Expanding on one of the meanings of the Hebrew word simcha, Howard Teichman and Ross Pavis have created a wickedly funny "celebration" in time for the holidays. Teichman plays the chief character of a mischievous beggar, Simcha, who earns his bread and herring by spinning amusing morality tales for the world-weary townsfolk. Despite the often hard times of impoverished shtetl-dwellers, the rascally beggar has a way of charming his hard-scrabble neighbors into taking on the roles in his stories. Reminiscent of the well-loved stories of Shalom Aleichem, Simcha's tales spread a pervasively modern patina over the seemingly familiar folktales, dealing with the verities of life, death, love, lust, needs, and desires with a tenderness and insight that brings them home tellingly and with genuine humor. "Folksy," in its accustomed role, doesn't apply here, because the all-too-familiar characters-the shrewish wife, the pure young maiden, the penniless suitor, the matchmaker, the beggar, and the wealthy conniver-are no longer the jokes of a fabulist but of a sharp reconnaissance lens focused on an up-to-date society. The 19th century villagers who are conned into enacting the short dramas are as guilty of self-recognition as the 21st century theatre audience.
Triple kudos to Teichman, also the director, who plays the indigent storyteller. He dances, he sings, he walks the walk in tremendous style, while his "actors"-far from just being conned into feeding a slightly larcenous beggar-are double-threats in three separate stories. Cheryl David as the ambitious mother and rancorous wife never falls over the cliché cliff, instead offering the perfect take on the mouthy matriarch. Shelley Kurtz is funny and adorable as a matchmaker and as the dead husband of the dryly witty Dorothy Sinclair as Nesha, his dead wife. As the darling juvies are the lovely Karla Menjivar and Daniel Kash. Manny Kleinmuntz, playing a Yiddish Theatre character if there ever was one, gets every one of his well-deserved laughs.
The beauty of the plays within the play is the unstrained ability they have to point out humanity's foibles and point the way to brave second chances for a community notoriously hidebound in its literary conventions.
Be careful what you wish for; you might get a thoroughly delightful evening.
Presented by Theatre 40 at the Reuben Cordova Theatre, 241 Moreno Dr., Beverly Hills. Thu.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 2 p.m. Dec. 1-18. (310) 364-0535.