Preaching to the Converted

Two Cleveland offerings: one for the status quo and one for radical chic.

The Clue in the Old Birdbath Pilgrim Church, 2592 West 14th Street. 216-661-4301. Through November 6.
Permeating the crisp October air, along with the mulled cider and burning leaves, is the alternating aura of status quo and tongue-in-cheek subversion. Cleveland theatergoers of opposing values have a chance to satiate their interests with two current productions.

At the Jewish Community Center, paunchy papas and slightly graying mamas in Saks sweaters, who made their first temple vows somewhere between Pearl Harbor and Korea, are beaming their way through Crossing Delancey by Susan Sandler. Here is another "oy vey" comedy that Jewish community centers like to put on between revivals of Fiddler on the Roof and The Rothchilds.

This is the ideal kosher balm to bolster anyone's disgruntled parents, as it affirms the sanctity of old-world values, the wisdom of bubbie (grandma), while saying phooey to the false promises of assimilation and female independence.

This unassuming, pleasant comedy picked up a lot more needed heft in its 1988 film version, which starred a too-pretty Amy Irving. For a work that premiered in 1983, it's audaciously reactionary yet somehow as comfortable as an old slipper. It speaks of a benevolent universe that has a brisket in every oven and a Mr. Right behind every pickle barrel.

Grandma, played by Elaine Rembrandt, is flitting and rambunctious in a remarkably synthetic gray wig, borrowing her cast-iron nasal Yiddish inflections from scratchy radio recordings of Gertrude Berg in The Goldbergs. She dispenses wisdom taken from Jewish fortune cookies ("You want to tame the monkey, you gotta climb the tree").

Toni Fromson, as her confused granddaughter Isabelle (Izzy), enacts a lovesick owl dazed by love's sunshine. She performs a clumsy mating dance between Kevin Joseph Kelly's golden goyish peacock and Brian Zoldessy's earnest kosher wren of a pickle merchant.

Calling for a drumroll, then a crash of cymbals, is Ruthie Grant Friedman's matchmaker -- the evening's hurricane life force. Frantically pinching cheeks, popping her fried-egg peepers, she's Margaret Dumont and Fanny Brice rolled into a Fabergé gargoyle, served up as a Halloween heirloom.

Director Fred Sternfeld specializes in ladling out this brand of schmaltz. He's got the recipe down to a science. He choreographs every shrug and exasperated grimace as an effortless link in a tradition dating back to the days of B.C. vaudeville, when Abraham exclaimed to his unmarried son Isaac: "You're not married, you're a bum!"

We were prepared to dismiss a play where a girl finds love through the efforts of a matchmaker as dated as Great Aunt Eloise's snood, until we got a missive in the mail from Matchmaker International, informing us that "quality people are hard to come by, and chance encounters are not safe . . . that is why we screen all our applicants before we introduce them to you" -- proving once again that life imitates art.

On the other side of the cultural equator, in Tremont, in the homey Jesus-in-tennis-shoes ambiance of Pilgrim Church, the merry anarchists who command Red Hen Productions are perpetrating a gleeful cultural subversion in the guise of a musical spoof. The Clue in the Old Birdbath is proving to be catnip for the robust, unadorned, unescorted females in attendance. Unfolding is a musical demolition by Sandra de Helen and Kate Kasten of Carolyn Keene's nubile teen detective Nancy Drew, here renamed Tansy True. Here, adolescent literature's beacon of girlish pluck and ingenuity is rendered into a salty, torpedo-breasted assassin of male domination.

With an all-female cast, the work is teeming with neon lesbian subtext and carnal allusion. "Call me Manish Joe" is the battle cry of Tansy's closest friend. "Jeepers! Let's go for some tramps in the wood" is one of the dozens of archetypal double entendres to come out of Tansy's lubricious lips. At last, a just rebuttal to a plethora of midnight male drag shows chronicling Joan Crawford-type divas in heat.

Director Karen Gygli and her ardent assistants make giddy ambrosia out of some well-selected paraphernalia, including nifty spike heels, Hedda Hopper chapeaux, packing crates, and a birdbath doubling as Nancy's roadster. Some high-powered little misses -- particularly Gretchen Thomas, Liz Huff, and Elizabeth Wood -- weave the illusion of nutty dames playing both sides of the gender fence. On the fem side, in their polka dot Junior Miss dresses and negligées, they enact teen starlets out of Photoplay magazine. Demonstrating their versatility, on the butch side, they evoke a quivering Don Knotts henchman and a bulgy-eyed Peter Lorre mad scientist. Amanda Krupman's Tansy is a ripe peach, all pout and simmer, hurling her 3D torso about as a dangerous weapon. The whole event is crisp and cheesy, sublime junk food: Ritz cheese crackers from a deluxe vending machine.

To quote from one of Carolyn Keene's Nancy originals, The Mystery of the Tolling Bell (won by this jubilant critic at the Red Hen raffle):

" "Mysteries!' Ned exclaimed, turning out the lantern. "Haven't you had enough of them?'

"Nancy was sure she never would."

Neither would we.

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