Ethnic Theater - Jewish
Dodger Stages, Manhattan
"Modern Orthodox" never made it first time around, when Daniel Goldfarb's play surfaced at Long Wharf Theatre in Connecticut several years ago. Goldfarb had a legitimate theme, posing Orthodox and secular Jews against each other. The play had the makings of a strong impassioned conflict or a riotous comedy.
Goldfarb aims for the latter, but his material is only mildly amusing. Examples of his humor: One character arriving late for an appointment--"I live by JST-Jewish Standard Time." Or a couple enjoying a blind date at a restaurant: "This place doesn't get any better-it's kosher Nuevo Latino."
What's the story here? Ben, a secular Jew, decides to marry his live-in girl friend Hannah. And, to that end, he meets with a diamond merchant to purchase an engagement ring. That merchant, an obnoxious Orthodox Jew named Hershel (whose every other word is, irritatingly, "Baruch a Shem"), soon insinuates himself into Ben and Hannah's lives, moving into their apartment. Hershel (played skillfully by Jason Biggs) has got to be one of the most unpleasant stage characters of all time. Yet the play's theme is well-intended. Goldfarb suggests that these disparate characters gradually learn from each other, and ultimately tolerance is the name of the game.
The 2004 production, now playing off-Broadway, looked more promising than the original, Goldfarb's material notwithstanding. The big guns brought to bear on the production were director James Lapine ("Sunday in the Park With George" and "Falsettos" on Broadway and numerous off-Broadway and film hits), and actors Craig Bierko (of "Music Man" Broadway fame) and Molly Ringwald ("Cabaret" and "Enchanted April" on Broadway and also film and off-Broadway successes). And Biggs, too, offered his own Broadway credentials, with "Conversations with My Father" and "The Graduate" on his list.
But, big names notwithstanding, the one who saves the day is a lesser-known comedienne named Jenn Harris, who plays Hershel's blind date and ultimate "bershert.
With her infallible sense of timing and delivery, this Carol Kane look-alike manages to make the most tepid lines hilarious. Yet both Ringwald and Biggs give a good account of themselves. Biggs runs with the character and Ringwald (as Hannah) brings a note of solid believability and vulnerability to her role. Only Bierko (playing Ben), normally a top-notch performer, seems ill at ease and wooden, as if he had inadvertently wandered into the wrong play. If Bierko doesn't like this so-called comedy in which he finds himself, our sympathies are with him entirely. This is not Jewish humor at its crackling best, and we can only think of Billy Crystal holding forth just down the road. A sad comparison.
-- Irene Backalenick
Dec. 19, 2004