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Enter, stage Livingston

Local actor engages in ‘Hanky Panky’ for return to roots (Nov. 3 performance sold out)

Stewart Schneck played Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof at Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell.
Stewart Schneck played Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof at Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell.

When he was a young man, Stewart Schneck set his course for a life in show business. A Livingston High School graduate, he received a BFA in acting and directing from Ithaca College in New York in 1977.

But after trying his hand in the profession for a decade — during which, he said, “I worked my way up from extreme poverty to absolutely nothing” — circumstances necessitated his help running the family insurance business.

So he redirected his career course — but never fully gave up the dream of his youth. Eventually, he did reactivate his love of the stage — and with a measure of success. Now he is set to play a role that, he said, is “squarely in my wheelhouse.” He will portray put-upon husband Pincus in a one-night-only staged reading of Hanky Panky, a comedy with music set in Brooklyn in the 1950s, to be held Wednesday evening, Nov. 3, at the Livingston Public Library.

And he will be playing opposite good company; Pincus’ wife will be portrayed by award-winning stage and film star Tovah Feldshuh and noted entertainer, director, and playwright Avi Hoffman.

But all those years ago, Schneck told NJ Jewish News, “I basically turned my back on acting. I didn’t even go to the theater for the next five or six years.”

About 10 years ago, however, he began “dabbling” in community theater. “I started to get really bitten again,” he said. “And then I decided, I’m getting old, why don’t I give it another shot?”

Schneck, now 55, returned to the arduous audition route and earned a part here and there in commercials, TV, film, and live theater. He also took the lead in a number of musical productions — most notably as Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof — at Congregation Agudath Israel of West Essex in Caldwell, where he and his family are members.

Schneck said he’s reached the age where he’s frequently cast in the role of a middle-aged Jew. Among his memorable roles were “Rabbi Conrad Singer,” the spiritual leader of Congregation Our Lady of a Thousand Mitzvahs, in A Match Made in Manhattan, the interactive Jewish wedding experience; “Jerry,” the older single Jewish guy in the rock musical Soul Searching; and “Herb” in Woody and the Heeb, about two fraternity brothers reunited after 30 years. Among his other credits, he has appeared in Bubby’s Shadow and The Last Jew in Europe at The Jewish Theater of New York.

Most recently, he was in a production of The Taming of The Shrew at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey on the Drew University campus in Madison.

Getting cast in Hanky Panky was bashert — fated — Schneck said. He was singing as a member of the Agudath Israel choir during High Holy Day services, when the tenor next to him — who knew one of the writers and the director of the play — told him he thought he would make a perfect Pincus. “So I got on the phone, made the audition appointment, I auditioned, and the rest is history,” Schneck said. “You never know where [an opportunity] is going to come from. It certainly does pay to go to shul.”

Hanky Panky was written by Charles Gruber and Charles Goldman and is directed by Ed Schiff of Livingston. In it Schneck plays the husband of Rachel, who speaks only Yiddish. In order to make a speech at their daughter’s upcoming wedding, she takes English lessons with a handsome neighbor, and a slew of screwball misunderstandings ensue.

“Theatrically, she’s my perfect wife,” Schneck said of his internationally acclaimed costar, who also originated the lead role in Golda’s Balcony on Broadway. “We look alike; we have a similar acting style. I think it’s going to be great chemistry.”

As Pincus, Schneck said, “I’m the real problem character. I create the mess,” a far cry from his real life. “I’m so totally averse to confrontation. I’m not the mess-maker, I’m usually the mess-cleaner.”

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