A young man raised in an insular religious community suddenly decides to leave the comforts of home and seek his fortune three thousand miles away. If Hollywood had its hands on this "fish out of water" concept, we would get a goofy comedy in which the protagonist makes misstep after misstep in trying to fit into his unfamiliar surroundings, only to come out on top by applying the folk wisdom of his community's teachings to problems of the secular world. Playwright Harry Karp has steered well clear of the expected plot, and has instead crafted in The Emissary a much more realistic and enjoyable play.
The "fish" in The Emissary is a Hasidic Jew from New York, complete with wide-brimmed hat and fringes peeking out from under his shirt. But when he leaves the comfort of his Brooklyn fishbowl for Los Angeles, he does not throw himself into the unknown, but rather seeks familiar surroundings. David gets a job at Edith's, a kosher restaurant, where his boss understands the daily obligations of his faith. Yet it isn't the same. The Jewish community David has joined is not Hasidic, and he finds himself dealing with other Jews who treat his particular approach toward belief and ritual with everything from gentle amusement to outright condescension. Beyond that, David must for the first time in his life deal with an entirely new species: non-Jewish women.
For a show with a deeply religious protagonist, the play is not particularly preachy. Indeed, the two religious leaders who represent the ends of the spectrum on which David must find his place are both comical in their extremes. At one end, David has his mentor back in Brooklyn, a man so caught up in Hasidic mysticism, he believes he can obtain guidance from their deceased leader by randomly selecting a page from a book of the leader's writings. At the other, David meets a fast-talking, Jaguar-driving, cell-phone packing Los Angeles rabbi with a movie studio contract. Although the play treats Judaism with due respect, it is certainly not afraid to get laughs at the expense of some of its practitioners.
Actor Josh Covitt is easily believable as David, whether he is seriously performing a ritual of his faith, hiding the outward manifestations of his beliefs in order to impress a girl, or feeling guilt at not being the person everyone wants him to be. But the real find of this production is Sue Ozeran as Edith, the proverbial little old lady who sees a spark in this misfit and takes him under her wing. Edith an interesting character; she's extremely shrewd at judging people, but extremely bad at business. Edith is the sort of person who knows when someone is taking advantage of her, but lets them do it anyway. Ozeran is simply wonderful, capturing Edith's strengths and weakness and, most importantly, switching from one to the other before the audience has even caught on.
The entire ensemble nails their characters, but they have an easy time because they're working from a good script. The awkward lines are few; for the most part, Karp's writing is solidly realistic. At one point in the play, a scene in which David attempts to teach a non-Jew the Hasidic approach to preparing and drinking Sabbath wine, the dialogue is so true to life, it plays as though the script simply directed the actors to improvise. Director Frank Megna has his cast play the pauses as well as the words. When the two young women in David's life finally meet each other, they take their time with their lines, and we can really see each character sizing the other up and trying to determine the best way to score points off her.
The Emissary is a small play about one young man's attempt to find his place in a world he has spent most of his life living outside. It's about finding out what is important to you and who is important, making the sometimes difficult choices life throws at you - and about which hand to hold the wineglass in.
Annette Keller and the Working Stage present The Emissary by Harry Karp; Directed and Developed by Frank Megna. Original Music and Sound Design by Myles West; Photography, Visual & Graphic Design by Diana Ljungaeus; Additional Sound Design by Claes Andreassonn; Light Design by Mary Tower; Light & Sound Technician Jim Yoder; Scenic Carpentry by Mike Pirzl. Stage Manager Elinor Frothingham; House Manager Marry Ann Link.
The Emissary plays at the Working Stage Theater through October 6, 2002. Performances Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m., Sundays at 2:00 p.m. Tickets are $15. Call (310) 230-1784.