It's the classic immigrant story: fleeing religious/economic persecution, a family emigrates to America where they settle in a neighborhood populated by people from the same country (or even village) who speak the same language and follow the same religion and customs. Fast-forward a few years and the now-Americanized kids speak English, disregard their parents' faith and prepare to move out of the old neighborhood into the wider world. The parents, especially the patriarch, are dumbfounded and feel betrayed as the world changes before their (very) helpless eyes. [Above L-R: standing, Michael Bernardi, Michael Larson (musical director), Ed Schiff (director), Avi Hoffman and Gordon Stanley. Seated, Noreen Hughes and Susan Cohen DeStefano.]
That's the basic premise for Charles Gruber and Charles Goldman's play, Hanky Panky, now in repertory at the Grove Street Theatre in Montclair through May 6. Originally entitled The English Lesson, Hanky Panky addresses a conflict that arises in the Zuckerman family when the mother Rachel (née Ruchele) decides she wants to learn English so she can give a speech at her son's wedding to an American girl. Her husband Pincus is adamantly opposed, not so much because of the money she will have to pay upstairs neighbor Samson Levy for the lessons as for the idea that she is wiggling out from under his autocratic thumb to seek her own identity and independence. Egged on by her children, Jack (Yankele) and Rosa (Sasha Blima), Rachel digs in her heels and refuses to budge, even when Pincus moves out of the apartment and spreads scurrilous lies about his spouse. The kids enlist Pincus's younger brother Joe, a former actor on the Yiddish stage, to get the two back together, with poignant and hilarious results.
Only two of the eleven songs are by Gruber and Goldman; the remainder have been "borrowed" (and translated into English) from folk songs and such stars as Molly Picon ("A Bi Gezint", Al Jolson ("The Anniversary Song"), and Sholom Secunda and Sammy Cahn ("Bei Mir Bist Du Schayn"). All this gives an authenticity to the proceedings, a bit of schmaltz, if you will.
Unfortunately, the production feels flabby, the result of director Ed Schiff's failure to keep a firm hand on the action; there are too many "dead" spots in the comedic proceedings, which breaks the momentum and spoils the fun. Indeed, scene changes feel interminable; perhaps having the pianist play during these interludes would hold the production together better. In addition, the actors' deliveries vary a great deal in volume, with Michael Bernardi (Jack) and Noreen Hughes (Rosa) shouting much of their dialogue and Susan Cohen DeStefano (Rachel) sometimes speaking so softly that it's difficult to make out what she's saying. Everyone should emulate the decibel levels of Gordon Stanley (Pincus) and Avi Hoffman (Joe) who appear to be speaking like real people, not emoting actors.
The star of the show is Gordon Stanley who gives the stubborn Pincus humanity and charm. This is a man whose way of life is slipping away, a man who hasn't made much of that life, a man powerless in the face of change. He's concerned by the new names the younger generation has adopted (Zuckerman becomes Sweetman becomes Sugar), and he cannot understand why mamaloschen (Yiddish) isn't good enough for his wife. After all, they live among people who all speak the Old World tongue. When he spreads rumors impugning his wife's honor and divorces her by saying, "I divorce you," three times, we want to hit him, but by the final scene, Stanley garners our sympathy nevertheless.
Like a court jester, Avi Hoffman bounces in and out of the action, giving commentary on the partnership between nachos (joy) and tsuris (trouble) in everyone's life—even going so far as to find one present in the other! He cavorts nimbly around the stage telling us of a man who is "A Boarder by [His] Wife" and warbling the nonsense syllables in "Chiribim, Chiribom." He's a real throwback to the venerable Yiddish stage that flourished on Second Avenue in the first quarter of the 20th century!
Despite her soft voice and tentative delivery, Susan Cohen DeStefano offers a strong and poignant rendition of "I Love You Much Too Much," which she sings to her slumbering husband. As Jack, Michael Bernardi would do better to tone down his outrage in volume so we can sympathize with a young man who wants to move on in life but gets drawn into his parents' dilemma in spite of himself. As defiant daughter urging her mother to seek independence, Noreen Hughes also talks too loudly; instead of yelling at the poor woman, Rosa needs to support her mother more quietly, yet strongly.
The title, Hanky Panky, refers to the suggestive relationship between Rachel and her teacher that Pincus imagines is going on. That she does little to dissuade him from this idea shows just how much she wants him to notice her as a person, as a woman. Pincus thinks he can fix anything "With a Needle and a Thimble," but it's going to take Rachel's "Chance of [Her] Life" to teach the old man a few new tricks.
There is but one Yiddish theater left in New York, and very few people today speak mamaloschen (the Mother Tongue, literally), but immigrant stories are pretty much the same, regardless of the ethnicity, the language and the customs. And yes, every life contains nachos and tsuris, so we have learn to deal with it.
Hanky Panky will play in repertory with Still Jewish through May 6 at the Grove Street Theatre in the Deron School, 130 Grove Street, Montclair. There will be weekday and weekend evening performances and Saturday and Sunday matinees. For information and tickets, call 973.558.3116 or visit www.apricotskyproductions.com.