It has become a cliché in both theater and films that when a family gathers for a communal meal—Thanksgiving, Christmas, a funeral, etc.—they do so with anxiety, trepidation, and dread. And before the meal is over everyone has revealed dark secrets, animosity, rage, or jealousy. Dysfunctional families make for compelling drama.
Take, for example, the recent film, and earlier Tony Award-winning play, August: Osage County. When a disparate group comes together after the funeral of the family patriarch, the matriarch (in the film), a ranting harridan played by the incredible Meryl Streep, tears everyone to pieces, one by one, and discombobulates them all.
And so it goes in Jewish families as well. As playwright Robin Uriel Russin explains, “All families are a little crazy, only the details are different.”
In Russin’s latest play, The Face in the Reeds, now having its world premiere at the Ruskin Group Theater in Santa Monica, the occasion that draws the family together is a Passover Seder.
Christina (Stacey Moseley), the second wife of Barry (Chip Bolcik), has just converted to Judaism. (You can fill in your own platitude here: “A second wife has to try harder” or “There’s nobody as Jewish as a convert.”) At any rate, she is anxious to oversee a proper, traditional ceremony. She is thwarted throughout the service, however, by the contentious group around the table.
There is Barry, a successful and affable doctor, and his father, Sol (Paul Zegler), a cantankerous retired shoe shop owner, and Barry’s children Rachel (Julia Arian) and Mose (Aidan Blain). And finally, there is Patrick (Tom Berklund), an invited guest who is a colleague of Barry’s and a Catholic. (“Is that the Goy?” Sol asks as he is introduced to the young man who he insists on calling “Paddy”.)
Rachel, who is Barry’s daughter by his first wife, is a seething bundle of angst about everything. She resents her brother Mose because he is Barry’s son by Christina and is obviously their favorite. She is flirting with the idea of becoming a lesbian and is an activist for women’s rights. She brings a revised, female-oriented Haggadah (Passover prayer book) to the Seder. In contrast to Barry, who has condensed his own book to the “short version” of “only 45 pages.”
Mose, who is preparing for his Bar Mitzvah, is a skeptic about religion —his own in particular. Which introduces a provocative series of arguments and discussions about religious practices, myths, and God.
Each point that’s made is consistent and effective, and director Sarah Figoten Wilson brings this ensemble of excellent actors through it all with conviction, believability, and panache.
Christina, in defining her transition from Catholicism to Judaism, asserts, “I am no longer thinking of Jesus as my Savior—and possibly gong to hell.”
Patrick, who is continually challenged and put on the defensive, nevertheless provides a soothing note to the proceedings, even though he can’t get Sol to stop calling him “Paddy”.
And, as is true in all Jewish discussions, there is tremendous humor sprinkled through the exchanges. (In the manner of the old Jewish jibe, “They attacked us. We won. Let’s eat.”)
Sol, who keeps complaining through the often-interrupted ceremony that he is starving, greets the appearance of the roast with “If we can just get to eat it before it fossilizes…”
But before they eat, Christina delivers an emotionally appealing speech about the Pharaoh’s daughter who drew the baby Moses in his reed basket from the Nile and brought him up as her own. She imagines the rapture of the princess as she views The Face in the Reeds for the first time. And that’s where Robin Russin got his name for this most stimulating and enjoyable play.
The Face in the Reeds will be playing at The Ruskin Group Theatre, 3000 Airport Avenue, Santa Monica, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm and Sundays at 2 through October 11th. Call (310) 397-3244 for tickets.
Photo: Julia Arian (Rachel), Tom Berklund (Patrick), Stacey Moseley (Christina), Chip Bolcik (Barry), Paul Zegler (Sol), and Aidan Blain (Mose)
Photo by Ed Krieger