tale at all, but from one, "Bontche Schweig," by Isaac Peretz. Bringing the first half of the short evening to a close, it introduces the title character, a ragged man who has silently endured a miserable existence on earth, to heaven, where his qualifications are judged. Gilford is particularly good here as the silent figure who, when it is clear that nobody else so merits the fruits of heaven, desires only a warm roll and butter each morning.
The strongest piece, "The High School," takes up the second half, and concerns the frustrations encountered by the parents of a bright son whose education has thus far been limited to the local shul and whom they now endeavor to enroll in high school. They are defeated in one way or another at almost every turn by differing quota systems, all severely limiting Jewish enrollments. Eventual success brings a new twist.
"The High School" is a lovely story and holds us on the stage, particularly in the performance of Sally-Jane Heit as the insistent wife. Gilford is believable, and often quite amusing, as the fussy businessman-husband whose motto has always been to proceed "cautiously and quietly" in all matters. But he is also just a trifle too dry, his playing the least but too muted. A fine comedian, he seems in too great reverence of his material and unwilling to take over as, say, his friend and fellow-interpreter of Aleichem, the late Zero Mostel, did with such panache.
This reserve on the star's part holds true even in the Chelm tale. It is compensated for somewhat by the sly and winning performance of Joe Silver as the evening's narrator (Mendele, the Book Seller), and as a sympathetic bandit in the shortest piece, "The Bandit," sandwiched between the Chelm story and the Peretz one.
Besides those already mentioned in a fairly large cast, attractive work is offered by Mitchell Jason as, among others, a high-school principal who mixes up names, and Renee Lippin as the wife who keeps getting the wrong goat, a condition explained by the village rabbi in a manner that makes the disappearance of Chelm and all its inhabitants perfectly understandable.
Milton Moss, with an assist from Pearl Lang ("stage movement"), has directed efficiently in a simple setting in which costumes and lighting serve to create a harmonious whole.
A mild evening of sentiment and humor - very mild until the concluding piece.
The cockeyed but loving vision of Sholom Aleichem is back on Broadway in a revival of Arnold Perl's The World of Sholom Aleichem. It opened, with the benign gentleness befitting its creator, at the Rialto Theater last night.
The original play was an idea by Perl and Howard DaSilva in the '50s, some time before Sholom Aleichem had the vast public following bestowed upon him as progenitor of Fiddler on the Roof.
This new World is altogether a quieter dramatization of the great Jewish storyteller; it lacks the Broadway pizzazz of Fiddler, but in its own quiet, ironic way it is probably closer to the heart of the essential Sholom Aleichem.
Yet that fidelity to the source and its spirit is not only the production's major virtue, it is also its inbuilt disadvantage. The simplicity of these stories, charmingly truthful in their wry fashion, can seem simplistic on stage. The mood is not quite right, the ethnic jokes take on the dying fizz of flat seltzer water, and the passion underlying the writing is somehow lost on the way to the theater.
The evening consists of three short sketches and, in the second half, a more extended one-act play, The High School. Some glue of continuity is provided by the character of Mendele the bookseller, who acts as a master of the small ceremonies.
It is a workable concept and the program is provided with more homogeneity by the presence of a trio lilting out appropriately ethnic music by Stan Free.
Perl is utterly faithful to his subject - he has caught his author's keen sense of the absurd, his quizzical outlook on life's oddities and injustices, his wonderful charity, his stoic yet also rebellious view of oppression. In short, the very qualities that have made this folk satirist so much loved. But is that theatrical?
After Mendele's first sales pitch for the author, we are offered A Tale of Chelm, that not altogether mythical city of foolish souls, and the story of its absent-minded and crazily logical teacher who sets out to buy a goat.
A brief anecdote, The Thief, follows, perceptive and amusing enough in its fashion, and then, what for many will be the evening's highlight, the spiritual tale of Bontche Schweig.
Bontche Schweig is the uncomplaining oppressed. On earth indignities are piled upon his shoulders, and now he has been called to Heaven for his final reward. At last he speaks, the soul of modesty and humility - and all he wants is...well, Sholom Aleichem must tell you that.
The most considerable story, as such, is The High School, telling of Aaron Katz and, more especially, his wife Hannah's efforts to get their son to high school through the enormities of the Eastern European quota system that restricted the number of Jews allowed in. The tale is given with economy and humor, but its quaintness while agreeable is scarcely revelatory.
On the plus side is the staging. It is described as being directed by Milton Moss, while the production is "under the supervision of Larry Arrick." Whatever, it came out all right at the end, and Karl Eigsti's settings are ingenious, tactful, and appropriate.
