REVIEW: “Bar Mitzvah Boy” at Chester Theatre Company

by Barbara Waldinger

Metaphor:  the oft-repeated word describing Rabbi Michael Levitz-Sharon (Tara Franklin)’s view of biblical stories in Mark-Leiren-Young’s Bar Mitzvah Boy.  The Creation of the World in 7 Days, the Burning Bush, Noah’s Ark, the Binding of Isaac—all metaphors, not to be taken literally, according to the Rabbi.

This modern view of the Hebrew Bible is not Leiren-Young’s only attempt to keep us off-balance in his prize-winning play receiving its American Premiere at the Chester Theatre Company.  In an apparent role-reversal, Rabbi Michael (yes, her name is Michael) makes her way to the stage in a running suit as the play opens, while the other character in this two-hander, Joey “Yosef” Brant (Will LeBow) is dressed in a Rabbi’s traditional garb:  a suit, yarmulke and tallit.  In an ironic twist on the play’s title, Brant, a middle-aged, divorced divorce attorney, begs the Rabbi to prepare him for an adult Bar Mitzvah before his grandson undergoes the same rite in the same synagogue the following week.  After much protestation (“This is not Hogwart’s,” says Rabbi Michael, observing that only a magician could pull this off in such a short time), she agrees to tutor him.  The eighteen scenes in this intermissionless play chronicle these sessions as a relationship develops between the Rabbi, who is dealing with her daughter’s terminal illness, and the attorney, who tries to reconnect with the faith he lost 52 years ago.

Mark Leiren-Young won the 2017 Jewish Playwriting Prize for this play, which received its world premiere at the Pacific Theatre in his native Vancouver, British Columbia, where Leiren-Young was Bar Mitzvahed.  In addition to writing for the theatre, Leiren-Young, a journalist, writes for film and television, including his award-winning TV special, Greenpieces: The World’s First Eco-Comedy. 

Bar Mitzvah Boy is thin on plot, but instead focuses on the two characters, their lives and the interaction between them.  Although the opening scenes are comic, filled with punch-lines perfectly delivered by these two talented actors, the play gradually tugs at our emotions as the illness of the Rabbi’s daughter, Rachel, takes its toll.  This can feel manipulative, as the audience is caught between laughter and tears.  That is what life does, of course, but it becomes obvious that the playwright is the one pulling the strings, rather than allowing the story to unfold organically.

Some of the characters’ motivations feel manufactured to fit the structure of the play:  for example, even after Joey’s big reveal, when he finally explains his need to be Bar Mitzvahed, we don’t feel the immediate urgency, despite LeBow’s brilliance in this role.  His reasons for abandoning his religion years ago don’t stand up to scrutiny.  And notwithstanding Leiren-Young’s desire to balance each character’s need for the other, the Rabbi’s need for Joey, except as a friend and perhaps as an attorney, is not clear, compared to Joey’s obvious reliance on the Rabbi for his Bar Mitzvah training.

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However, setting aside flaws in the play, the work of the artists, both onstage and off, is impressive.  From the moment we view Will LeBow, a self-described atheist disowned by his Jewish family, we are convinced that Joey Brant and Will LeBow are one person.  In a beautiful melding of character and actor, we follow his journey of rediscovery as he revisits the Jewish traditions he left long ago.  Challenging the Torah portion he is assigned to explicate (the story of Abraham and Isaac) he decides that only Al Queda or a paranoid schizophrenic would ask a father to sacrifice his son.  Yet, somehow, when it is time for him to “become a man” we are moved by his acceptance of the power of community.

Tara Franklin’s portrayal is more problematic.  Her costume changes alone must be distractions for her as she switches from running clothes to different dresses in the course of the production.  And the necessity to absorb a whole culture along with its language in the time it takes to rehearse a play is daunting.  Nevertheless, because of her superior acting skills, we eventually come to believe in her character.

Director Guy Ben-Aharon, the Founder and Artistic Director of Boston’s Israeli Stage, uses both the small proscenium as well as the auditorium to create the world of the play.  As Joey leaves and enters each scene, he descends the few steps to the audience, engaging with the Rabbi from there.  Ben-Aharon is aided by a talented design team:  Scenic Designer David Towlun, constructs the Rabbi’s office, displaying a highly unusual horizontal space on the wall for what seems to be hundreds of books, surrounded by a circular backstage area visible through milky double doors that resemble the Ten Commandments.  Lighting Designer Lara Dubin, the resident lighting expert, provides gorgeous pastel lighting emanating from  that circular area, and original overhead lighting instruments that look like open books facing downward with small bulbs inside, including an orange one representing the synagogue’s Eternal Flame.  Sound Designer David Reiffel offers a wonderful collection of Jewish music, both singing and instrumental, that matches the mood of each scene; while Costume Designer Charles Schoonmaker meets the challenge of dressing the Rabbi, though it might have been better if the process could have been simplified.

Bar Mitzvah Boy will certainly appeal to a Jewish audience, who will recognize themselves and their traditions in the play but because of its exploration of faith and the role of religion this play can serve as a universal metaphor that reaches out to diverse audiences as well.

BAR MITZVAH BOY runs from June 21—July 1.  Tickets may be purchased online at chestertheatre.org or call 413-354-7771.

Chester Theatre Company presents BAR MITZVAH BOY by Mark Leiren-Young.  Directed by Guy Ben-Aharon.  Cast:  Tara Franklin (Rabbi Michael Levitz-Sharon) and Will LeBow (Joey “Yosef” Brant).  Scenic Design:  David Towlun; Costume Design:  Charles Schoonmaker; Lighting Design:  Lara Dubin; Sound Design:  David Reiffel; Stage Manager:  Laura Kathryne Gomez.

Running Time:  80 minutes, no intermission; Chester Theatre Company, Chester Town Hall, Middlefield Street, Chester, MA.; from June 21; closing July 1.

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