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Regional Reviews: New Jersey

Jericho: 9/11? Fuhgeddaboudit

Also see Bob's review of The Dangers of Electric Lighting

Carol Todd and Jim Shankman
Jericho, the well written, new, post 9/11 play by Jack Canfora is being presented in a world premiere production by the New Jersey Repertory Theatre. There will be two additional "rolling" world premiere productions which other constituent member theatres of the National New Play Network will produce.

It is four years after 9/11, Beth, who is half Muslim and half Irish Catholic and whose husband was killed in the destruction of the World Trade Center, is in therapy and not doing very well at that. She (and we) see the image and hear the voice of her late husband Alec, rather than that of her psychiatrist, an older Korean American woman. Beth also conjures up Alec independently, conversing with him not infrequently. Still, she is trying to get her life together, and is dating Ethan, who is Jewish and whose older brother Josh just happens to be a survivor who escaped from the WTC before it collapsed. Although she has thus far been spending Thanksgiving with Alec's family, her relationship with Ethan is developing and, with trepidation, they decide that Beth will join him and his family for the holiday.

Ethan and Josh's, shall I say, somewhat neglected and lonely mother Rachel wants to move to Florida where her sister lives. She has a plan which would have Josh and his wife Jessica buy her Jericho home. She reasons that, freed from the confines of their small city apartment, they will finally be able to have children. Josh is dealing with post 9/11 trauma of his own. Although he had theretofore been casual in his religious observance, Josh has become (heaven forbid) strictly observant. Unbeknownst to his mother and brother, Josh has set into motion his unilateral decision to permanently move to Israel. Faced with his take it or leave it decision, Jessica has instituted divorce proceedings against him. And, anyway, he's become a real pain in the ass as his obsessive belief that Israel and the free world are facing mortal danger from radical Islamists has turned him into a argumentative scold. If he only would relax, stop worrying about such nonsense, and watch "Access Hollywood" like normal people, Josh would be a much better person. After all as Ethan tells Josh:

"No, I'm ... I'm sorry; but these bastards who did it, when it boils down to it, they were just, just fucked up, fucking cruel hearted scum. It wasn't part of some intricate political web; it just gave these bastards an outlet. There's people who'll find an excuse to hurl rocks or grenades or airplanes at people no matter the political landscape. I mean it's nicer to think it's got to do with politics or religion or history, frankly, it's a kind of comfort because then A) maybe there's a solution to it and B) the killers and the victims can feel better about it all; it gives it a larger purpose somehow. But it's all a rationale."

If you agree with that statement (which I frankly find to be dangerously ignorant and/or dismissive of the realities of warfare and genocide currently transpiring across five continents), delivered by the reasonable and good brother to the brother who has jumped the shark, then Jericho should be to your liking.

It is against this background that Ethan, this time with with his girlfriend Beth, and his brother Josh and his wife Jessica, again reluctantly make their annual, and most likely last, Thanksgiving trek from Manhattan to the Jericho, Long Island, house of their guilt-inducing widowed mother, Rachel. The bulk and heart of the play is such that it might literally be titled Thanksgiving with the Harkmans.

Although I find his exhortations pernicious, there can be no doubt but that Jack Canfora is a talented playwright who has written an engrossing and provocative play. He accurately captures the widening rejection of traditional belief and the desire for assimilation which separates younger Americans today from past generations. In specific relation to American Jews, Canfora repeatedly makes it clear that he considers the attachment to Israel that some feel to be absurd and atavistic.

There is a post-Thanksgiving epilogue to the play which includes a friendly and reflective Josh calling Beth from his new home in Israel, and concludes with Beth finally letting go of Alec. Overall, the epilogue is dull, as it extends Jericho well beyond its climax. Josh's phone call to Beth stretches our credulity as his words and actions here are totally out of character for him. The conversation seems to be a deceitful attempt to deflect criticism of the hostile portrait of him which Canfora has drawn throughout the balance of the play.

Corey Tazmania brings believability and depth to the too carefully constructed role of Beth. The solid performances of Andrew Rein as Ethan and Jim Shankman as Josh are particularly strong in making us feel the attachments that are unique to brothers. Carol Todd brings depth to the victimized Jessica whose petulant behavior never begs for our sympathy. Kathleen Goldpaugh accurately delivers the stereotypical performance of the whining and wheedling Jewish mother called for in the script. Matthew Stephen Huffman ably portrays the dual role of Alec and Dr. Kim.

Director Evan Bergman has elicited solid performances, and maintained a crisp pace throughout. I assume that his decision to set the play in front of a jumble of overturned furniture from which the actors draw the properties for each scene is likely intended to metaphorically represent the continuing rebuilding and restoration of our lives post 9/11. As lit by Jill Nagle and designed by Jessica Parks, this design provides sparse, uninviting, gray and unreminiscent settings for each scene.

Rachel delivers Jack (don't worry, be happy) Canfora's political message perfumed with stirring, but inapt words to make it more palatable in her letter to her son Josh who is now living in Israel (the perfume has been placed in parenthesis):

"I don't understand this Israel thing of yours - you need to grow up, my son. Your father wouldn't have understood, either. (I understand how it must have traumatized you; of course it must have. It was horrible and unforgivable and shamelessly cruel. But you move on, don't you? You have to move on. Life's impossible otherwise. How the hell did people fight World War II? I mean, my God, Josh, how many millions upon millions of people died in that? How many people witnessed tens of thousands of horrible, cruel,unspeakable deaths every day and still- people split the atom and wiped out the Nazis and came home and invented the suburbs and started a baby boom?) And we're somehow supposed to wear black every day and crawl to therapists or get divorced and leave the country over 3,000 people? Over one day? What babies we are, if that's what's happened to us; what weaklings. Your father and I failed you if this is what you're reduced to."

Pray tell, how does Canfora's polemic for the dismissal of 9/11 as a forgettable, random, isolated action that has nothing to do with politics, religion or history fit in with the heroic war fought by America and its allies to destroy Hitler and Nazism? As radical Islam spreads like a wildfire throughout Arabia and other Islamic nations and the calls for the destruction of Israel grow with it; and Iran continues moving nearer to nuclear capability and domination over much of the Arab world, Jericho is telling us that wisdom and strength for America lies in purposeful ignorance and willful denial.

Jericho continues performances (Evenings: Thursday, Friday, Saturday 8 pm/ Matinees.: Saturday 3 pm, Sunday 2 pm) through November 13, 2011, at the New Jersey Repertory Theatre, 179 Broadway, Long Branch, New Jersey 07740 Box Office: 732-229-3166; online:

Jericho by Jack Canfora; directed by Evan Bergman

Beth..................................Corey Tazmania
Dr. Kim/ Alec.....Matthew Stephen Huffman
Ethan.....................................Andrew Rein
Josh....................................Jim Shankman
Jessica.....................................Carol Todd
Rachel........................Kathleen Goldpaugh

Photo: SuzAnne Barabas

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- Bob Rendell

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