Compassionate drama about seaside workers

North Shore Fish Play by Israel Horovitz. Directed by Stephen Zuckerman. ``It's only work, it ain't life,'' says handyman ``Porker'' near the end of Israel Horovitz's ``North Shore Fish,'' at the WPA Theatre. But Porker's summing up offers cold comfort to the discharged employees of the Gloucester, Mass., plant which has just processed its last filet. North Shore Fish has not only provided the livelihood but conditioned the lives of the mostly female staff assembled by Mr. Horovitz for a drama that relates trenchantly to other blighted sectors of America's industrial landscape.

``We're fish people,'' comments another character at one point. For generations, these women and their predecessors have processed and packed the sea's bounty. In bygone days, the fish were caught by Gloucestermen. Now they come from Japan. North Shore Fish is a finishing, labeling, and sometimes re-labeling operation. Its premises are about to be renovated into a business site with a physical-fitness salon and similar amenities.

Horovitz fills the numbered days of the plant with action and conflict, lively conversation, and bitter confrontation. Foul-mouthed, sardonic Florence (Christine Estabrook) resents not only the recent firing of her mother but the bullying and sexual exploitation of the women by Sal Morella (Thomas G. Waites), the macho plant manager. Sal drives the women relentlessly as he fights to make up the company's accumulating losses.

Meanwhile, there is plenty to occupy the women and the audience. Besides its rough repartee and ribald exchanges, the play explores the lives of these fish people. Senior employee Arlyne (Mary Klug) attempts occasionally to restrain her volatile coworkers; she also provides the memory bank that can relate North Shore Fish to the little world of which it is a part. ``If you're born on the water, you can't live anywhere else,'' says Arlyne.

Aside from the inevitable dust-up between Porker and Sal and the jolting arrival of a new federal inspector, the major event of ``North Shore Fish'' occurs when Arlyne's daughter, Ruthie (Cordelia Richards), gives birth to a baby girl in the offstage basement restroom. It is a moment of joy in an otherwise sad scene.

Along with the tautness of the writing and the tension of the staging, ``North Shore Fish'' displays an authentic human concern for its Italian-Americans. The suddenly idled workers are devastated but not beaten. Horovitz admires their spirit and treats them with the respect they deserve.

The fine cast includes John Pankow as the basically decent Porker, Wendie Malick as the no-nonsense federal inspector, Michelle M. Faith as a worker with weight and marital problems, as well as Elizabeth Kemp and Laura Giacomo. The production features a marvelously realistic setting by Edward T. Gianfrancesco, lighting by Craig Evans, and costumes by Mimi Maxmen. ``North Shore Fish,'' which premi`ered at the Gloucester Stage Company, where Horovitz is artistic director, is scheduled to run through Feb. 1 at the WPA Theatre. Panache! Play by Ron Mark. Directed by Stanley Brechner.

Happiness is a thing called schmaltz in the new comedy being presented by the American Jewish Theatre at the 92nd Street Y. ``Panache!'' by Ron Mark, concerns the belated 1978 stage debut of Shmulke Coldwater, a 68-year-old Chicago shoe store owner with a lifelong suppressed ambition to play Cyrano de Bergerac. Nearly half a century previously, his career was cut short when a heartless producer (Yusef Bulos) fired Shmulke as the young actor was about to debut in the classic Rostand role.

Shmulke (Sam Gray) has his ambitions stirred anew when the ghost of his dead brother (Sol Frieder) returns - `a la Jacob Marley - and warns his sibling what will happen in the hereafter if he fails to keep faith with his dreams while on Earth. With cajolery and $42,000 in life savings, Shmulke persuades his old nemesis to let him appear for one night of glory as Cyrano. The animated thespian also adopts a precocious black waif (Richard Parnell Habersham), needles his bashful nephew (Stephen Gilborn) into kissing a girl (Ann Sachs), and has a brief affair with a psychiatrist (Rebecca Schull) the nephew has called in to straighten out his crazy old uncle.

Mr. Mark's comic fantasy revels in the familiar ingredients of such fictions: slanging matches between the principal characters, sure-fire dramatic touches, and Yiddish colloquialisms. The script abounds in lines like, ``Since I'm not talking to you anymore, I'll tell you something else...,'' and ``I wish I could die - that's what I live for....''

The cast directed by Stanley Brechner endows the corny make-believe with an air of cheerful stage credibility. When it comes at last to Cyrano's death scene, Mr. Gray achieves a certain elation without ever suggesting that the theater lost a great actor when Shmulke was banished to shopkeeping. Call ``Panache!'' a very modest feather in the American Jewish Theatre's cap. The production (which runs through Feb. 22) was cleverly designed by Daniel Proett (scenery), Victor En Yu Tan (lighting), and Don Newcomb (costumes).

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