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Handle With Care

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Charlotte Cohn, Jonathan Sale, and Sheffield Chastain
Photo by Doug Denoff.
If the holidays for you mean endless communing with friends and family about either things you already know or that ultimately don't matter beyond the boundary of your dinner table, Handle With Care should become your new patron-saint play. Jason Odell Williams's comedy at the Westside Theatre offers plenty of paper-thin, vaguely seasonal enjoyment without threatening to strain your brain or heart. Like a snowfall that doesn't stick, it neither offends nor excites—it looks pretty enough but burdens itself and you with its almost epic inconsequentiality.

Ayelet (Charlotte Cohn) is an Israeli woman who's somehow ended up in a motel room in the unincorporated community of Goodview in rural Virginia on Christmas Eve. Her traveling companion, her grandmother, died earlier that morning, but a problem arose when Ayelet called the DHX shipping company to send the body back to Israel for quick burial in accordance with Jewish law: The local deliveryman, Terrence (Sheffield Chastain), left his keys in the truck's ignition, and then the truck and the body were stolen.

Fearing for his job, Terrence calls the only person he can get in touch with on this holiday night, his Jewish friend Josh (Jonathan Sale), to help him track down the body—and communicate with the non-English-speaking Ayelet. Never mind that Josh's facility with the language is limited to a weekend crash course he took when preparing for his bar mitzvah some 20 years earlier. He speaks well enough and she listens well enough, and that's enough for them to say, however haltingly, anything that's really important.

With the devout Ayelet newly single and wary of men, and Josh a widower who long ago lost touch with his Jewish faith, it's not hard to determine the direction in which Williams is moving. If you're paying attention you can chart out every plot point (including the Surprise Twist Ending) well before the end of the first act; if you're also fluent in Hebrew you may solve the puzzle even sooner, as Ayelet's huge tracts of untranslated dialogue hide major clues long before Josh and Terrence can pick up on them.

Carol Lawrence and Charlotte Cohn
Photo by Doug Denoff.
If it's all pretty dopey, it's also refreshingly honest and sufficiently pleasant. Karen Carpenter's direction is nicely unaffected, bright without being too broad; a charmingly clueless performance from Chastain as the well-meaning but dunderheaded Terrence imparts some friendly fun to what could otherwise be a schlocky role; and Sale and Cohn are a solid couple with genuine stage chemistry that helps them make the most of what they have to work with. Their finest scene (and the play's) is a second-act Shabbat dinner, during which Ayelet and Josh bond over equal parts Jewish tradition and gas-station rolls and vending-machine grape juice. If Williams hasn't injected much innovation into Handle With Care, he also hasn't allowed much waste.

There's one exception. The action is split between December 24 and the day before, when Ayelet and her grandmother, Edna, arrived at the motel. But everything that happens on the 23rd is eye-poppingly extraneous, conveying little we can't interpret (or even just hear) from Ayelet, and filling out the background (Edna was a Russian Jew who fell in love with a man named Simon she couldn't marry; Simon moved to America and she's been searching for him ever since her husband died) that serves, to be charitable, minute dramatic purpose on its own terms.

The main thing these scenes accomplish is establish a nice opportunity for a star turn from Carol Lawrence. The original Maria in West Side Story, one of the once-upon-a-skyrocket stars of New Faces of 1952, and inhabitor of countless other stage and screen roles, Lawrence remains an energetic and adventurous presence who brings a vibrancy and vivacity to the character while keeping a bit of melancholy in reserve for the obligatory Act II moments that demand it. It's just that nothing demands they occur in the first place.

Williams's flipping between the days also has the deleterious effect of defusing any of the comic momentum he's apparently trying to generate. You sense the playwright is aiming for big, two-way fish-out-of-water laughs, and trapping Ayelet, Josh, and Terrence in a hotel room under these circumstances could indeed lead to a rip-roaring farce with the proper execution. But with the body essentially a MacGuffin (spoiler alert: It's found as effortlessly as it's lost) and Edna so deeply humanized, there's neither the time nor the inclination for the hilarity to escalate—simple jokes, simple sweetness, and thus a simple evening are all you get.

There's nothing wrong with that, of course, provided that's all the playwright was going for. But Williams forever seems to be trying to go further and stumbling over his own premise along the way. Maybe Handle With Care would have achieved more lofty goals had Williams, well, handled it with a bit less care and a bit more craziness? Regardless, he's turned out a perfect, and perfectly forgettable, holiday show: a frothy mug of non-alcoholic eggnog fit for the whole family. Too bad the play always feels as though it's begging for just a tiny accompanying shot of rum.

Handle With Care
Through February 23
Running Time: 1 hour 45 minutes, including intermission
Westside Theatre Downstairs, 407 West 43rd Street between 9th and 10th Avenues
Tickets and performance schedule at Telecharge

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