Yiddish Actor Allen Lewis Rickman Comes to Philadelphia Area for ‘Sunshine Boys’

From left: Allen Lewis Rickman as Al Lewis and Carl Wallnau as Willie Clark (Photos by Mark Garvin)

You might recognize Allen Lewis Rickman from Boardwalk Empire, in which he had a recurring role as George Baxter, a salesman in Atlantic City, New Jersey.

Or from the Coen brothers’ A Serious Man, in which he played the Yiddish-speaking man in the prologue, alongside his wife, who played his wife in the scene. He also translated the Yiddish dialogue.

The New York-based actor is now in the Philadelphia area for a production of Neil Simon’s The Sunshine Boys at the Bristol Riverside Theatre, in which he plays Al Lewis, one of the two leads. The show runs until March 31.

The Sunshine Boys follows two men, Al Lewis and Willie Clark (played by Carl Wallnau), who reunite in their 70s, years after a falling out ended their career together as a popular vaudevillian comedy act.

“It’s funny as hell, and it’s very touching,” Rickman said. “It’s not heavy-handed. You never feel like you’re watching an Ingmar Bergman movie or something, but there are some very deep themes underneath it. It’s about … making your peace with the end of your active life. It’s about, ultimately, at what point can you say, ‘Well, I’ve done everything that I’m going to do in the world.’”

Wallnau recommended Rickman for the role of Al Lewis when the director, Keith Baker, told him he could have input in the casting of that character. Wallnau and Rickman have a rapport working together and a similar comedic sense, Wallnau said.

“Right away, I said, ‘Well, the person who comes right to mind, who I think would really be good, [is] Allen,’ and we did a tape in New York and sent it in,” Wallnau said. “The rest, as they say, is history.”

Rickman has had a long career in theater, television and film, having been in productions such as Relatively Speaking on Broadway and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, in which he played real-life comedian Red Skelton.

He also portrayed Hitler for Michael Moore’s old television show The Awful Truth, in a bit satirizing the Swiss banks’ refusal to release Holocaust victims’ assets to their descendants, a hot-button issue in 1999 when the piece aired. For the episode, Rickman went to Zurich, where he walked into banks dressed as Hitler and asked if he could make a withdrawal from accounts he had opened there 50 years before.

“This was basically to provoke the Swiss, who had done terrible things, not with guns and gas chambers, but with paperwork, and basically embarrass the Swiss for what they had done,” Rickman said. “I’m not a huge fan of Michael Moore in a lot of respects, but he was very nice to me personally, and this was certainly something worth doing.”

Rickman also has done a significant amount of work in Yiddish theater.

He recently came off a production of an original Yiddish-language show called Tevye Served Raw, an adaptation of Sholem Aleichem’s stories.

Rickman learned Yiddish by listening to his parents. His father was a Holocaust survivor, his mother the child of immigrants and Yiddish was their first language. By the time he was about 10, he had started speaking it, he said.

Judaism, in general, was a big part of Rickman’s upbringing, as he attended a modern Orthodox yeshiva.

He started in theater because it was either that or get a job, he quipped. He fell into Yiddish theater because he already knew the language. He also writes translations of original Yiddish shows.

There is a part of him, he said, that wants to make sure the language stays alive for his parents. But he also just enjoys speaking it because of how fun and expressive the language is.

“The defining difference between Yiddish theater and non-Yiddish theater is the language,” Rickman explained. “People … think it’s a style of acting. It isn’t. Yiddish is a million different things, always was a million different things. Every possible style of theater was done in a Yiddish, and every possible style of theater was done successfully in Yiddish.

“When you do something with Yiddish now, the language is the musical soundtrack to the show. When you see it done well — like, for example, the Yiddish Godot that was done in New York a couple of years ago — it lends a flavor to the material that it wouldn’t otherwise have. It’s like it has some music playing underneath it, and of course, the feeling of authenticity. There’s something about it. It’s like it becomes the set or a costume. It’s what the actors are wrapped in; it’s the air they’re walking around in.”

Though he is probably best known for his Yiddish theater, his biggest passion is comedy, he said, so The Sunshine Boys is a great opportunity.

“It’s always interesting to do charactery stuff,” Rickman said. “A lot of acting is basically putting yourself in this situation or that situation with variations: What if I were myself but slightly more this kind of person or that kind of person? Whereas heavy character work, where you become somebody completely different — how you look, how you talk, how you walk — that’s more interesting and more fun.”

szighelboim@jewishexponent.com; 215-832-0729


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