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The Conversion of Leo Novotny

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The Conversion Of Leo Novotny, Piven Theatre Workshop, at Noyes Cultural Arts Center. I don't know how Chicago playwright Alan Gross has been spending his time since he made a considerable stir with Lunching and The Man in 605. But I doubt much of it has been spent on The Conversion of Leo Novotny, a trite little holiday fable about an old Jewish store owner and a black barbershop preacher on the west side in 1975.

Billed as a new play, The Conversion of Leo Novotny feels like a sketch that's been sitting in a drawer for some time. It covers all-too-familiar territory--black mistrust of Jewish merchants, Jewish fear of the black community--through didactic and circumlocutory conversations that add nothing to the debate. After the two characters are brought into conflict--the old Jew calls the cops on the preacher because of the racket his parishioners make in the church--their ultimate reconciliation and mutual understanding is painfully predictable and contrived. You could call this play The Jew Who Stole Christmas.

Director Chuck Smith does what he can to stretch this one-act to 80 minutes--he maintains a sluggish pace and includes a 15-minute silent opening sequence, in which the two characters go about their morning rituals while klezmer and blues music fight each other, and several gospel numbers performed by the excellent Tate Singers. But despite the fine work of Byrne Piven and Cedric Young (in unconvincing age makeup) in the lead roles, Smith can't turn Gross's slim argument into a play.

--Adam Langer

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