A new play “60,000 Heroes,” from the pen of Benjamin Ressler is on display at the Yiddish Folks Theatre, where the New York Art Troupe makes its home. Whatever opinion there may be about the play itself, one thing is certain. It does show that Joseph Buloff is a superb actor and that without his presence the theatrical fare offered Saturday evening would have made a mighty slim dish for any audience.
According to the program notes Mr. Ressler’s object was to write a modern satire in terms of medieval Jewish life. What he actually succeeds in giving us is a slice of unmistakable ghetto life, which might as well have been written of the Polish ghetto or any other ghetto, for that matter.
The Crusades are under way when the play opens and the ghetto is painfully aware of it. Paltiehl, dreamy and youthful, wants to fight the Turks and help regain the Holy Land. His parents and his future father-in-law want him to marry and settle down. He gives equivocal answers to the demands of his parents and is left alone with his future bride.
ENTER A CRUSADER
He is telling her he loves her, but does not want to marry her immediately, when a drunken Crusader in search of Jewish girls comes along. Miriam runs away, but Paltiehl remains and tries to persuade the burly Crusader that he is also one of the “boys,” who disguised himself in Jewish clothes to make it easier to approach Jewish maidens. He drinks with the Crusader and the two fall into a drunken sleep.
He dreams he has gone to the camp of the Crusader as Prince Paltiehl ben Yechiel and offered them the services of “60,000 Heroes” from the imaginary country his father rules, if in return they will give him a part of the Holy Land. In the meantime Cunegonde, daughter of the leader of the Crusade, falls in love with gentle Paltiehl, so different from the brutal Crusaders. Paltiehl’s offer is accepted and he returns to his home town with a guard of Crusaders and conscripts the woebegone Jews to fight the Turks.
His idea of military strategy is to ask God for a miracle. The Jews, fired by Paltiehl’s fervor, finally face the Turks with determination. The miracle occurs and the Turkish army is destroyed when crossing a frozen river. The ice breaks and the Turkish army is no more. When the rich Turkish city is captured, a quarrel breaks out between the Jews and the Crusaders and Paltiehl’s father is killed.
Grief-stricken, he sends the Jews home, releases the Pasha who is his prisoner and drives the Crusaders away. They return to the camp with the Pasha and declare Paltiehl is a devil. Cunegonde and a band of Crusaders go to the Turkish city and find him asleep. They accuse him of being an evil spirit and finally permit him to leave. He awakens again in the market place of his home town, and the drunken Crusader, who also awakens at the same time, robs him of his trousers.
His parents and other Jews find him sitting there and he is induced to give up his vain dreams and marry Miriam.
This is the bald and rather uninviting outline of the play. Diffuse and confused, the play offers some excellent scenes, much humor of the accepted Jewish type and some very silly melodrama of the very heavy kind.
The saving grace, however, is the fine acting of Buloff, who not only acts the difficult principal role in the play, who also directed it. It is a role that in the hands of a less capable actor would have inevitably turned to burlesque. But in Buloff’s interpretation it becomes a superb presentation of the idealistic, dreamy type of Jewish ghetto youth with his physical weakness, his tendency to quibble about shadings of meaning, his boundless capacity for dreams, a certain type of glibness and a complete ignorance of everything outside the limits of the tiny ghetto.
In the supporting cast the work of Lazar Freed as the Lemel, hunchback and simpleton, and that of Luba Kadison as Cunegonde stand out. The rest of the company was adequate, but there is no doubt in this reviewer’s mind, at least, that it was a Buloff evening at the Folks Theatre on Saturday evening.