'Sholom Aleichem' -- a charming success; The World of Sholom Aleichem Comic sketches by Arnold Perl. Starring Jack Gilford. Directed by Milton Moss.
New York — Who could be more at home in ''The World of Sholom Aleichem'' than the inimitable Jack Gilford? Nobody, that's who. So it is, as they say, a pleasure and a privilege to welcome back Mr. Gilford as the star of a beguiling entertainment in which he first appeared nearly a generation ago. At the Rialto Theater he heads the casts of the four sketches that Arnold Perl adapted from Aleichem's writings and other Jewish sources. The result is an evening of quiet pleasures and recurring rewards.
An aisle-strolling accordionist establishes the folkish tone of the occasion, sets the audience clapping rhythmically, and warms things up for the genial introduction by Joe Silver as Mendele, the Book Seller. What unfolds thereafter is a series of small tales and tall tales in a wryly humorous, sometimes touching vein.
The highlight of ''A Tale of Chelm'' is Mr. Gilford's comic miming as he struggles with a resistant billy goat in a series of transactions illustrating the monumental stupidity of the Chelmites. When the townspeople ask their rabbi why the sea is so salty, he attributes it to the abundance of herring in the water. In ''The Bandit,'' Mr. Gilford's Aleichem explains the precariousness of the writer's trade to a would-be thief (Mr. Silver).
The histrionic appeal of ''Bontche Schweig,'' by I. L. Peretz, lies in the eloquent quietude with which a dumbstruck Bontche reacts to his first taste of heaven after an earthly life of misery and deprivation. The Gilford delivery of Bontche's single line is a poignant conclusion to the beatific parable.
''The High School,'' the final work on the program, is also the most dramatically complex and substantial. Reverting to the days of czarist (as distinct from communist) anti-Semitism, it tells how grocer Aaron Katz (Mr. Gilford), after initial reluctance, doggedly battles the harsh quota system that would deprive his bright young son of a high school education. At first merely driven by his strong-minded wife (Sally-Jane Heit), Katz becomes a lion of defiant courage and determination. In the ironic finale, young Moishe (Brian Zoldessy) and his fellow Jewish and Gentile students join in a strike action against the quota system itself -- and grocer Katz faces a whole new problem.
The expensively mounted revival has acquired a Broadway gloss which occasionally seems almost at odds with the basic simplicity of the material. Besides those already mentioned, the production receives particular help from the performances of Arn Weiner as Father Abraham, Olivia Virgil Harper as Bontche's defending angel, and Mitchell Jason as a venal school principal. ''The World of Sholom Aleichem'' has been picturesquely designed by Karl Eigsti, with costumes by Pearl Somner and lighting by Robby Monk. Pearl Lang choreographed the stage movement. How I Got That Story Play by Amlin Gray. Starring Bob Gunton, Don Scardino. Directed by Carole Rothman.
Amlin Gray's ''How I Got That Story'' achieves a multiple exposure in more than theatrical terms. The two-man, 22-character satire at the Westside Arts Theater is at once the mocking tale of a naive newsman and a bitter caricature of American military adventurism in Southeast Asia. Its bark is worse than its intellectual bite. But Mr. Gray's writing is sword-edged.
Form and expression conjoin in this tale of The Reporter (Don Scardino) transplanted from the western part of East Dubuque to the TransPanGlobal wire service bureau in the capital of Ambo-Land (read Vietnam). The Reporter is Simple Simon with a press card, Candide as war correspondent. Armed with pad, pencil, tape recorder, and gullibility, the middle-American innocent plunges into his perilous and mind-bending adventure.
As The Reporter embarks on his assignment, Mr. Gray introduces an omnibus character dubbed The Historical Event, impersonated with awesome versatility by Bob Gunton. Mr. Gunton's performance is all the things that ''bravura'' and ''tour de force'' call to mind. In nimble succession, he acts 21 roles -- from gung-ho bureau chief to the profanest of field commanders, from self-immolating monk to battle-wise GI, from imperial Madame Ing to downtown bar girl, and from half-crazed combat photographer to guerrilla captor. East meets West in Mr. Gunton, who seems to be numerous when he is actually ubiquitous. He even does sound effects.
Through all of his encounters, The Reporter doggedly pursues his credo of seeing things straight and reporting them honestly. Scrape after scrape increases his bewilderment until he realizes that, instead of covering the country, the country is covering him. At last, having resigned as a reporter, he comes to inhabit a self-deluding fantasy that Ambo-Land is his real home. He even attempts to adopt one of its war orphans. It is a tribute to Mr. Scardino's clear-eyed acting that the eager-beaver tyro, however foolish, remains touching. In the end, The Reporter is reduced to the status of demented derelict, just one more human-interest subject for the battered photographer.
''How I Got That Story'' is protest play in terms of bleak black comedy. Moral outrage over the underlying causes of an Ambo-Land debacle lies at the heart of the playwright's sardonic view. There is no attempt at objectivity or impartial comment. This is a fiercely felt polemic. Contributing to the inventive theatricalism of the present production are Carole Rothman's direction , Patricia Woodbridge's flexible scenery, Carol Odits's functional costumes, Pat Collins's lighting, and John Lone's choreography.