Presented by and at the 78th Street Theatre Lab, 236 W. 78 St., NYC, Nov. 13-Dec. 21.
"Schmaltz" has a sly way of sneaking up on the viewer. It begins with a husband and wife bickering about his compulsive eating habits. (He is enjoying a huge snack at 3 am or thereabouts!) The wife decides to solve his problem by way of hypnosis, taking him into his past. At this point, one is likely to find the story silly and trivial. One's immediate reaction: Who cares?
But as the stories unfold, going deeply into the family history, it becomes a moving, and often hilarious, tale. Both Mark Zeller and Dana Zeller-Alexis (a husband-wife team) skillfully play several roles, including the onstage husband and wife Benny and Irina. One suspects that Zeller, who wrote the script, has incorporated more than a little biographical material.
The scene in which Benny's mother and father emerge as owners of a small Catskill hotel is powerful, revealing the father's preference for his older son, Heshie, and the mother's love for Benny. This is written and performed so perceptively that one wishes Zeller had expanded it into a complete, straightforward play.
But later scenes are also worthy. Food—glorious Jewish food—is at the core of the story, particularly chicken fat (schmaltz) smeared on pumpernickel bread with a slice of onion.
Zeller resolves the family story in a funny, poignant final scene in which son Heshie gets his comeuppance. He tries to wrest the family home from his aging, addled mother, who barely recognizes him when he arrives at her door: "Heshie, aren't you dead?" "I'm not dead; I'm double-parked outside!" In a delicious turnaround, Heshie's plans for real estate development are thwarted by his mother. She proves to be a shrewd businesswoman and a rescuer of Benny.
Moreover, this journey to the past also rescues Benny from his eating disorder. All told, under Eric Nightengale's direction, an affecting 90 minutes of theatre.