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A Strange and Separate People
Only time will tell whether Jon Marans's new play A Strange and Separate People gets the attention or eventually earns the accolades afforded his previous plays The Temperamentals, and Old Wicked Songs. The time, however, is now for the playwright to go back to the drawing board.
Although this intensely-acted showcase production under the very fine direction of Jeff Calhoun illuminates the very strong socio-religious currents that flow through the text, the plot needs to be more credible and its characters more engaging. However, another cause/agenda for dramatic exploration is unleashed and, indeed, preached by Marans.
Marans's instinct for dramatic activism was craftily and trenchantly embedded in The Temperamentals, a fascinating fact-based drama about the origins and internal conflicts of the Mattachine Society, an early gay rights organization. His new play delves not only into the upheaval in a marriage that occurs when the husband is outed as gay by his lover, but also by the conflict it creates by all three being Orthodox Jews.
Jay, a practicing psychologist (Jonathan Hammond) is shocked when he comes home to find that his wife Phyllis (Tricia Paoluccio) has invited Dr. Stuart Weinstein for the Sabbath dinner. Unknown to Jay, the good-looking 30-something doctor has previously initiated a continuing but "strange" friendship with Phyllis who has a kosher catering service that is the presumed reason for Stuart first visit to their apartment.
Phyllis has been noticeably flattered by Stuart's attention and has become intrigued by his decision to seriously study how to become a full-fledged Orthodox Jew. Stuart has further endeared himself to Phyllis by curing Phyllis and Jay's autistic 7 year-old son (unseen but heard) of an intestinal ailment. But Stuart's "strange" behavior, being gently deceptive and craftily seductive, is, as we discover, immature and disingenuous to say the least.
During an increasing tense and testy dinner, Stuart is openly critical of the way Jay conducts the service and how he relates to Phyllis. The big revelation comes with the disclosure that Stuart has not only been seeking counseling from Jay who treats "same-sex-attraction disorder" but also has been having an affair with the equally conflicted Jay. There is some humor contrived from the exposed hypocrisy. Apparently Elliot's endearments were merely a ploy to meet the woman who was married to his lover.
Marans succeeds in addressing Phyllis's betrayal, as well as her gradual ability re-evaluate and examine her marriage in the light of the traditions, cultural and religious dogmas to which she and Jay have been steadfastly committed. The play is most confounding in the way Stuart and Jay respond to each other once Jay moves into Stuart's apartment. Stuart is suddenly emotionally withdrawn and Jay is demonstrably affectionate.
Weisberg gives a persuasively nuanced performance as Stuart whose admitted "binges" into art, sex and religion have defined him as an unlikely permanent proponent or adherent of the Talmudic scriptures. While Stuart grows increasing Orthodox and increasingly sure that he has sinned, Jay grows increasing comfortable and freed by coming out, even to the point of taking a courageous stand in the face of the hierarchy at the synagogue.
Hammond cloaks Jay's homosexuality in assertively macho body language and plenty of quirky mannerisms, almost all of which seem purposely over-emphasized. As Phyllis, Paoluccio rages and rants with our condolences, but ultimately takes the most level-headed approach to the melodramatics. Designer Clint Ramos's modest setting (a few pieces of unadorned blonde furniture) allows the action to flow without a break from a kitchen to Stuart's bedroom to a Synagogue.
The play's title is suggested by a quote from the Diaries of Woodrow Wyatt (a friend of the Queen Mother): "We (the Queen Mother and I) talked about Jews for a bit and she said she liked them very much but they were a separate people and a strange people, keeping to themselves and their own Way." Of course, Marans is not about to keep his feelings about these really not-so-strange people in the closet. If he hasn't exactly written a kosher-styled upper West Side New York ménage a trois comedy àla Noel Coward, he does let Phyllis have the healthiest overview of the situation, "Three Jews just hanging out on Shabbos."
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