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A CurtainUp Review
Picon Pie

by Les Gutman

People were poor and it was hard to make them laugh.
---Molly Picon
Barbara Minkus as Molly Picon
B. Minkus (Photo: Carol Rosegg)
The real Molly Picon
M. Picon (Photo: AJHS)
Molly who?

If you have to ask this question, you are probably not part of the target audience for this loving examination of Molly Picon (Barbara Minkus). If you know who she is, and what she represents, you may well be inclined to take someone who doesn't with you to see it.

Molly Picon was one of the leading stars of Second Avenue, when it was known as the Yiddish Broadway. She was also, I think it is fair to say, the only one who attained a high degree of cross-over (that is, mainstream) attention. This bio-play, with music, documents her many successes and failures, both professional and personal. Her life is also of interest because it spans virtually all of the 20th Century, including her coming of age around the time of the First World War, living through the Depression and witnessing the Second World War from build-up to aftermath. Molly's life in the public eye waned over thirty years ago, after the illness and subsequent death of her husband and manager, Yonkel (Stuart Zagnit). Consequently, her popular familiarity is at least a couple of generations removed.

Picon Pie presents a fairly comprehensive journey through Molly's experiences, with its subject as tourguide. Often, it has the feel of the typical one-person show, but the enterprise is enhanced by the addition of the terrific Stuart Zagnit, principally as Yonkel but also in a variety of other characters. Typically, as Ms. Minkus starts telling us of an experience, it bleeds into a scene with Zagnit, frequently also shifting into song.

Both actors are infectious. Minkus, who bears a resemblance to the petite Picon both in looks and stature, is quite convincing. She has a fine, strong singing voice, and though blatant nostalgia is the order of the day in the script for this show, she almost magically rises above it. Zagnit is a perfect match, and together they are quite charming. The songs benefit from the live accompaniment of Carl Danielsen and Margot Leverett.

Matthew Maraffi's set is simple but more than adequate, as are Laura Frecon's costumes. (A trunk upstage center permits Ms. Minkus to transition from one to another, as called for, without leaving the stage.) Heather Layman's lights also serve the show well, though I should note that at the preview performance I attended, many of the light cues were a tad behind the actors, such that they repeatedly walked into shadows that were then illuminated. I am assuming this is a kink that will be worked out shortly, and not a (bad) design choice.

The downfall of the piece is in playwright Rose Goldemberg's predictable play. Although she should be credited for including enough Yiddish in the show to satisfy those who understand (and perhaps yearn for) it, without losing the English-speaking audience along the way, the content is strikingly unimaginative. This is a particular disappointment because we learn enough to know that a nuanced impression of Molly Picon would have been fascinating. Here, her conversation is so generic that I found myself waiting for the next song. In those songs especially, Minkus and, when given the chance, Zagnit, do brilliantly what the play itself does not.

Picon Pie
by Rose Leiman Goldemberg
Directed by Pamela Hall
with Barbara Minkus and Stuart Zagnit
Set Design: Matthew Maraffi
Costume Design: Laura Frecon
Lighting Design: Heather Layman
Musical Director: Carl Danielsen (piano) with Margot Leverett (Clarinet)
Running time: 2 hours with 1 intermission
DR2 Theatre, 103 East 15th Street (Union Square East/Irving Place)
Telephone (212) 239-6200
Opening July 15, 2004, open run
Mon, Thurs - Sat @8, Wed - Sat @3, Sun @1 and 5; $55.50
Reviewed by Les Gutman based on 7/9/04 performance

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