Review: The Jewish Plays Project
By: Perry Tannenbaum
The Jewish Plays Project, currently in its ninth season, seeks to recognize and develop new plays that freshly address contemporary Jewish life. In their annual Jewish Playwriting Contest, plays that peddle stock Jewish humor or deal directly with the Shoah are graciously discouraged. Like other playwriting contests, it solicits scripts that haven’t received professional productions and welcomes playwrights of all ethnicities. Of course, an expert panel is part of the selection process, but unlike the Pulitzers, the Tonys, or the Steinberg Awards, the JPP panel only screens the hundreds of entries and winnows them down to a group of finalists.
Cunningly, JPP invites theatre communities around the country to engage with the scripts, winnow them down to a Top 3, perform the Top 3 publicly in abbreviated staged readings, and have the live audience vote for their winner. In the 2019 cycle, Charlotte is the first of seven cities to complete its participation in the process, so the ultimate winner won’t be announced until after the Palo Alto readings on May 1 – moving on to a full production in New York this September.
The seven finalist scripts were emailed to us back in November, and I can proudly say that our reading panel in Charlotte had the most listed members, edging out Houston and New York, sharing the honor for the most populous panel with Chicago. Our panelists met at the Levine Jewish Center for a dinner powwow during the last week in January. After spirited discussions of each script, we wound up choosing In Every Generation by Ali Viterbi, The Shabbos Goy by Cary Gitter, and Dox Modern Middle by Megan Pope for the public event at Gorelick Hall, the J’s theater facility.
Last year’s national winner, Summer Night with Unicorn by David Rush, had been produced by the Levine Cultural Arts department’s JStage at the Gorelick in November, so there were people in the audience – and onstage – who had experienced last year’s playoffs and/or seen its fruit. This was the third year that Charlotte had participated in the annual contest, my second year of participating on the community panel, and my first time at the competitive readings. I was a bit taken aback by the robust turnout. Word has gotten around.
Unlike the staged reading festivals presented in the past by Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte and the defunct Charlotte Rep, the Levine’s Jewish Playwriting Contest maintained its professionalism without stuffiness or excessive formality. If you were an actor, you weren’t warned against the impropriety of wearing a color or dressing for your part, but you did lay your script on a lectern as you performed. If you bought a ticket, you could grab a free nosh at the back of the hall and schmooze with your fellow cognoscenti before David Winitsky, the founder and director of JPP, moved up front to issue welcomes and thanks. Then he explained the JPP and the Contest before testing the technology that would be used for the individual playwright intros and the voting. Directing all three entries, he also read the stage directions during the readings.
Old schoolers could vote on paper ballots as God intended, or if you had a smart phone, you could text your vote to a prescribed number. My first two test votes, before and after the first play reading, were for macaroons and Bernie (who lost to Midge). While writing this review, I texted “LEAVE” to the number we had been given and received an answer, my first real assurance that my votes had counted. So the technology worked, the format for the evening had been exhilarating, and theoretically, my vote may have been decisive. Yet I did not drive home feeling that the format had been completely fair.
Gitter’s The Shabbos Goy led off the readings, probably the easiest of the three to summarize. Seth, a divorced Orthodox Jew, has a crisis of faith because he has fallen in love with Angie, an Italian-American art gallery curator who recently moved into an apartment down the hall. Not knowing she had moved in, Seth had knocked on her door, thinking he would call on his Shabbos goy to do something for him that Orthodox Jews are forbidden to do on the Sabbath – like turning on a lamp or an oven. Angie readily agrees to help this nerdy knish maker. He’s such an unlikely candidate for her affections that, when he asks her out, she doesn’t immediately grasp what he’s doing, by which time he’s apologizing.
