Matzo Ado About Nothing

In A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess's brilliant novel (later made into an equally stunning film by Stanley Kubrick) about the way society controls individual thought, the violent lead character is captured by government officials and forced to undergo a unique form of torture/behavior modification. With eyelids forced open so that he cannot look away, the punk watches helplessly as endless scenes of cooperation and family harmony are played out in front of him upon the screen, in order to convert his personality into something more acceptable. Eventually his mind becomes suitably numb and he is released, a zombie totally without character.

I've sat through similar torture recently: Home Alone 2 on film; The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air on TV; and now, on stage at the Off Broadway Theatre, James Sherman's Beau Jest (not to be confused with the adventure tale starring Gary Cooper). And I've come to the only logical conclusion. Sometime in the night, during some year in the past decade, many people must have been secretly taken from their beds to an experimental laboratory, where their eyelids were forced open, and numerous examples of flaky pseudo-artistic product were shown to them and eventually hammered into their brains. That's my singular explanation for why such "entertainment" was duly labeled a major hit and brought fame and success to its author or creators. Fortunately, this review only needs to concern itself with the empty vessel called Beau Jest. I don't think I could stomach a discussion of all three.

The play certainly enjoys more than moderate recognition. At the Victory Gardens Theatre in Chicago, the ethnic comedy became the most successful production in the venue's sixteen-year history. At the Lambs Theatre in New York, it's barreling through a second sold-out year. And here, in Wilton Manors, Beau Jest stands ready to break another record. At the end of the play's run on March 28, 191 performances will have strutted and fretted upon the stage, making a house record for longevity at the Off Broadway. The horror doesn't end there, either, unfortunately. With a new cast, Beau Jest opens at the Coconut Grove Playhouse May 21, the final offering of the Playhouse's season.

What could be so bad about this tale of a Jewish girl with a goyishe boyfriend who hires an actor to impersonate an ideal beau A a handsome Jewish doctor, naturally A in front of her parents? You can't get a seat to see the show for weeks, and almost everyone makes the same comment on the way out: "It was cute, right?"

To help me understand my problem with this superficial, unamusing, frequently boring bit of fluff theater, which makes early Neil Simon plays A the archetype of comedies such as this one A seem like masterpieces from Oscar Wilde or Shakespeare, I formulated the Clockwork Orange populace-brainwashing theory. Then I grabbed my dictionary to study the word "cute." It read: "pretty, dainty, or attractive." All somewhat diminutive terminology. And on such terms I might be able to accept Sherman's weak piece, because it makes some dainty (though dull) points about parents controlling their children, and the homey set by Jay Tompkins is attractive.

The plot weaves around Sarah Goldman (Hilary Kacser), a pretty kindergarten teacher with an advertising-executive beau named A talk about your subtle symbolism A Chris Kringle. Never one to make waves with the family, Sarah turns to an escort service and hires out-of-work actor Bob Schroeder to become Dr. David Steinberg, her perfect fiance, whenever the folks come over for dinner. Naturally, Mom and Dad are thrilled, but brother Joel, an embittered, divorced psychologist, smells something rotten in the gefilte fish. The comedy comes from Schroeder's ham-fisted attempts at mastering both medicine and Judaism on the spot; the romance, of course, arises from Sarah and Bob's heightening attraction for one another.

Jewish family stereotypes abound: Mom nags Dad constantly, Dad complains about parking spaces and his dry-cleaning business, Joel never calls Mom enough, and Sarah is interrogated endlessly about her romantic life. The only time these Old Testament-vintage gags hit any amusing mark is when the family hurries through the ritualistic Passover Seder dinner because everyone's too hungry to wait for the word of God. This incident tickles a familiar funny bone in many Jews, and at least it hasn't been done to death on the stage.

The structure of the play is clever and neat; each of the three acts is one family dinner and so traces four weeks in the development of this unorthodox courtship. What the play never explores is how the characters truly feel about each other, or even who they are, once they all drop their quick quips and cliched behavior. Neil Simon's greatness lies in his creation of rich personalities and his exploration of unexpected avenues of humor; Sherman's jokes all but flash a neon sign five lines before they arrive, and his people never expose themselves as any more than cardboard cutouts of a genuine family.

Playwright Sherman, along with Brian C. Smith, artistic director of the Off Broadway Theatre, direct the actors in such a stylized manner, that it's hard to condemn the cast. With unimaginative staging and long pauses between lines, sometimes waiting for laughter that didn't ensue, the flow of the work suffers greatly, and the connection between characters evaporates. Still, Chuck Benjamin as Bob manages to evoke sympathy and affection, as the leading man should. Paul Rouffa as Joel, and Edmond Dante (also a theater columnist for the weekly publication Entertainment News and Views) as Sarah's father Abe, offer up some honestly amusing moments. The rest of the cast neither left any impact nor produced any lasting annoyance.

Light theatrical comedies in the manner of Beau Jest have always been around and they always will be. Reliable crowd-pleasers, they don't expect much cerebral input from the audience and deliver the happy ending their supporter's desire. But Sherman's play sinks beneath light, into a form of dramatic vapidity that crops up with more and more frequency these days. If audiences must have their eyelids forced open to watch something, then they should look backward to the days of substance over style, like early Neil Simon. With this much sounder product from the past as an example, new writers can finally move forward again and create even minor pieces with original wit and literary value. Otherwise, today's hits won't even merit tomorrow's fishwrappings.

Stage Notes
Although it played for just one night at the Colony Theater under the sponsorship of Cultura del Lobo (of Miami-Dade Community College) and the Miami Book Fair International, "Silenced Women Poets of Russia" deserves this written standing ovation, in case the show passes this way again in its U.S. tour. Two of the world's finest actresses A Claire Bloom and Russia's premier talent, Alla Demidova A told the life stories and read from the actual works of two forgotten female voices, that of Marina Tsvetayeva (1892-1941) and Anna Akhmatova (1889-1966). The former poet hanged herself out of loneliness when her family was imprisoned; the extent of her pain and capacity for love seethes from each of her verses. Using to full advantage the finely honed vocal skills and elegant acting artistry of Bloom and Demidova, plus the musical gifts of singer Charlotte Hellkant and pianist Brian Zegler, these brilliant, delicate verses took new life on the Colony stage and introduced a generation of Americans to stirring words too long silenced.

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