Friday, February 29, 2008

'Jewtopia' at Florida Studio Theatre

Oy to the World
Jewishness is a groove. The Jewish dating scene isn’t.

“Utopia,” according to philosopher Sir Thomas More is an ideal civilization without any lawyers. “Jewtopia,” according to playwrights Bryan Fogel and Sam Wolfson, is an enchanted kingdom containing 500,000 unattached Jewish women. (i.e., JDate, a website for Jewish singles.) Chris O’Connell (Patrick Noonan) leads his friend, Adam Lipschitz (Brandon Beilis), into that realm on a quest for the ideal Jewish Princess Bride. It’s Chris’ quest too. Adam, a non-observant Jew, wants to find a nice Jewish girl to please his family. Chris is a gentile of Irish-Catholic extraction who has converted to Judaism. He wants to find a nice Jewish girl who will relieve him of the burden of decision-making. Forever.

Adam’s Jewtopian journey becomes a series of bad dates. There’s the Hassidic lovely who sprays a can of Mace in his face; a high-energy, non-stop talker who dances him off his feet; and a sports maniac—155 dates in all, all hilariously played by Jessica Smolins. To further complicate matters, Chris-the-convert thinks that Adam isn’t Jewish enough—and pressures his friend to dress up as four different Jewish personas: a “Fiddler on the Roof” refugee; a manly Jew who likes football, sweating and beer; an art school Jew with an Edwards Scissorhands haircut; and a hyper Jew who dances like a loon. Adam’s romantic quest fails.

Then Adam emerges from Jewtopia, winds up in the hospital and finds the right girl, Rachel (Leanne Cabrera). OK, she’s a Buddhist from Mongolia, but she’s a doctor! Chris has already found his girl, Allison Cohen (Smolins again). Along with Jewish soul mates, the Gen-X guys find every possible Jewish stereotype—including Jewish stereotypes of gentiles. (Such as, “Top Ten Traits that Identify You as a Goy,” which include taking less than an hour to say goodbye and NASCAR fandom.) All seems well, until Adam and Chris and their fiancées celebrate Passover Seder with Adam’s family. Why is this night different from all other nights? Because it’s the Seder from hell. Adam’s mother isn’t happy that his bride is a member of a different tribe (although Rachel brightly points out the many cultural parallels). Pre-bris Chris exposes his Irish identity. Through it all, Adam’s sister (Smolins in hilarious redux) boils with bratty adolescent angst at the children’s table, dropping f-bombs and rude gestures whenever it’s her turn to speak. (Why do we dip the bitter herbs? Why can’t you stop controlling my life?) Everything that can go wrong does, and then gets worse. In the end, the kids get married and everybody’s happy.

Jay Berkow directs with the verve and rhythms of stand-up comedy. (Fittingly, as Fogel and Wolfson’s play was born as sketch material.) Beilis and Noonan click nicely together as the two male leads. As supporting players, Smolins (as bratty sister, the J-Date babes and Adam’s bride) always steals the show; Bonnie Black puts a woman-on-the-verge-of-a-nervous-breakdown spin on two different Jewish mothers; Jon Kohler keeps his head down as Adam’s Jewish dad; Peter Levine makes for a slightly off-center rabbi; Cabrera plays her character totally straight with loads of gravitas—and it’s a stitch. Nayna Ramey's clever set (which resembles the JDate website) is a comedy-creating character in its own right. Did I mention this play is funny?
It’s funny. There, I mentioned it.

Is it culturally sensitive?

Nah. This play has a few stereotypes. I’m lying. It’s stuffed with stereotypes. It’s like the stateroom scene in the Marx Brothers where every conceivable stereotype has been packed into a tiny room. Some reviewers have referred to this as Borsht Belt comedy. Or broad comedy. They don’t get it. It’s broad comedy, but smart broad comedy, in the tradition of Mel Brooks, the early Woody Allen and Lenny Bruce. The play isn’t cramming people into narrow definitions of identity to make fun of them. The narrow definitions of identity are the joke. Is Jewishness a religion, an ethnicity, a culture? All of the above and none of the above.

In the end, the characters burst out of the tiny room. Chris reveals the epiphany that drew him to Judaism—a Hasidic wedding where everyone knew the words to a song and joined in, one at a time, like characters in a musical. Fulfilling his dream, one by one, the characters on stage start singing (with Adam on guitar) in a loopy, Adam Sandlereseque groove. Chris joins in and gets his definition of Judaism.

It’s a groove.

Short version:
A Jew and a Gentile walk into the Internet

Through March 28
Florida Studio Theatre
1241 North Palm Ave., Sarasota

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