Seth’s sister Rachel, his partner in the Lower East Side knish store, is more devoutly opposed to her brother’s wishes – she’s not Jewish! – but Sophia, Angie’s folksy grandmother, has an open mind. In the scenes excerpted for the reading, Seth (Jordan Ellis) told Angie (Karina Caporino) about his spiritual crisis. His confession went better than Fitzwilliam Darcy’s, acting as an aphrodisiac. Afterwards, Angie had a couple of heart-to-hearts with Sophia (Jackie Fishman) and Rachel (Susan Cherin Gundersheim).
If the allusion strikes home, you’ll already know that Viterbi’s In Every Generation has something to do with Passover. Not only is the Passover seder the instrument of fulfilling the biblical commandment of telling your children about the exodus from slavery in Egypt, it is the gateway for fulfilling man’s obligation “to see himself as if he personally went out of Egypt.” Viterbi divides her play into four parts, a very apt number for Passover, and links three generations of a family across three seders, beginning with 2018 in LA, then flashing back 65 years to 1953, and then zipping forward to 2048. After three seders with this family, Viterbi thinks we’re ready to visualize her family in 1416 BCE after leaving Egypt, celebrating Passover and yearning for the Promised Land.
In the first excerpted scene, we saw all three generations gathered at the 2018 seder. Drawing most of our attention were two squabbling siblings, Yael Katz (Caporino) and her adopted Chinese older sister, Devorah (Vivian Howell Tong), who is studying to be a rabbi. It is she, therefore, who expounded on the number four in the Passover Haggadah. Their mom, Valeria (Stephanie DiPaolo), tried to keep order, but her difficulties were compounded by her octogenarian parents, Davide Levi (David Catenazzo), who coukd no longer speak due to ALS, and Paola (Fishman), who kept lapsing into Italian. Our second excerpt took us to 1953, shortly after Davide and Paola had immigrated to America. Davide could talk at that seder – smoothly enough to convince Paola that Passover might be a great time to start their squabbling unborn family.
Reduced to a bare-bones 20-minute sampling, In Every Generation had to shed its last two parts – and the English subtitles that are supposed to help us understand Paola’s Italian when she arrived in LA back in 1953. Shabbos Goy suffered to a lesser extent from Winitsky’s radical abridgement, losing one of its characters, a dashing young artist whose work Angie would love to display at her gallery. Young and sexy Blake, Angie’s arrogant quarry, expected to combine business with pleasure. Pope’s Dox Modern Middle was perhaps the most disadvantaged by Winitsky’s excerpting. It would have been helpful, for starters, if the playwright, the director, or the reading had explained what the title meant.
Amid some healing chanting and a spectral appearance of Fathermother, representing her parents and her Orthodox Jewish heritage, the excerpt began with 17-year-old Raphaela (Arella Flur) arriving in Israel. She was greeted by her Aunt Caroline (DiPaolo), a longtime Israeli who knew more about Raphaela than the girl thought. Caroline already knew, for instance, that her upfront 16-year-old neighbor Gil (Rixey Terry) would be the perfect companion to show Raphaela around – because he is gay, she is lesbian, and that’s why she was sent away from Brooklyn by her “Dox” parents. In later excerpts, we learned that there’s an LGBTQ nightclub in Jerusalem that will welcome both Gil and Raphaela, with queerness to burn. A quartet of glittery queens emerged from the audience, voguing and preening. More seriously, the club’s bartender, Pop Tart Girl, took an interest in Raphi, evoking memories of Ani (Caporino in both roles), her previous paramour back in Brooklyn.
When the votes were tallied, Winitsky announced that The Shabbos Goy had been our audience favorite. Audience members who have become attached to Seth and Angie, rooting for their romance, can go to JewishPlaysProject.org and see how Gitter’s romantic comedy is doing in the standings. With the two points that Shabbos Goy earned at the Charlotte playoffs, it is now tied with In Every Generation for first place. Next in the standings, trailing the leaders by two points, is Dox Modern Middle. As exciting as the contest was, I’d be more comfortable if the readings were extended to 40-45 minutes each. Lacking that, audiences should get a full summary of each contestant. That’s what I’m voting for.