Culture clash always makes for great comedy. It's fun to poke fun at ourselves through the archetypes we witness colliding on stage and screen. The resulting yin-yang battles have well-known, usually entertaining results, like neat freak Felix versus slob Oscar or straight-acting gay Will versus nelly gay Jack. In his engagingly cute Modern Orthodox, playwright Daniel Goldfarb brings culture clash to temple, with a battle between Orthodox Jews and their liberal, Reformed Jew opposites.
In Modern Orthodox, which premiered last week at the Caldwell Theatre, yuppie Manhattan financier Ben Jacobson (Benim Foster) has lived with his obstetrician girlfriend, Hannah Ziggelstein (Rachel Jones), for six years, but he's only now getting around to popping the question. Before he does, however, Ben needs a ring, which comes to him through an encounter with young Hasidic diamond merchant Hershel Klein (Jason Schuchman). When they meet, Hershel is wearing a dark suit, Converse high-tops, and a yarmulke tricked out with the New York Yankees logo. He looks like an Hasidic Beastie Boy.
In Orthodox Hershel's eyes, Ben and Hannah are living in sin. When asked about his beliefs, Ben says he's "whatever you call a High Holy Day Jew," which Hershel dismissively translates into "a gentile." Before sealing the diamond deal, though, Ben gets in the last jab by ordering Hershel to remove his yarmulke or else forget the sale. After first refusing, Hershel complies, a stroke of sinful bad luck Hershel later blames for the sudden death of his match-made fiancée (whom he had yet to meet). Hershel then uses the encounter to guilt Ben into letting him flop in the couple's apartment until he can find a new betrothed.
Neurotic Hershel isn't exactly a prize catch. Resentful of his strict habits -- the couple's kitchen isn't kosher, and Hershel demands lights be turned off during Shabbos -- the frazzled Ben and Hannah surreptitiously place an online personals ad at jewdate.com, where Hershel eventually meets Rachel Feinberger (Margery Lowe), a quirky Orthodox girl who, like Hershel, is negotiating modern life while maintaining strict customs.
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Since my own goy knowledge of Jewish dating defaults to humming "Matchmaker" from Fiddler on the Roof, before seeing Modern Orthodox, I decided to seek counsel from two knowing friends -- a twentyish Miami Beach-bred member of her college's Hillel group and a thirtysomething woman who came to South Florida from the old country: northern New Jersey. These women need no excuse to escort one to places like Hollywood's Israeli hangout, Pita King, for turkey shawarma.
My friends kindly gave me the real skinny: Matchmaking is an underlying motivation for all Jewish social gatherings. The entire world's Jewish population numbers around only thirteen million. Yes, only thirteen million, with about six million of those in the United States (and a striking 500,000 of them in the Miami area). Dating in the Jewish community can be tough (even in Miami), as it is in any smallish community with strong instincts toward self-preservation. My friends educated me about the circuit matzo ball parties held around the nation in December. And they filled me in on Miami's Passover phenomenon -- a veritable Jewish spring break -- when thousands of young Jews and their families descend on South Florida for meeting and matching.
As for cultural division within this community, you can glean some insight by surfing the online dating world. For instance, the real-life jdate.com (which boasts more than a half-million ads), like Modern Orthodox's fictional jewdate.com, looks pretty much like any other online dating service, with its thumbnail photos and personal descriptions. On jdate's profile creation form, however, in addition to expected queries about marital status and smoking habits, there are questions about keeping kosher and frequency of synagogue visits. For his jewdate.com, Goldfarb adds the multiple-choice question: "I spill my seed in vain ... Once a day? Never?" Now, that's funny, goy or not.
Farces live or die by the quality of comedic timing. If you can hear the comedy engine's gears knocking, then it's a clunker. Director Michael Hall, however, fine-tuned his engine to hum. As Hershel, Schuchman gives the over-the-top performance that neurotic, reactionary Hershel deserves, athletically crab-walking backward across the stage to avoid shaking a woman's hand. As his date Rachel, Lowe successfully displays the conflicts apparently faced by many conservative yet ambitious Jewish women. She comes across as a collage of naive girl, sex-starved woman, well-educated professional, and faithful member of her religion. As financier Ben, Foster works well in the play's most complex character -- a hard-nosed yet emotionally vulnerable businessman with a tendency toward regret. Does Ben, when all is said and done, want to be a good Jewish boy?
However, most endearing is Rachel Jones's warm, real performance as Hannah, Medicine Woman, especially in a pivotal scene in which she comes home distraught from the hospital after nearly killing a patient. Earlier she tells Ben: "I am a scientist." But she is also fragile and needs comforting amid distress. Hannah's fight with herself about her doctoring abilities is the play's most unexpected clash, but it's also the play's most engaging.
Okay, those are the swell points. A downside to the play is its muddled plot. At one point Hershel instructs Ben about the four C's of diamonds --cut, color, clarity, and carat. Metaphorically speaking, Modern Orthodox has the large carat of talented presentation, and it definitely has color. But the play falls short in the plot line's cut and clarity. The sudden relationship between Hershel and the liberal couple is head-scratchingly improbable, even for farce. The cheap plot device used to set that relationship in motion -- the forced yarmulke removal -- comes across more like the nasty act of a true bully than that of a liberal but religiously conflicted man. It's like forcing a devout Catholic to eat meat on Good Friday, and the entire scene taints your view of Ben from then on, contradicting the later, more sincere depiction of Ben that playwright Goldfarb presents. Sorry, but I'm still scratching my head.
On a final high note, I draw your attention to the Caldwell production's fab set. It's a New York City apartment composed of abstract, multicolored shelving units and partitions that look like just what you'd expect if sculptor Louise Nevelson had guest-starred on The Partridge Family. I mean this as high praise for scenic designer Tim Bennett and set carpenters Ed Fitzpatrick and Andre Lancaster. Dudes! Where can I buy me some of them shelves?
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