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A Strange and Separate People

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

A Strange and Separate People
Noah Weisberg and Tricia Paoluccio.
Photo by Michael Portantiere.

In his excellent 2009 play The Temperamentals, Jon Marans told the story of how one disaffected group of gay activists effected major change by establishing a community to combat the discrimination around them. Marans’s newest play, A Strange and Separate People, which just opened at the Theatre Row Studio Theatre, concerns how gay men participate in perhaps an even more exclusionary community: that of Orthodox Jews on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. It’s a premise loaded with promise, but the play, at least in this inaugural production directed by Jeff Calhoun, does not fulfill all of it.

What it does do, almost as well as The Temperamentals did, is cast the struggle for both internal and external equality in stark terms that identify the real conflict at play. Phyllis (Tricia Paoluccio) is caught between two men who are challenging her perceptions of Orthodox Judaism. The first is her husband, Jay (Jonathan Hammond), a psychologist specializing in Same Sex Attraction Disorder, who dedicates his practice to helping Jewish men overcome homosexual tendencies. The second is Stuart (Noah Weisberg), a medical doctor who became Orthodox six months ago, is still finding his ideal place (and place of worship) on the UWS, and who, oh yes, happens to be gay.

Phyllis meets Stuart when he calls her to provide the food for a party he claims he’s having, though she’s been out of the Orthodox catering business for a while now because of the ever-increasing needs of her autistic and rambunctious seven-year-old son, Ethan. But the two quickly become fast friends, indulging in art, museums, and various other interests Jay doesn’t have time for — even though Phyllis makes no secret of how distasteful she finds Stuart’s sexual orientation.

A note here for those who prefer to maintain surprise: There’s no way to further discuss the play without divulging crucial aspects of the plot, so consider this your official warning and skip the rest of this paragraph. Phyllis invites Stuart to Shabbos dinner one Friday evening ostensibly to welcome him, but really to introduce him to Jay and hopefully (literally) set him straight — but learns instead that not only do the two already know each other, they had an affair while Jay was treating Stuart around the time of his conversion. This sets all three on a harrowing journey of discovery, with Jay and Stuart moving in together, only to be divided by the faith Stuart truly adores but that Jay takes for granted, and Phyllis trapped without either the lifelong lover or newfound friend she deeply believes are acting against the only system of living she’s ever known.

A Strange and Separate People
Jonathan Hammond and Tricia Paoluccio.
Photo by Michael Portantiere.

While the play focuses on the emotional impact of all this, it retains a tension and grip that compare favorably with both Marans’s last play and many of the better ones to open since. But A Strange and Separate People stumbles as it becomes more and more obsessed with detailing the customs, rituals, and holidays that outline the Orthodox vision. Both less interesting from a personal standpoint, and rather less dramatic — because all three are all steeped in the world of their religion, they can’t (and don’t) explain the finer points to us — the characters’ internecine battles are flabby and disappointing in the wake of their more biting interactions with each other.

Making matters worse is that the play is both overwritten and underdeveloped. There are myriad facets to explore, not all of which easily yield to the work as free-flowing whole — Ethan’s role in giving Phyllis her own taste of ostracization verges on being one complexity too many, for example. And many scenes seem to contain three minutes too much dialogue for the points they want to make, but after the 90-minute running time has concluded, you still really know Phyllis, Jay, and Stuart better as symbols of institution-rooted intolerance than as flesh-and-blood people. You don’t doubt their pain, but much of it feels manufactured.

Part of this may be due to Calhoun’s direction, which is sharp and focused early on but becomes too diffuse and “experimental” later when the rifts between the characters widen, and even the set (by Clint Ramos, who also did the costume) that doesn’t easily flip between the multiple, diverse locales it must serve. Two performers have issues as well. Hammond wields little authority (and a clunky accent) as Jay, convincing as neither a set-in-stone stalwart or an ambitious reformer destined to make a difference at any cost. And Weisberg doesn’t communicate an allure capable of dividing Phyllis and Jay’s marriage; he never reads as dangerous at all, and is so comfortable in the scenes immersing Stuart in his religion that those that explore his corrosive obsessions and behavior.

Paoluccio, however, is outstanding throughout, making a compelling transition from Old World values to New World open-mindedness. You see her hard-won “sophisticate” façade dissolve into societal uncertainty as she sees that the people around her are not as easily categorized as she’d always been taught to believe, and Paoluccio drives home every ounce of the impact that has on Phyllis’s crumbling psyche.

Phyllis’s journey is the play’s beating heart, pumping the blood that drives it to become one of the more intriguing and thought-provoking of the year to date. It’s the central element of a story rife with power and honesty, but one that easily gets lost amid so much else competing for attention. Identifying and clarifying what matters most, for Marans like his characters, would help A Strange and Separate People realize its impressive latent potential — more messages aren’t always better or deeper, sometimes, as here, they’re merely more.


A Strange and Separate People
Through July 30
Studio Theatre at Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street between 9th & 10th Avenues
Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge