Investment banker Ben Jacobson, played by lanky Ross Benjamin in the West Coast premiere of Daniel Goldfarb’s Modern Orthodox (at Beverly Hills’ Theatre 40), is the secular Jewish answer to Lewis Carroll’s Alice. With gentle bewilderment, Ben stands on the stage for much of the action with his jaw dropped while a belligerent and cruel world spins wildly out of his control. At least Alice chides the crazy people and creatures around her for being impolite, though she can’t actually do much about it. Ben’s passivity, however, is largely a product of his guilt over not being sufficiently Jewish. The play’s lingering questions are whether he can, or should, do something about that.
Ben’s guilt first emerges in his opening scene at a restaurant with a hyperactive, hyper-Orthodox Brooklyn diamond merchant named Hershel Klein (Michael Goldstrom). Hershel is a cross between the Merchant of Venice and Tartuffe (Molière’s great symbol of faux devotion) marooned in an episode of Seinfeld. In a rumpled jacket, a New York Yankees yarmulke, sneakers and dangling tzitzits, Hershel blazes in to his lunch date with Ben 45 minutes late, blaming his tardiness on a litany of crises, including the pathetic excuse of a smashed wristwatch. After a torrent of ramblings obnoxiously punctuated with Hebrew and Yiddishisms, Hershel then commandeers Ben’s seat in order to “face Jerusalem.” The only differences between Hershel and Tartuffe are that Hershel, obviously, is Jewish rather than Christian, and that his religious fervor is sincere rather than a con. Yet their capacities to turn the world around them upside down are strikingly similar. This leaves the dispiriting impression that sincerity in a character onstage, as in life, may be overrated when it comes to changing outcomes.
Ben tolerates Hershel’s bluster because he wants a good price on a high-quality diamond engagement ring for his obstetrician girlfriend of six years, Hannah Zigglestein (Robyn Cohen). Fuming at the smug darts Hershel insistently shoots at his lapsed faith, Ben spitefully serves up his $18,000 check for the engagement band on the condition that Hershel remove his yarmulke. Improbably, for a man of Hershel’s devoutness, he does so.
Modern Orthodox is jammed with too many such improbabilities to enumerate, yet the play is like one of Hershel’s diamonds in the rough — its flaws float alongside a rare and enjoyable satire on the wavering essences of faith. It comes with equal parts tenderness, burlesque and romantic comedy in a balance that’s perfectly modulated by director Howard Teichman, and acted by a stellar comedy ensemble.
Benjamin’s Ben is a dead ringer in appearance, gestures and vocal timbre for his father, Richard Benjamin, at the start of his career. The tiny revelations of Ben’s narcissism masquerading as romanticism are luminously well observed when he proposes to Hannah. She’s exhausted and still wearing hospital greens from her extended shift delivering babies when Ben pops the question; he’s hurt that she’s not weeping for joy, as he is. Hannah suggests that perhaps the effect on her might have been stronger had he shown the courtesy of waiting to propose until she was dressed and more refreshed.
“I’m a spontaneous kind of guy!” he offers as his withering defense, to which she eventually points out that anybody who waits six years to propose marriage, and believes that’s part of a spontaneous character, should rethink the meaning of spontaneity.
Meanwhile, after Hershel’s arranged-marriage bride in Belgium finally sees a photo of her betrothed and subsequently sets herself on fire, the merchant of Brooklyn pounds on Ben and Hannah’s door, blaming Ben for this curse, stemming from his having told Hershel to remove the yarmulke. Until Ben can find Hershel a new bride and thereby lift the curse, Hershel declares he’s moving in. Suddenly, nonobservant Ben and Hannah find themselves in the middle of The Dybbuk with an insufferable houseguest, bloated with entitlement, insulting Hannah for the sin of being female, and complaining about their non-kosher household.
