Molly Picon's Return Engagement | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

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Molly Picon's Return Engagement

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Singer-actress Molly Picon was one of the great iron butterflies of American theater. Sarah Blacher Cohen's cut-and-paste stage biography doesn't quite do her life justice, but Renee Matthews is winning as the lead in Chicago Jewish Theatre's production, breathing some life into the leaden script. Picon began her career by singing for pennies on the trolley to make rent, then survived the death of vaudeville and Yiddish theater to star in Broadway shows and on the silver screen. She also survived her smothering if supportive mentor-husband, Jacob "Yonkel" Kalich, a Yiddish writer who specialized in melodramas, often vehicles for his wife, clotted with schmaltz. Matthews (who recently stole the show as an elderly pianist in Drury Lane Theatre Water Tower Place's The Full Monty) belts out Picon's trademark Yiddish tunes as if they'd been written for her and delivers tin-eared bits of dialogue as if they were pure dramatic gold. As the brilliant but cranky Kalich, Gerald H. Bailey is especially good at portraying the character's least attractive features: his emotional reticence, his thin skin, his crabbiness and low self-esteem. And Matthews and Bailey have a great chemistry as this mismatched but utterly codependent pair. Through 9/25: Wed-Thu 7:30 PM, Sat 2 PM, Sun 7 PM. Red Hen Productions, Kenneth LeTraunik Theatre, 5123 N. Clark, 773-728-0599. $30.

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