A Modern Take on King Lear

“King Levine,” a two-act comedy at the Odyssey Theatre, is propelled by a fairly ingenious concept. Playwright Richard Krevolin has transformed Shakespeare’s King Lear into an elderly, self-made business tycoon, who reigns supreme as the frozen-bialy monarch of America.

(Krevolin, who teaches screenwriting at USC, defines the bialy as the bagel of the new millennium.)

At 77, though still virile enough to be slapped with a sexual harassment suit, the widowed Levine believes it’s time to relinquish some of his business chores and large shares of stock to his three daughters.

The three offspring are something else. Rikki, the severe, professional oldest, has an MBA from Wharton and is a walking compendium of Economics 101 clichés. Bobbi, the middle one, is flighty and bubbly, drawn to each new fad like a moth to a flame. And Jami, the youngest, is a self-proclaimed “radical dyke,” who wears her lesbianism, tattoos and four-letter vocabulary like medals in her war against bourgeois pieties.

Following the original, Levine/Lear asks each daughter to say something nice about him, as he turns over parts of his empire. The two older daughters comply, but Jami curses the old man as a capitalist exploiter and neo-Nazi.

The charade is barely over when Rikki, wielding the sexual harassment suit like a cudgel, pushes her father out of the business and into the Cornwall Jewish Home for the Aged.

So much for the first act, in which Sammy Shore essays the title role, and Bari Hochwald, each of the three disparate daughters in turn.

Shore, founder of the Comedy Store in Hollywood, owes much of his reputation as a warm-up act for headline entertainers, from Elvis to Barbra. In line with this specialty, Shore plays King Levine at a frantic, almost desperate pace, leaning heavily on Jewish shticks and alternating toupees.

Hochwald is more subdued and proves herself a notable quick- change artist in her three roles, but, even here, the play’s protagonists come across as caricatures.

Fortunately, in the second act, the knockout pace slows down. The radical Jami and her father discover their long-repressed affection for each other, and she abets his breakout from the “old Jew jail.”

Thanks to this King Lear plot turn, and Joe Bologna’s direction, Shore and Hochwald are allowed to escape the frantic verbal barrage and show some genuine human sentiments.

Despite heroic efforts, Levine can’t regain control of his bialy business from his scheming older daughters. But since this is Hollywood, and not the Old Globe, he gets a second chance to plan for a new empire of his own.

“King Levine” continues at the Odyssey through April 4. For reservations, call (310) 477-2055.