Goldstrom’s Hershel flails and whines and cajoles in a performance of gleeful petulance. Cohen’s Hannah shoots back contemptuous glares while struggling to contain her rage. There’s also a wondrous cameo by Shari Albert (an occasional L.A. Weekly contributor) as Hershel’s busty JDate. (“I have a master’s degree — I don’t know how I did that, ’cause I’m not very bright.”)
Ben’s failure to turn the interloper out on his ear can only be attributed to the guilt of the secular. This, at least, is a psychological/theological explanation for the passivity that has Ben’s shrinking in Wonderland as part of some cosmic joke. In each other’s company, however, the characters melt a little; doctrine becomes a little less doctrinaire. They all shrink slightly in order to return to size perhaps a smidgen wiser.
Alice in Wonderland Thru the Looking Glass at North Hollywood’s Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre Group is one in a quartet of Alice adaptations on L.A. stages in the past three months, placing Lewis Carroll alongside William Shakespeare as the most popular generator of source material for local stage renditions and adaptations. And though binges of Shakespeare are perennial, the Alice phenomenon has just cropped up. A few years ago, we observed a similar wave of plays by Bertolt Brecht, as if in response to L.A.’s evaporating middle class and the increasing stratification of rich and poor. The Brecht wave has since retreated, even though the forces that fueled it haven’t. It could be that there’s only so much ironical sneering one can get away with before the call for equity falls again on deaf ears.
Beyond the kiddie story and Jabberwocky prose that render Alice so exotic, the Carroll wave makes perfect sense for our age. In the last six years, we’ve seen the world’s devil horns arrive at our door, and our nation fall off the wall ideologically, economically and spiritually, like Humpty Dumpty. Zombie Joe’s Underground was born from goth more than a decade ago, and has made a Brechtian-infused gothic macabre its specialty. In Denise Devin and Zombie Joe’s freewheeling, hallucinogenic 70-minute adaptation (it’s the dream of Alice’s great-granddaughter, played here with wide-eyed vivaciousness by Jessica Amal Rice), the Queen of Hearts (Jana Wimer) has gone on a rampage of pointless beheadings, and Alice’s task (ignited by her sexual fantasy, The White Knight [Jackson Baker], having “lost his head”) is to kill the cloistered, lunatic royal who’s decimating the empire.
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The structure consists of Alice, guided by The White Rabbit (Jeffrey Grin), going off to see the Queen and being visited by an array of Carroll’s characters whom the pair meet en route. With songs by Christopher Reiner (and Lewis Carroll), Jeri Batzdorff’s gorgeous costumes, and Wimer’s enveloping mural backdrop that’s part Victorian fairy tale and part Brueghel the Elder, Devin and Joe’s archly presentational direction is wildly theatrical and entertaining and, at the same time, unrelentingly aggressive and loud, bypassing so many nuances embedded in their script. Much of the wisdom of Alice in Wonderland lies in Alice’s moments of quiet wonder.
A similar problem plagued their recent adaptation of works by Edgar Allan Poe. This company, one of the most inventive and charismatic in the city, is now at the point where Santa Monica’s City Garage was five years ago, performing intriguing works in a singularly relentless tone. City Garage has worked through those limitations on a road to artistic maturity and sophistication. For this very good company to become a great one, Zombie Joe’s needs to do the same.
MODERN ORTHODOX | By DANIEL GOLDFARB | Presented by THEATRE 40, on the Beverly Hills High School campus, Reuben Cordova Theatre, 241 Moreno Drive (use Olympic Boulevard entrance due to construction), Beverly Hills | Through Sept. 9 | (310) 364-0535
ALICE IN WONDERLAND THRU THE LOOKING GLASS | By DENISE DEVIN, LEWIS CARROLL and ZOMBIE JOE | Presented by ZOMBIE JOE’S UNDERGROUND THEATRE GROUP, 4850 Lankershim Blvd., N. Hlywd. | Through Sept. 8 | (818) 202-4120