One common theme, in theatre as in life, is that rifts can too easily form between people of different faiths, or between those who are faithful and those who aren't. Less commonly depicted are the Grand Canyon-sized differences that can crop up between conflicting members of any particular group; rarer still is when, within that group, those differences focus exclusively on love and sex. Aren't there bigger issues to tackle?
For Daniel Goldfarb, the answer is no. He works entirely within this sphere in his new play Modern Orthodox at Dodger Stages, examining the contemporary relationship game from a strictly Jewish perspective. If you're not Jewish, you don't have to worry - Goldfarb spends so much time trading in stereotypes and reflecting (and refracting) commonly held perceptions (accurate or otherwise) that you'll feel like an expert regardless of your religious background.
But if the good news is that Modern Orthodox is accessible to everyone, the bad news is that it's ultimately unsatisfying as both theatre and comedy. There's nothing wrong with sticking close to the surface; the season's other Jewish relationship comedy (so far), Jewtopia, shamelessly elicits peals of laughter from its audiences by ruthlessly skewering cultural stereotypes. For Jewtopia's authors, that's enough; Goldfarb wants more from his play, and can't quite deliver it.
For Goldfarb, the cultural and the religious are inextricably linked, so he begins with two men, Ben Jacobson (Craig Bierko) and Hershel Klein (Jason Biggs), at opposite ends of the spectrum: Ben is a self-described "high holiday Jew," Hershel is Orthodox in dress, speech, and behavior. Ben wants to buy a diamond ring from Hershel so he can propose to his live-in girlfriend of six years, Hannah; Hershel disapproves of the arrangement and professes waiting until marriage.
As they bicker, Ben's innate distaste for Orthodox Jews becomes evident, though Hershel seals the deal by removing his yarmulke to make Ben more comfortable. This sets off a chain reaction of events that soon finds Hershel living with Ben and Hannah (Molly Ringwald); after Hershel drives them both crazy with his demands - and after he makes advances on Hannah, misrepresenting a simple act of kindness as something more - Ben and Hannah conspire to marry him off just to get him out of the apartment.
The play is laced with languid laugh lines, ranging from time-tested ridiculousness (Ben to Hershel: "How do you say 'thin' in Yiddish?" Hershel to Ben: "There is no word for thin in Yiddish.") to faith-bending brazenness of the highest order (Ben, in frustration: "Jesus Christ." Hershel: "Who?"). At least a few chuckles - and likely some outright laughs - are guaranteed, and there's strong enough comic talent onstage to make even the most pallid punch lines land.
This is especially true of Jenn Harris, who arrives late in the show as Rachel, the woman Ben and Hannah find for Hershel (using jewdate.com, as befitting modern matchmaking). Harris, giving the season's driest and funniest comedic performance yet, is terrific as the quintessentially stereotypical Jewish woman, making Rachel's self-loathing quips ("You know how women are" and "I'm not very bright") less crudely comic than sardonically strategic; she and Hershel are practically engaged the moment they meet.
Less successful is Biggs, who misses the over-the-top avenues Harris finds so easily, and makes Hershel more of a caricature than a believable person. Bierko and Ringwald have no believability problems, but are less adept coping with the show's more stylized comedy; Bierko, serious to the point of stiffness, comes across as cruel far longer than is ideal, though he comes around in time, as must happen in this kind of play.
It's those kinds of shifts in attitude for Ben and Hannah, who begin only tacitly aware of their heritage and grow to embrace it more fully, that Goldfarb is most interested in, and that are the play's most successful, if predictable, aspect. Goldfarb carefully sketches out the reverberative effects of Hershel's stay with Ben and Hannah, which transform four lives before the play ends. Director James Lapine is sensitive to this and the show's jaggedly jaunty humor, and manages to suppress the impact of much of Goldfarb's creakier dramaturgy. Fitz Patton's sound and David Lander's lights nicely evoke the candy-colored world, but as no scene takes place outdoors, Derek McLane's set, a skewed New York skyline, pushes things a bit too far.
But for Goldfarb, there's no such thing as too far; his play is full of risky, sharp-edged comedy, of a level of relative complexity welcome this season. But it needs a more precise balance between the rampant religious ribbing of the Ben-Hershel and Hershel-Rachel scenes and the well-intentioned earnestness of everything else. As it is, Modern Orthodox strays too far from convention to succeed at what it's attempting.