GableStage and the New Theatre on plucking your eyes out
George Schiavone
Chaz Mena and Avi Hoffman in The Quarrell.

The Quarrel is aptly named. Its two protagonists spend the play's 90 or so minutes walking through a big park in Montreal arguing about God. Does He exist? Does He intervene in human affairs? And if He does exist and He does intervene in human affairs, is He worth worshipping?

These rather serious questions take on some urgency when you consider the men asking them. Rabbi Hersh Rasseyner and journalist Chaim Kovler are former best friends, long estranged due to theological differences. Each thought the other was dead. It is 1948, and they are Holocaust survivors. Kovler saved himself by leaping around Europe and keeping one step ahead of Hitler. He could not save his family. Rasseyner, also alone among his family, managed a jailbreak from Auschwitz. By freakish coincidence, they have found themselves on the same cloudy afternoon walking through the same Montreal park (it might be Mont Royal, because somebody mentions there's a cross in the middle). And after their initial delight, they resume their old argument.

If the script of The Quarrel has a problem, it's that it places Kovler's humanism and Rasseyner's religious dogmatism on equal footing, as if each had its points. Kovler does an OK job of pointing out Rasseyner's problems of theodicy, but Rasseyner's smackdowns of logic and reason are difficult to take seriously. To one who lives by reason alone, he points out, it would make sense to murder all unhealthy babies. (Really? Is it reasonable to make the world so brutish and ugly that no one would want to inhabit it?)

Chaz Mena and Avi Hoffman in The Quarrell.
George Schiavone
Chaz Mena and Avi Hoffman in The Quarrell.

Details

The Quarrel: By David Brandes and Joseph Telushkin. Based on a story by Chaim Grade. Directed by Joseph Adler. Through May 23. GableStage, 3000 Anastasia Ave., Coral Gables; gablestage.com. Raised in Captivity: By Nicky Silver. Directed by Ricky J. Martinez. Through May 16. The New Theatre, 4120 Laguna St., Coral Gables; new-theatre.com.

But forget the theological argument. Anyone who cares about such things will have heard it before anyway. The Quarrel's beauty lies in its learned, passionate language; elegiac tone; and utter sincerity of its leading men. Chaz Mena, who plays Kovler, is revelatory: Big, strong, and with a warm and resonant baritone, he projects both confidence and an almost invisible pain — a reminder of how hard Kovler's confidence was to come by. As a humanist, Mena's Kovler tries desperately to become a powerful, capable, and just man. As the rabbi, Hoffman is Kovler's inverted double. He seems smaller than his true dimensions, almost disappearing behind his beard, locks, hat, and jacket. If the Holocaust has convinced Kovler that humanity must take control of its destiny, it has convinced Rasseyner that humanity must never be trusted.

Yet he has a fiery and jolly sense of humor when he forgets he's supposed to be withdrawing from the world. One senses there is something salvageable between these two men. As they walk through Lyle Baskin's lovely park-scape set — full of gentle curves and the silhouettes of trees, bridges, and small gazebos — there is a sense that, for all their differences, they share an understanding that they either can't or won't articulate.

Raised in Captivity at the New Theatre is as elegiac in its way as The Quarrel. It's the kind of show you'd get if Wes Anderson took to the stage for a careful study of grief. The writing is deep, soulful, and affecting but also ironic and sometimes deliriously funny. Its acting is simultaneously honest and surreal, over-the-top, and tasteful. Its design elements are austerely haunting yet playful, almost to the point of frivolity — an indication that the world of the play is both a graveyard and a fun house. For these reasons and many more, Raised in Captivity is probably the most ambitious and successful play the New Theatre has attempted during the tenure of director Ricky J. Martinez.

Sebastian and Bernadette (John Manzelli and Katherine Amadeo) are siblings; as the play begins, they meet at a funeral for their mother, who was killed by a showerhead that exploded due to an excess of water pressure. (Life in Captivity is both banal and full of random danger.) Sebastian sits on a bench and reads. He's a profoundly unsuccessful writer despite having published a story in Vanity Fair. But as Bernadette eyes him from behind a tree, all she sees is perfection: her mother's perennial favorite.

They speak, eventually, and they quarrel. At least Bernadette does. Tears and volume are her weapons. Sebastian's defense is a flat affect, a seemingly permanent withdrawal from world. Amadeo and Manzelli have wonderful chemistry (they are offstage friends and cofounders of North Miami's Naked Stage); though their characters talk past one another, the actors hear each other clearly. "Tell me you're not perfect!" Bernadette screams. "Tell me anything, as long as it's grim and pathetic!" Amadeo yells, totally over-the-top. Manzelli barely has to move a muscle to show how pleased he is to do as she asks. They're both into self-immolation, just in different ways.

Raised in Captivity is about grief and its companion, loneliness. All of its characters are captured in a protracted series of goodbyes. Sebastian misses his lover, who died of AIDS, and he hasn't had sex in a decade. (His sole romantic involvement is both unrequited and long-distance — with a convicted murderer, played by Lorenzo D. Gutierrez III.) Bernadette misses her brother, who has no interest in her. And Bernadette's husband, Kip (the gloriously dry Clint Hooper), mourns his youth. Sebastian's therapist, Hillary (the usually villainous Barbara Sloan, playing convincingly against type), mourns everybody.

Though a supporting character, Hillary might be the center of the story. She wears rags as penance for imagined sins; later she plucks her eyes out for the same reason and totters through the rest of the play in thick sunglasses. She must have done something awful, she knows; otherwise, what sense would it make for her to be left here, on Earth, where love is no guarantee and even your fellow lovesick are as likely to bite your hand as hold it?

Her story is that of her fellow characters, writ large. And though her situation is not happy, we might be consoled by the knowledge that in a world full of the walking wounded, her pains are anything but circumscribed.

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