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Moscow: The Ultimate Borscht Belt?

April 28, 2011 By:
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Comrade comedy? Phil Rosenthal directs star Ray Romano in "Everybody Loves Raymond," which has found a home in Russia as "The Voronins." Photos by Nicholas Weissman

 

After a nine-year run on CBS, "Everybody Loves Raymond" was beloved, adored, admired -- but adapted?

Only after creator/exec producer Phil Rosenthal decided to bring "Raymond" -- which dominated the network's comedy bloc -- to the former Eastern Bloc did he realize that being bullet-proof was not enough when engaged in a game of Russian roulette.

To Russia, with love -- from Russia ... nothing but nyet.

But who knew a borscht belt could be funny, even as it's being used to whip an interloper into shape?

Such is the very comical lesson of "Exporting Raymond," Rosenthal's quip pro quo of what it meant to bring his famous sitcom into a situation he was totally unprepared for: The Russians are coming, the Russians are coming ... to destroy your series!

Opening at area Landmark theaters on April 29, "Raymond" showcases a different kind of red scare -- the flushed face of Rosenthal as he faces close encounters of the red-tape way of doing things, a system in which "rush" is defined as "delay" in the Russian dictionary.

"When it was suggested that I bring 'Raymond' over, of course, I was flattered," recalls Rosenthal of producer Sony Pictures Television's overture.

"How could you not go?"

Maybe he should have floated the idea past Aeroflot first: A country whose heritage includes a former premier banging his shoe on the United Nations table to denigrate the United States doesn't make an American comedy an easy shoe-in for adaptation.

Was he blintz-sided? But, wait, Fran Drescher's whine before her time in "The Nanny" and a couple of other American domestic shows had been exported successfully. Why not Marie and Frank Barone, the noxious nudnik parents who bug their sons and daughters-in-law without need of wiretaps?

What could be better insurance of success than a nine-year run? How about "K & R" insurance to guard against the ultimate hostile takeover -- kidnap and ransom. "I was advised to take it," concedes Rosenthal.

What Rosenthal really had to fear was having his scripts held hostage. "Talk about being a stranger in a strange land," reasons the writer/producer.

His environment isn't so strange at the moment, ensconced in a comfy corner table at a luxury Center City hotel.

"Raymond" has been very, very good to the Queens native with a king's fortune on hand. "I consider myself very lucky to have had any success at all," says the erstwhile actor ("I was not good at it"), who previously wrote "Down the Shore" -- teaming with friend/University of Pennsylvania graduate Alan Kirschenbaum -- and "Coach" before creating the show based on comic Ray Romano's act of Italian angst.

Who could be closer than Italians and Jews? smiles Rosenthal, who chipped in his own familyfarklemptness into the show. "They're crazy," he laughs. "Just like us."

And what could be funnier than this documentary, where the lead actor chosen to portray the Russian Raymond at first acts like he checked with Chekhov for line readings; the show's designer thinks the middle-class cast should be bedecked in clothes which would have wowed Nicole Miller; and unusual guest characters pop in periodically. (Putin to put in an appearance? Maybe with his shirt off?)

Rosenthal came to Moscow to document the transition from American to Russian and wound up with a hilarious take on what it took to be lost in translation.

But then the movie's producer/director/reluctant star's cast of dozens may be upstaged by his own parents, whose moment in the sun with their son is telling. "They have such a sense of humor," says Rosenthal, whose gift to them years ago of "Fruit of the Month" mailings was met with such sour grapes, they forced him to cancel their membership. (Its mention is in the movie as it was in the TV series.)

"After all," reveals Rosenthal, " 'Raymond' was home movies to us."

And, of course, so was his own home recordings: Wife Monica Horan portrayed Amy on TV's "Raymond," Robert's (Brad Garrett) wife.

She got the part easily, kibitzes Rosenthal: "She slept with the producer."

Better than sleeping with the enemy, which comes off to such comic effect from the officious bedside manner of the Russians. Would he do it again? Rosenthal pauses. Yes, he says, "but with lowered expectations."

C'mon, comrade, it all worked out; the Russian "Raymond" ("The Voronins") is so successful there may even be a five-year plan for its run. And Romano's reaction? "Raymond," says Rosenthal of the American star, "loves the series more than anybody."

And everybody does love "Raymond" wherever he goes, including Israel ("Everything gets resolved by food"), where Rosenthal, visiting, remembers thinking, "It's a lot like Hebrew school."

This aleph male in the "Exporting" business is making other moves as well; Poland has just bought "Raymond," as has the Netherlands. The writer -- his You're Lucky You're Funny: How Life Becomes a Sitcom(2006) becomes his urbane witty style -- is being kept busy with important non-"Exporting" work as well, including Broadway.

Or as he pithily puts it: "I have a hundred different projects in stages of nothing happening."

On the one hand, he's thrilled that Russia has taken "Raymond" to heart, on the other hand ... What would Tevye say about this marvelous misadventure of a business venture?

Rosenthal ponders a question not likely to break the top four heard at his seder table this year. "I'd say, he'd offer the rabbi's blessing for the czar," just a bit revised, for Rosenthal's Russian "Raymond" comrades:

"May God bless them and keep them -- far away from us!"

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