- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 27, 2007

Most people find wandering into an alternate universe a disconcerting experience. For schlubby slacker Shlemiel (Thomas Howley), waking up in a mirror image of the town of Chelm proves a boon for his love life and his attitude in general in the slapstick haimish musical “Shlemiel the First,” directed with a smile and a schmear by Nick Olcott and Michael Russotto at Theater J.

Writer Robert Brustein borrows heavily from the traditions of New York’s Yiddish theater for this show, adapted from Isaac Bashevis Singer’s folk tales centered on the Polish town of Chelm (which means “the village of fools”). It’s about as subtle as a prune Danish.

Are there gherkin jokes — what, you had to ask? This is a musical with a running gag concerning a shrewish yenta (Donna Migliaccio, who cannily sends up the material while celebrating its cornball buoyancy) who smacks men with a giant pickle. Broad does not even begin to cover it. Any broader, and the show would have to shop at Lane Bryant.

Not that this is necessarily a hitch, especially if you long for the days of Fanny Brice, Sophie Tucker and Eddie Cantor — oy, now there was a tummeler.

If you are a devotee of klezmer music, especially that of the 1920s and ‘30s that mingles traditional Yiddish folk melodies with the libidinous wail of the clarinet, all the better.

One of the delights of “Shlemiel the First” is the vivacious, infectious score by Hankus Netsky and Zalman Mlotek, played to toe-tapping perfection by violinist Daniel Hoffman (who mischievously samples “Fiddler on the Roof” from time to time during the show), clarinetist David Julian Gray and pianist Derek Bowley.

Shlemiel the First” teems with vaudeville flourishes, beginning with Misha Kachman’s set, a kosher version of “Hee-Haw” with wooden planks, a big sunflower backdrop and laundry hanging on the line.

The costumes by Kathleen Geldard are equally obvious, with luxuriantly fake beards bedecking the chins of Chelm’s resident “sages” (actually, a cabal of chowderheads played with gape-mouthed aplomb by Rob McQuay, Fred Strother, Howard Stregack, and Matthew Anderson) that flip up to become brown curly mops when the actors portray the kvetching women of the town.

The head genius is Gronam Ox (Dan Manning, mugging and rolling his eyes like the second coming of the Ritz brothers) a stupendously clueless wonder who is so impressed by his intellect that he wants to spread his wisdom far and wide.

The ambitionless Shlemiel is chosen for this task, but the poor schnook does not get far from the outskirts of town before he is hoodwinked by Chaim Rascal (Mr. Anderson, in a dual role) into thinking there are two Chelms ” in fact, two of everything.

That includes his adoring, put-upon wife (Amy McWilliams, sensationally strident) who finds herself more turned on by her new husband than the original — and vice-versa.

Before everyone climbs back on the clue bus, Shlemiel and his wife renew their love for each other and even their children seem to scare up some newfound feeling for their papa.

Boning up on “The Joys of Yiddish” is not a bad idea if you are not of the Jewish persuasion, especially if you want to fully appreciate the tongue-twisting rhymes and double-entendres of Arnold Weinstein’s lyrics, which feature such gems as “Aye, there’s the rub/But he’s my schlub” and, most memorably, the comic genius of the song “Romania, Romania,” an encyclopedic recitation of everything that ends in “ia,” from Transylvania to Pennsylvania.

The repetitiveness of the gags and songs keeps the show from being a first-rate musical, but as a broadly entertaining look into the lengths to which people go to deceive themselves, “Shlemiel” puts the “oy” in joy.

**1/2

WHAT:”Shlemiel the First,” adapted by Robert Brustein from stories by Isaac Bashevis Singer, music by Hankus Netsky and Zalman Mlotek, lyrics by Arnold Weinstein

WHERE: Theater J, 1529 16th St. NW

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Saturdays, 3 and 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Through Jan. 20.

TICKETS:$15 to $50

PHONE: 800/494-8497

WEB SITE: www.theaterj@washingtondcjcc.org

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS