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Writing for Us
A CurtainUp Review
Modern Orthodox

Do you think there's a God? --- Ben
No. It's hard to have that kind of spirituality when you're in medicine. -- Hannah
Or in finance --- Ben
Craig Bierko, Molly Ringwald, and Jason Biggs
Craig Bierko, Molly Ringwald, and Jason Biggs in Modern Orthodox
In a season notable for its dearth of new plays (unless you count solo shows starring stand-up comedians), do we need two shows in which an online Jewish dating service plays Cupid? Is the play-starved audience ready to embrace George S. Kaufman re-imagined by Daniel Goldfarb as The Orthodox Jew Who Came to Dinner?

It's possible. A Swiss-cheese plot set-up, dialogue over spiced with Yiddish and Hebrew expressions notwithstanding, enough of the sitcom flavored dialogue is likely to land on the audience's funny bone to reverberate in spasms of laughter.

There's also the cast which is the equivalent of Zabar's most expensive Lox. Jason Biggs as the Jew who came and Craig Bierko and Molly Ringwald as the investment banker (he) and doctor (she) into whose lives he insinuates himself, all play their parts with gusto. They are appealing enough to have Jews , and even Goyim, scratching their heads trying to choose between this ethnic flavored romantic comedy and the equally shtick-driven Jewtopia which arrived earlier in the season. To add to the show's box office possibilities, there's a late in the story scene stealer named Jenn Harris, James Lapine's steady-handed guidance and Derek McLane's colorful skyscraper backed Manhatten scenic design.

While Mr. Goldfarb's writing goes a bit deeper than the sitcoms it brings to mind, don't get your hopes up that here's a playwright with satiric skills on a par with George S. Kaufman's. His unwelcome house guest is neither urbane or famous like Sheridan Whiteside, but a fast-talking, often obnoxious and stereotypical diamond dealer named Hersh (Jason Biggs). Hersh wouldn't eat a morsel served by his unwilling hosts, not because his palate is too refined for what they serve but because they're "High Holiday Jews" ("Gentiles"-- to Hersh), who don't keep kosher -- well, at least not until Hersh has overstayed his unwelcome visit and roused their latent urge for a more meaningful life.

The set up which brings Hersh to Hannah and Ben's West Side Manhattan apartment is so flimsy that it's funny. Thirty-six-year-old investment banker Ben Jacobson has decided it's time to transform his six-year living-together relationship into something more fully committed. Following up on a recommendation from a cousin, he makes a date to meet a 47th Street diamond dealer at a restaurant which brings us tocredibility gap #1 -- a guy like Ben would never wait an hour for Hershel Klein who operates on "Jewish Standard Time." But he does wait and while Hersh comes through with a gorgeous rock, his aggressive orthodoxy rubs Ben the wrong way. It seems Jews sporting Tzitzis (those white strings hanging underneath orthodox Jews' jackets) and yarmulkes (even if they're emblazoned with a Yankees logo) prompt a mix of guilt and hostility in Ben. And so, he threatens to give his business to Tiffany's -- unless Hersh removes his yarmulke. Which brings us to credibility gap #2 -- Hersh does it, going completely against his character (unless you're willing to buy into the stereotype that Jews will do anything for money).

The yarmulke incident carries the story to its Jew Who Came to Dinner plot pivot. Hersh, suitcase in hand, arrives at the newly engaged couple's apartment. It seems that the soon-to-be Belgian bride with whom he'd been fixed up killed herself (after seeing the picture he sent her). He blames this disaster on the yarmulke incident and claims his luck can only be reversed if he moves in with Ben and Hannah until Ben somehow rights his misdeed.

Hannah and Ben's way of turning the yarmulke incident into a mitzvah (blessing) is to find Hersh a bride via an online Jewish dating service. If you plan to give online dating a try, I'd suggest you ask them to handle all the required information for you. You see, their handling the details for Hersh's on-line fix-up brings the perfect bride, the first time out. As played by Jenn Harris, that bride, a properly orthodox but slyly smart and definitely sexy young lady, also brings the play close to its full comic potential.

The inevitably happy ending also brings a little more yiddishkeit into Hannah and Ben's life. After living together for six years, a diamond ring and proposal on bended knee can't match the freshness and excitement of a virgin groom and bride. But if you're Jewish, it's never too late to do it properly -- meaning a marriage ceremony under the Chuppah.

This is the third Goldfarb play I've seen. All have been given handsome productions, with casts that no one would write off as chopped liver. All have had something interesting to say about Jews dealing with modern life.

Adam Baum and the Jew Movie used Hollywood during the Goldwyn era to address Goldfarb's s concerns about Jews who hide their Jewishness in the interest of assimilation and Gentiles who harbor anti-semitic feelings even when they proclaim their liberalism. Sarah, Sarah explored a single American woman's adoption of an Asian infant within the context of her Jewish family history. Mr. Goldfarb has yet to find a way to tell a story in a straightforward and simple manner, and without indulging his need to show off his way with zingers -- zingers, which in Modern Orthodox rely too much on Yiddish and Hebrew to be authentically and consistently funny. Consequently, for this audience member a ten or fifteen minute cut, with the blue pencil hopefully hitting some of the Yiddishisms would have brought a grateful thank God or "Baruch Ha'shem."

Adam Baum and the Jew Movie
Sarah, Sarah

Modern Orthodox
Written by Daniel Goldfarb, directed by
Directed by James Lapine
Cast: Craig Bierko, Jason Biggs, Jenn Harris, and Molly Ringwald
Set Design: Derek McLane
Costume Design: Dona Granata
Lighting Design: David Lander
Sound Design: Fitz Patton
Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes with no intermission
Dodger Stages/Stage 3, 340 West 50th Street (8th/ 9th Avenues) 212/239-3900
Tues through Sat @ 8:00PM, Wed & Sat @ 2:00PM, Sun @ 3:00PM.
Tickets: $66.00 & $46.00.
From 10/08/04 to 3/06/05: opening 12/06/04
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on December 3rd press performance
The show had several cast changes. The final cast-- Sarah Chalke, Hunter Foster, J. Anthony Crane and John Cariani -- will play final performance 5/18/05 after 29 previews and 205 regular performances.
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