“Amateur” doesn’t need to be a dirty word. When viewed as an adjunct program of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum (and serving the same educational function as those short video features that are now a staple of museum and gallery exhibitions), the sincere if artless “A Stoop on Orchard Street” serves as an affectionate tribute to the immigrants who poured into New York in the 1900s, fleeing poverty and persecution in Eastern Europe. If nowhere near as spectacularly scaled as those giant outdoor dramas that re-create local historical legends in Southern and Midwestern states, it nevertheless pays its modest respects to a mighty city’s unsung ancestors.
Of course, if you’re looking for theater art, keep walking. For all its honorable intentions, Jay Kholos’ saga of the Lomansky family and its colorful tenement neighbors at 97 Orchard St. neglects no plot cliche and leaves no stereotype unexplored. Papa Lomansky is a morose fellow who abandons the family; mama is a long-suffering saint; sister is blossoming into a lovely young woman; little brother dreams of going into vaudeville; grandma is a kvetch; and grandpa is dead.
Whatever tribulations the Lomanskys contrive to avoid are visited upon their neighbors. One goes to jail and one goes into the fashion industry; another loses his sweetheart when she is quarantined at Ellis Island; yet another turns his pushcart into a thriving business.
Granted, these are the authentic dramas of countless real-life immigrants, recorded for posterity at the museum, where Jason Lee Courson’s sets and costumes, evocative in their simplicity, would also not be out of place. But Kholos, a TV writer with legitimate credits (“The Dick Van Dyke Show,” “The Red Skelton Hour,” “The Jack Benny Show”) dramatizes his stories so broadly, and in such banal language, that the life is drained right out of the men and women who lived them.
And that’s exactly the way the actors play them, as flat cartoon figures defined by their superficial characteristics. Kholos confers more individuality on his characters through his songs, whose serviceable melodies and straightforward lyrics are no more subtle but far less strained than the dialogue.
The arrangements, however, tend to be soporific — except for upbeat novelty numbers like “Lipschitz,” in which the men of the neighborhood sing out in defense of their tongue-twisting nomenclature, and “The Bubbies,” in which the Nannies and the Grannies and the Nanas and the Nonnas collectively rise up from their graves to pass on a lifetime of wisdom and “5,000 years of nonstop guilt.”
In the same way that an occasional witty lyric offers a glimpse of the original thought that Kholos is capable of, a haunting melody like “I Remember When” is a constant reminder of his capacity for honest sentiment. With appropriate lyric variations, the tune is repeated throughout the show as the theme song of the narrator.
Tenderly played by Lon Gary (who should only have directed with the same sensitivity), the Old Man speaks with dignified restraint, sings with unaffected feeling and makes us wish he would sit down on the stoop and just tell us the story of the whole neighborhood in his own quiet, unassuming way.