What Exit?'s Beau Jest
Although the set-up is contrived, it proves effective for James Sherman's tightly written, well-turned comedy. It concerns single kindergarten teacher Sarah Goldman, who has chosen to placate her disapproving parents by concealing from them that she continues to date Chris Kringle (not Jewish). In order to avoid the pressure of being set up on dates by them, Sarah has told her parents that she is dating Dr. David Steinberg (Jewish and a doctor), a non-existent creation of her own imagination . As the curtain rises, Sarah is shooing Chris out of her apartment because her parents and brother will soon arrive, expecting to meet Dr. Steinberg. Actually, Sarah has hired a moonlighting actor from an escort service to portray Dr. Steinberg for the benefit of her parents. Because of the carelessness of the escort service, the actor sent is not Jewish. However, Bob Schroeder is one sweet guy, and having studied improv with the Second City comic troupe and portrayed Motel in a road tour of Fiddler with Topol, he is game to help Sarah carry out the charade. Before the end of scene one, you will likely know where all of this is going, but this will not diminish your enjoyment one iota as the pleasure of the evening is in how it gets there.
Stacie Lents is delightful and warm as the frazzled but loveable Sarah. Lents's empathetic performance conveys that it is the dichotomy between her loving desire not to hurt her parents and her need to control her own personal life that has led the usually level headed Sarah to act so foolishly. Moment to moment, Sarah provides Beau Jest's "normal" center off which the comedy is played. Employing a deft, smooth and buoyant touch, Lents elevates all the performances around her.
Andrew Smith displays a light, unforced comic touch which maximizes the humor and likeability of Bob Schroeder. The excellence of Smith's work is exemplified in the Passover Seder scene, the play's most hilarious and extended comic set piece. To Sarah's (and our) surprise, Bob responds to a request that he make the blessing over the wine with a perfect chanting of the Hebrew benediction. Without missing a beat and in a deft and light manner, Bob then turns to Sarah and sings in an aside, "To life, to life, L'Chaim." (If you don't get the joke at that moment, you almost surely will shortly).
The veteran Mitchell Greenberg delightfully underplays the dry, acerbic humor inherent in the role of Mr. Goldman, Sarah's father. A self-made, hard working owner of a small chain of dry cleaning stores, Goldman is not a man given to light humor, and Greenberg's honest portrayal is all the funnier for its dour humanity. David Volin gives a small gem of an understated performance as Joel, Sarah's divorced psychoanalyst brother. Both he and his father are cautious listeners. Watch them and you have the sense that they are father and son, at once the same and different. Greenberg's Goldman listens ready to pounce, and Volin's Joel listens only to shake his head and listen some more. Chris Barber also hits all the right notes in the smaller role of Chris Kringle.
Unfortunately, Terri Sturtevant as Mrs. Goldman steps into the traps which her fellow performers so adroitly avoid. Rather than underplaying Mrs. Goldman, a stereotypical Jewish mother of a certain generation nor made up out of whole cloth, Sturtevant hammers home each of her eccentricities. In a less gentle and loving production, such an interpretation could conceivably be tonally in balance with the other performances, but here her manner comes across as artificial and caricatured. Less would be surely do more.
For the most part, director David Winitsky has captured a perfect tone for the play, and obtained exceptional performances from his actors. He has even found a way to preserve the three-act structure of the play which will please those uncomfortable with two intermissions (as well as everyone else). There is a depth of character develop.m.ent and interaction in the performances which is unusual in a comedy of this nature. Winitsky's work is ably abetted by the substantial and detailed set design of Fred Kinney and the costume design of Kim Cokelet.
Anyone who has ever attended a Passover Seder will recognize the behaviors with which Sherman amuses us. In the manner of those who have little interest in the Seder's ritual and religious aspects, Mr. Goldman attempts to cut it short early on by summarizing the story of Passover thusly, "We were slaves, and then we were freed ... and lets eat".
There is nothing ground breaking in James Sherman's play. Just proof that a small old, fashioned comedy written and performed with intelligence and style can still provide a fine evening's entertainment. However, I would go a step further. There is a craft and sensibility here that seem to have gone out of style. Cruelty seems the order of the day. Those not within the perimeters of a particular target audience are treated with disdain and mockery. "Old fashioned" values receive the back of the hand. People whose values are unfashionable are dismissed out of hand as bigots. Slapstick is gross and slipshod, and the imposition of pain is regarded as the height of hilarity. It is only 15 years since Beau Jest first came to New York for a more than two and a half year Off-Broadway run. Yet, it seems a lifetime away from the snarky and insulting humor which seems so prevalent in today's entertainments. One such example is Jewtopia which is now concluding an Off-Broadway run similar in length to the one which Beau Jest enjoyed. All of this makes the warm, old fashioned Beau Jest feel like a breath of fresh air in its wake.
No villains, no schmutz, no nastiness, no infliction of pain. Just a truly funny comedy for all the family to enjoy.
Beau Jest continues performances (Fri. & Sat. 8p.m./ Sun. 3 p.m. & 7 p.m.) through April 22, 2007 at the Burgdorff Cultural Center, 10 Durand Road, Maplewood, NJ 07040. Box Office:973-763-4029; online: www.whatexittheatre.com.
Beau Jest by James Sherman; directed by David Winitsky