Pierce Sparks ‘Space’; Idiots Rule in ‘Shlemiel’: Jeremy Gerard

David Hyde Pierce and Rosie Perez are a match made in comedy heaven, he the dour fussbudget, she the force of nature who will not be deterred.

If that sounds like the setup for an “Odd Couple” redux, well Molly Smith Metzler could do worse than Neil Simon as role model. Her play, “Close Up Space,” is the kind of zinger machine with heart that once filled Broadway theaters at matinee time and sent the paying customers home with a smile.

Hyde Pierce is Paul, a book editor and grammar pedant who can summon wrath worthy of Lewis Black over an Oxford comma. Perez is Vanessa Finn Adams, his best-selling author and meal ticket, who rather loves serial commas, not to mention abject fealty and available sex.

Vanessa, sorry to say, is tangential to the very slim plot of “Close Up Space,” which refers to both the proof-reader’s mark and -- need I say it? -- Paul’s extreme diffidence, particularly as it pertains to his daughter, Harper (Colby Minifie), prone to outrageous attention-getting acts since the death of her mother some years ago.

“Close Up Space” is a motley of quirksome characters brought together less by circumstance than by authorial whimsy. Also orbiting elliptically around Paul are Bailey (Jessica DiGiovanni), the new intern from Vassar, and Steve (Michael Chernus) the touchy-feely office manager who has camped out in the foyer for want of living space. He needs a hug.

Reality Check

Vanessa is the reality check (a terrifying thought) and Perez plays her to the hilt, whipping the moldering widower into action to reclaim his daughter’s love.

Performed without intermission on Todd Rosenthal’s cozy, arcadian-windowed set, “Close Up Space” comes perilously close to wearing out its welcome, especially for the wackiness-averse. Director Leigh Silverman deftly keeps the action unfolding at a clip. And how many plays feature in a critical role an opaque projector (the better for Paul to demonstrate his blue-pencil prowess)? The man does not want to know from Power Point.

Through Feb. 5, 2012 at City Center Stage I, 131 W. 55th St. Information: +1-212-581-1212; http://www.manhattantheatreclub.com Rating: **1/2

‘Shlemiel the First’

If you’ve had it up to here with dopey Christmas TV specials and the same three carols poisoning the atmosphere, “Shlemiel the First” offers the perfect antidote: dopey Jewish comedy.

Robert Brustein, eminent critic and founder of two of the country’s most important resident theaters, cooked up this stone soup in 1994. The story comes from Isaac Bashevis Singer’s “The Fools of Chelm and Their History,” one of many folkloric accounts of the real Polish city of Chelm and its infamously provincial Jewish community. In other words, a twofer -- an extended Polish Jewish joke.

Brustein enlisted for the project three brilliant collaborators: lyricist Arnold Weinstein, composer Hankus Netsky and director-choreographer David Gordon.

The story concerns Shlemiel (Michael Iannucci), dispatched by the great thinkers to spread the word that Chelm is home to the world’s wisest rabbis. Shlemiel gets quickly turned around and is convinced that the town he has returned to is a second Chelm, right down to the woman who foolishly thinks he’s her wife.

The touring company production at NYU’s Skirball Center is somewhat more like a shadow Chelm than the real thing (I saw the original, and it was delicious). But the story still has its rough charms and the klezmer orchestra, under the precise direction of Zalmen Mlotek, is joyous.

Through Dec. 31 at the Skirball Center, 566 LaGuardia Pl. Information: +1-866-811-4111; http://www.nyuskirball.org. Rating: **


What the Stars Mean:
****        Do Not Miss
***         Excellent
**          Good
*           So-So
(No stars)  Avoid

(Jeremy Gerard is the chief U.S. drama critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this column: Jeremy Gerard in New York at jgerard2@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.

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