By Michael H. Margolin
CC3_1904.jpg: Christina L. Flynn, Scott Crownover and Aral Gribble in “Modern Orthodox.” Photo: Beth Lutz
“Modern Orthodox,” the latest production at the Jewish Ensemble Theatre, is essentially a comedy, but more about the clash of cultures between thoroughly assimilated Jews – Ben and Hannah – and an orthodox diamond merchant named Hershel.
It begins with a “meet cute”: not between a guy and a girl, but between Ben Jacobson – played by Scott Crownover – and Hershel Klein – embodied by Aral Gribble. The meeting is for the purpose of purchasing a stone for an engagement ring that Ben, a young professional who provides financial services, will give to Hannah Ziggelstein – played by Christina L. Flynn – a doctor. They have been together some five years, and the sudden leap to matrimony is not all that clear, except as a plot device.
At that initial meeting, Hershel – “call me Hersh” – refers to Ben and his live-in as “ersatz Jews,” which sends Ben around the bend. In retaliation he refuses to hand over the sizable check for the diamond unless Hersh takes off his yarmulke. Duh: plot device warning!
In scene II, Hersh arrives at the apartment of the newly engaged: It seems that his betrothed – a Belgian – saw his photograph and killed herself all because, as Hersh obstinately protests, Ben made him take off his yarmulke. Therefore, illogically, he will stay with the two in their New York apartment. Like “The Man Who Came to Dinner,” the great Kaufman and Hart play in which an exasperating egocentric takes up residence in a placid household, it is expected as Hersh settles in that Jewish farce will ensue, but playwright Daniel Goldfarb’s comedy premise slogs off into caricature and muddled thinking.
There is some kissing between Hersh and Hannah, which seems quite unlikely for an Orthodox man who hyperventilates at the word “vagina,” some matchmaking by Ben and Hannah so that in Act II, there is a bookend “meet cute” as Hersh is fixed up with Rachel Feinberger, played by Kat Grilli. Everyone ends up married, and the whole enterprise, like winter snow, turns to slush.
On opening night the show belonged to Gribble, who slings his generous bulk around like a big stuffed animal exaggerating and inflating his lines in a way that he and the director, Aaron T.Moore, must have thought would be hilarious. Imagine Adam Sandler with his weird inflections and odd line readings: Then imagine casting John Candy.
Even the usually ebullient Scott Crownover seems out of tune with his character, over-reacting and never quite convincing us of his charm as a fiance or lover.
Flynn’s grasp on Hannah seems unsure; her voice is as thin as she, is and with a near whine she does not sound like a doctor who takes lives into her own hands.
Grilli, however, makes the most of her short part as Rachel, the emancipated orthodox woman who is assertive and positive about her very zaftig body.
Ultimately the opening night just seemed to limp along rather than catch fire and failed to find a balance of comedy, pathos and the undertow that Jewish intolerance for other Jews would suggest. Perhaps this will happen as the run continues, and there is a greater balance among the protagonists – though the play itself is the greatest culprit.
The scenic design by Sarah Tanner is competent, Cal Schwartz’s costumes are apt, but Donald Fox’s lighting design does not adequately light the actors at all times. The entire production could use more light, more lightness – and just a touch of darkness, too.
And the Belgian fiance? Well, you will have to see the show to get the answer – predictable, but far from me to be the spoiler.
Jewish Ensemble Theatre at Aaron DeRoy Theatre at the Jewish Community Center, 6600 W. Maple Rd., West Bloomfield. Thursday, Saturday & Sunday through Feb. 13. $32-$41. 248-788-2900. http://www.jettheatre.org