Jewish Repertory Theatre always opens its productions with a taped message from its artistic director, Saul Elkin. “Shalom,” he welcomes, but the Hebrew word has come to mean more at the JRT, like “have a wonderful time,” and certainly, “enjoy the show.”
And, almost always, audiences do just that. Now the hit streak continues at the versatile yet intimate Maxine and Robert Seller Theatre with James Sherman’s comedy – albeit one with thoughtful, often serious, undercurrents – “The God of Isaac,” a little charmer of a play that has you hooked from its early minutes. In the late going, a whiff of preachiness appears and is forgiven. Like the man said. Shalom.
The set-up is novel. Isaac Adams has written a memory play, slice-of-life, mid-1970s stuff concerning his questions about his Jewish faith and an actual historical event that surfaced in his hometown of Skokie, Ill., a heavily populated Jewish suburb of Chicago. A neo-Nazi group called the Nationalist Socialist Party of America planned an in-your-face march through town to scoff at the Holocaust. Militant Jewish Defense League leader Meir Kahane, equally extreme, vowed to confront the marchers, violence loomed, First Amendment rights were argued, the ACLU was summoned. “Part of me is part of something,” Isaac sensed. He was torn. No sleep.
That’s the serious undercurrent and the trigger that began to topple Isaac’s hasty marriage to a blonde shiksa – a non-Jewish woman – causing his reading to suddenly include religious tomes. He remembers long-forgotten prayers, confers with a rabbi, longs for his old girlfriend and loses his job. “Oy,” he says. “Pain.”
The play-within-a play continues. Isaac’s mother is in the audience, still spreading guilt like jam, but, like others in this schizophrenic piece, fires Catskill-circuit one-liners at her troubled son, rolls her eyes and longs for intermission. Isaac is floundering.
Isaac confronts Shelley, the shiksa: “I want children. God said ‘go forth and multiply.’ ”
“Well, that’s all they did back then,” she says. “I have to work, you know.”
Things go downhill. Shelley leaves, there’s a hint that Chaya, the old flame, might come back, Isaac finds his religious identity by combining the best tenets of many faiths – Mom’s advice, thank you – the Skokie event fizzles a bit and the future looks brighter.
Director Elkin’s cast is outstanding, many of them performing multiple roles because the play takes a quartet of trips into famous films to find help and motivation for Isaac: “Huckleberry Finn,” “On the Waterfront,” “The Wizard of Oz” and “The Grapes of Wrath.” Tom Joad, leaving town in a hurry, gets advice from his mother. Sounds familiar.
Tom Loughlin, Adam Yellen and Kristin Bentley do double and triple duty. Lisa Ludwig absolutely nails Shelley the Shiksa; what a complete portrait she paints. Darleen Pickering-Hummert, character actress personified, steals the night as Mrs. Adams. Perfectly goofy, fun and so wise all at once with a purse loaded with zingers.
David Butler, a fine storyteller, with material straight from the late Myron Cohen, is very likeable and self-deprecating as Isaac. He’s ultimately the very “mensch” – an honorable, decent, responsible and true-to-himself guy – that he longs to be. His search for religious meaning ends well, he finds what he needs, he’s at peace.
“You can’t chew with another’s teeth,” his parents advised him.
Sounds good to me.