`Caf'e Crown': affectionate tribute to Yiddish theater types

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Caf'e Crown Comedy by Hy Kraft. Directed by Martin Charnin. ``Caf'e Crown,'' at the Public/ Newman Theater, is winningly old-fashioned. The comic characters are unabashedly comic. The jokes are generously distributed. The happy ending involves the necessary gesture of noble self-sacrifice that resolves all differences. Furthermore, by setting his action in the fictionalized version of a real establishment, the once-famous Caf'e Royale on lower Second Avenue, Hy Kraft authenticated his affectionate tribute to Yiddish theater types.

A leisurely introduction of Caf'e Crown familiars is interrupted by the center-stage entrance of David Cole, once a star of the vanishing Yiddish theater and now an impresario in search of a project. A figure of distinction, sartorial splendor, and glamorous panache, Cole immediately becomes the focal attraction of the Caf'e Crown regulars. Pride of place among the minions belongs to Hymie (Bob Dishy), loyal servitor and steadfast investor in Cole productions.

Cole is a man with problems. He and his wife, longtime costar Anna Cole (Anne Jackson), have become estranged. His daughter Norma (Laura Sametz) refuses any longer to play in Yiddish, and in fact has deserted her father's theater for the bright lights of Broadway. Cunningly abetted by Mr. Kraft, Cole discovers the work that will reestablish his reputation: a latter-day Jewish version of ``King Lear,'' which somebody describes as ``a simple tragedy - the story of parents and children.''

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For the title role, Cole chooses young Lester Freed (Steven Skybell), the product of another noted Yiddish acting clan. Does Lester, over Norma's strenuous objections, accept the role or does he respond to Hollywood's siren song as rapped out by high-powered agent George Burton (Walter Bobbie)? Mr. Kraft resolves everything in three acts that allow plenty of scope for Jewish humor, eccentric characters, and assorted schtick.

Martin Charnin has directed with an indulgent relish for the material and its folk-comedy possibilities. Mr. Wallach plays Cole with a seigniorial command appropriate to his lordly station in a once-proud domain. Miss Jackson matches him by portraying Anna as a woman of quiet humor and imposing presence. Mr. Dishy, a funnyman of great resource, makes the most of the play's comic Kraftsmanship.

The comedy itself is a Who's Who of incidental types. Among the more conspicuous in a numerous cast are David Carroll as a surprise Cole offspring, Harry Goz as an overproliferous playwright, Joseph Leon as an accommodating drama critic, Marilyn Cooper as his actress wife, Fyvush Finkel as an autocrat among waiters, Tresa Hughes as Caf'e Crown's genial proprietress, and Sydney Armus as a beggar who flails rather than beseeches. One and all, casuals and regulars, seem thoroughly at home in the congenial atmosphere of the 1940s setting created by costume and scenic designer Santo Loquasto and cozily lighted by Richard Nelson.

When first produced on Broadway in 1942, ``Caf'e Crown,'' with its knowing allusions, was part tribute and part nostalgic adieu to New York's once-flourishing Yiddish theater. The New York Shakespeare Festival's 1988 revival recalls a Broadway that itself has diminished and in many respects disappeared. How often nowadays does Broadway mount a straight play with a cast of 18? ``Caf'e Crown'' is a double reminder of eras past and therefore the more to be cherished.

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