The Midtown International Theatre Festival
The Jews may be the chosen people, but what in present-day America have they been chosen for? Like Moses — heck, like most of us today — they seem destined to wander until they receive a sign that what’s happening and all the pain they’ve been enduring has truly had a point. In her play Until We Find Each Other, receiving its engrossing New York premiere at the Midtown International Theatre Festival, Brooke Berman posits that even though the greater message may never come, the smaller ones are well worth listening to.
The people straining to hear them above the clamorous din of modern life and relationships are three cousins, who have developed different relationships with themselves and their Jewish faith. Miriam (Mara Kassin) doesn’t see how it directly applies to the life she’s living now, or why she has trouble connecting with others — she recently had mind-blowing sex with an American she met in Mexico, Steve (Bryan Shany), but she can take him or leave him. Sophy (Abbi Hawk) fell into drugs and stripping and other illicit pursuits, before swinging around to become strictly devout. As for Justin (Chris Bannow), he’s somewhere in the middle: He understands and appreciates who he is and where he came from, but doesn’t mind dating a non-Jewish girl named Tangee (Allyson Morgan), who may herself be looking for something more serious than he can provide.
Linking the cousins are vaguely mystical powers: They’re all sort of telepathic, Miriam is also empathic (capable of reading others’ emotions), and Justin can heal anyone’s ailments with only a touch. Their emotional wounds, however, are not easily remedied, and when Justin and Miriam sense that Sophy is in trouble and go searching for her, they might be poised to learn that the balm they need can really come from each other — even if it’s not the one that they thought they were seeking.
Berman’s other plays that have reached New York — The Triple Happiness in 2004; and Hunting and Gathering and The Perfect Couple, both in 2008 — have also dealt with people unsure of who they are, where they’re living, or in what directions they should move. But whereas emotional evolution in those plays was mostly shaped by external factors (suburban ennui, the New York real-estate market), here the influences come strictly from within. And when Berman deals so directly with the soul, the result isn’t just powerful, it’s magical. If the play is technically composed of religious tropes (all those otherworldly abilities) and dramatic clichés (must Sophy narrate her fall and rise directly to the audience?), those she employs all help her explore the deeper questions of what Judaism means to the modern world — and vice versa.
This makes the three central characters astonishingly real — each does seem nearly crippled by the weights of society and spirit, and the expectations they’re fighting against, something the actors beautifully convey. Bannow’s face so floods with complexity when pondering Tangee’s insisting she’ll convert for him that you understand the answers he himself can’t give, even if you’re also not sure whether her motives are truly legitimate (she had a baby too young, and needs someone to help parent it). The anger forever bristling just beneath Kassin’s skin beautifully captures the uncertainty and resentment that drive Miriam both to acts of cruelty and supreme kindness. And Hawk is simply spectacular as Sophy at all levels of her development, equally alluring as an almost-sex worker and a buttoned down matron, while never abandoning her prevailing sense of hope or the aura of dangerous experimentation that once was (and could again be) her undoing.
Director David Winitsky has given the play a crisp yet expansive staging that charts the cousins’ crucial road trips with just as much detail as it does their internal turmoil. He has a bit more trouble with the peripheral folks — who also include Scott Raker as a reform rabbi that helps Tangee understand what she may be getting herself into — but he’s to be excused, as Berman also treats them as a bit ornamental. Yes, they reflect Miriam’s, Justin’s, and Sophy’s journeys in the larger context of the world, but they come across as light, almost comic adornment that can be at odds with the gentle transformations each undergoes as the story unfolds. The cousins and the people who feel the impact of their choices would do better if they shared a single tone.
That Until We Find Each Other doesn’t just succeed without that consistency, but indeed thrives, proves that this ostensibly ordinary play is actually anything but. As it debates seminal, and often perplexing, issues of who and why we are, it’s the kind of play that provides no easy answers to the myriad questions it raises, but also insists you won’t easily forget them. Two questions in particular stand out with regards to both the play and this sparkling production: Why, given that it premiered in Chicago in 2002, is New York only seeing this rich, rewarding work now? And, as it only has one performance left on Sunday evening at 6:00 PM, will you still be able to get a ticket to what will likely rank as one of the best shows of the summer theatre festival season — and that MITF itself has ever produced?
Until We Find Each Other