Joe Silver is the avuncular bookseller, who does sell perhaps a little too hard, Sally-Jane Heit is deliciously spirited as a Jewish momma, but the blessing of the evening is its star, the retiringly radiant Jack Gilford. For Gilford, love seems to be a way of breathing and harassment a way of life.
He is a very special performer, and is at his most luminous in the role he created in the original production, that of God's innocent, Bontche Schweig. Goodness is transformed into a passive moral force - and not by acting, but by being.
No Broadway season should lack Jack Gilford, and it's our good fortune that he has come our way twice during this one. Yet it's hard to leap for joy, because neither of Mr. Gilford's vehicles has shown off his talents to complete advantage.
The first, you well may not recall, was last summer's short-lived and best forgotten ''The Supporting Cast.'' The second, which opened last night at the Rialto, is a revival of Arnold Perl's ''The World of Sholom Aleichem,'' a grab bag of shtetl folklore that was a 1953 Off Broadway hit. Though a decided improvement over ''The Supporting Cast,'' ''The World of Sholom Aleichem'' also falls short as either a satisfying evening of theater or a full showcase for its star.
Mr. Gilford is splendid in this show. One just wishes that he had more to do and that everything else came up to his - and, for that matter, Sholom Aleichem's - level. Its title notwithstanding, Mr. Perl's gentle program of sketches and anecdotes contains only one dramatization of an Aleichem story - ''The High School'' - and it's only in that segment, which follows the intermission, that the star and his material come into sustained confluence.
''The High School'' is an almost Kafkaesque tale in which Mr. Gilford plays a grocery-store owner whose 15-year-old son, Moishe (Brian Zoldessy), hungers for a secular-school education. In a Russia of pogroms and quotas, it's no easy chore for a Jewish boy to achieve that goal. When Moishe's high exam grades and his father's bribes both fail to do the trick, the boy and his mother (Sally-Jane Heit) must leave home to search the country for some school, any school, that will admit Jews. And, of course, even when they find one, they learn that the promised land still remains out of reach.
Mr. Zoldessy's ever-sadder Moishe and Miss Heit's courageous mother are both well done, but ''The High School'' unfolds most touchingly on Mr. Gilford's face. When we first meet the father, he's a dictatorial, irascible self-made man - a model of comic fatuity as he lays down the laws of his household. But when he attempts to bribe the austere local school principal, Mr. Gilford begins to stammer, his eyes lose their twinkle and he becomes as pathetic as any groveling beggar. It is rending to watch this proud man wilt before his gentile tormentor - just as it is stirring, later on, to watch Mr. Gilford survive his ordeal to gain a new and fiercer kind of self-respect than the false pride he had lost.
If ''The High School '' captures the bite of Aleichem, which is to say both the tragedy and absurdist comedy of the Jewish experience, the rest of ''The World of Sholom Aleichem'' is a fairly bland introduction to Yiddish folklore. It may have seemed more exotic in 1953, before ''Fiddler on the Roof'' far more vibrantly disseminated the same folklore (as well as Aleichem) to a mass audience. Through no fault of Mr. Perl, his primerlike tour through the same material now too often seems like a decimated version of that musical.
Certainly ''Bontche Schweig,'' a sketch adapted from an I. L. Peretz story, has lost something. In this tale, Mr. Gilford repeats a role that brought him acclaim in 1953 - a man who goes to his heavenly reward after a life of Job-like suffering. Wearing a long, wispy beard and a dazed glare, Mr. Gilford gives us a forlorn image of terminal misery as he silently waits for the angels to bring him to judgment. When he says his single line at the story's end, he rises to the celestial dignity that becomes a man who, for all his heartbreak, ''never felt a moment's hate in his life.'' Up until the denouement, unfortunately, this fragile tale doesn't support either its length or dozen players.
The opening sketch, ''A Tale of Chelm,'' gives Mr. Gilford a few chances to show his great skill at mime: He struggles with invisible goats of both sexes, devours a piece of fruit, dances between villages. But the folktale itself, a mild farce about a village cursed with foolishness, is of interest only because it appears to be the precursor of Neil Simon's failed comedy of last season, ''Fools.''
The evening's stories are stitched together by the music of a three-piece band and by the narration of Mendele, the pushcart peddler, who is played with uncharacteristic perfunctoriness by Joe Silver. The production, directed by Milton Moss and ''under the supervision of Larry Arrick,'' is routine, with much of the uneven supporting cast proving closer in spirit to Broadway than to the shtetl. In the end, what we're really left with is the world of Jack Gilford - and only about a third of that lovely world, I'd say, at that.