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Off-Off-Broadway Review

The Assistant

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The Assistant was only Bernard Malamud's second novel, but already it contained themes that Malamud would continue to examine through all his work: being a good Jew, sin, redemption, and all the moral ambiguities in between. In addition, he added another theme popular throughout American literature in the 1950s: the drifter who enters a static scene and changes the lives of all present. Now Martin M. Zuckerman has adapted the novel for the theatre; like many before him, Zuckerman has great difficulty in taming a novel's complexities to fit the two hours' traffic of a stage. While the story is an interesting one, in Zuckerman's well-intentioned telling it is a series of multiple short scenes that inch the narrative forward by slow degrees. Malamud's morality play cries out for a much bolder treatment, especially in the clashing of the story's two protagonists.

Morris Bober (Bern Cohen) and his wife, Ida (Susan G. Bob), run a modest grocery store in 1940s Brooklyn. The store is an anachronism in changing times. Their daughter Helen (Rachel Claire) works full-time to help her parents but has aspirations to improve her life. Enter Frank Alpine (Drew Valins), a drifter of dubious intentions, who seeks to become Morris' assistant. In a final attempt to stay financially afloat, Morris hires Frank, renting him an upstairs room above the store. Both parents worry about the welfare of their daughter as she becomes enamored of the new employee. So begins the battle: Morris' innate goodness versus Frank's ambiguous motives.

Directed by Elfin Frederick Vogel, the cast works hard to add character dimension in this too-straightforward telling of the story. The most successful is Cohen in his convincing and detailed portrait of Morris, the good Jew—Malamud would have approved. Valins as the sinner is much more credible as the conniver than as the redeemed man of charm and good intentions. Claire's attractive Helen adds some much needed warmth to the proceedings, and there is strong support from Stewart Steinberg as Morris' friend Julius and Diedre Lynn as a lively, impecunious customer.

Presented by Turtle Shell Productions at the Times Square Arts Center, 300 W. 43rd St., NYC. May 1–16. Schedule varies. (212) 352-3101, (866) 811-4111, www.theatermania.com, or www.turtleshellproductions.com.


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