Saturday, October 21, 2006

Modern Orthodox (Jewish Community Center/Cuyahoga Community College)

‘MODERN ORTHODOX’ pleases some, upsets others at JCC

When ‘MODERN ORTHODOX,’ the play now being produced by the Jewish Community Center in association with Cuyahoga Community College, opened in New York, it was met with very mixed reviews. Most theatre observers forecast a short run. In actuality it stayed open for six-months. This neither made it a hit nor a flop, kind of in-between.

An on-line site surveyed people coming out of the Big Apple production. Their comments included: “It’s hysterical.” “It's an awful, unfunny, sexist, overly schticky, cliched, trite show.” “I loved it!” “I hated it!” “It’s insulting.” Listening to reactions at the opening night of the local production, opinions were about the same. Thumbs up, thumbs down, and some hands wiggled from side-to-side.

Daniel Goldfarb’s ‘MODERN ORTHODOX’ attempts to examine love, relationships and sex from a Jewish cultural stereotypic viewpoint. The use of stereotypes isn’t necessarily wrong, it’s just that Goldfarb doesn’t have the writing ability to pull off the comedy while making relevant points. This doesn’t mean there isn’t humor. There are plenty of laughs. But at the end of the play the question arises as to what was the author’s intent? Comedies are intended to have a message. Neil Simon, for example, wrote for laughs, but his plays make a point. What is Goldfarb trying to tell us?

Maybe from Goldfarb’s view, religion and relationships are inextricably linked. His two major characters, Ben Jacobson and Hershel Klein, are at opposite ends of the religious spectrum. Ben is a "high holiday Jew," while Hershel is Orthodox in dress, speech, and behavior. Ben wants to buy a diamond ring from Hershel so he can propose to Hannah, his live-in girlfriend of six years. Hershel disapproves of the live-in arrangement. As they bicker, Ben's innate distaste for Orthodox Jews becomes evident, even taunting Hershel to remove his yarmulke in order to seal the deal. Hershel does so. The question must be raised as to the significance of that act. Is this a comment on the role of the Jew being more in love with money than religion? This is not the only unanswered question in Goldfarb’s script. He wanders around making fun of orthodox sexual practices, Jewish dietary concepts, wedding rituals, the guilt of those who aren’t “true” believers, attitudes toward women. And, for what purpose? For laughs? To make a point? You got me...I’m not sure. It’s always been my belief that comedy writers use humor to make a point. What’s Goldfarb’s point?

Logical questions arise. Why, when Herschel appears at his doorstep doesn’t Ben toss him out on his tuchis (Yiddish for rear-end)? Is Herschel’s presence enough to stimulate Ben and Hannah having a relationship crisis? Why is Rachel, a woman with a master’s degree who Ben finds as a potential wife for Hershel on the on-line Jewish dating service so shallow? Is she so desperate to have sex that she’ll marry anyone?

The local production, under the direction of Fred Sternfeld, generally does a nice job with what they have to work with. Brian Zoldessy is hilarious as Hershel. Zoldessy, as is his classic trademark, flits around with his feet hardly ever hitting the stage. He is appropriately a “cheleria” (nervous wreck) of the highest order. It’s worth going to the production just to see him in action.

Larry Nehring, is believable in his “nice guy” role, often looking like a puppy dog whose purpose in life is only to please. Unfortunately, the script never gives us a clue as to why he would act this way.

Lara Mielcarek makes Hannah as real as she can be with the lines she’s been given. The kissing scene with Hershel, while hysterically funny, is again one of those unexplainable Goldfarb moments.

Holly Facer, is off-key as Rachel, Hershel’s intended wife. Part of the problem is her inappropriate costume. No orthodox Jewish woman would be seen in costume designer Aimee Kluiber’s ill designed garb. Long sleeves, long skirt are requirements, not low cut revealing clothing. Facer doesn’t seem to get the underlying motives of the character to crave sexual attention because she isn’t allowed to express natural desires. She is not a sex-pot as Facer seems to make her.

Ben Needham has the difficult task of attempting to design a supposedly small New York apartment in the massive CCC theatre stage.

Richard Ingraham’s musical interludes are appropriate to the script.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Its difficult to predict any audience member’s reaction to this production. There are lots of laughs, but for what purpose? There is the potential to offend many in the audience, yet please others. “All I can say is OY VEY.”