By Mark Leiren-Young. Directed by Ian Farthing. At Pacific Theatre on Friday, March 23. Continues until April 14
It’s time for Joey (Richard Newman) to get bar mitzvahed. As the play opens, he visits the office of Rabbi Michael (Gina Chiarelli) to discuss his preparation for the big day. He’s a little surprised to learn that the rabbi is a woman. She’s a lot more surprised to see that Joey is in his 60s. The rabbi reluctantly agrees to tutor Joey, whose Hebrew is pretty rusty after a 52-year absence from shul.
Bar Mitzvah Boy begins with both characters facing family trials. We learn why it’s so important to Joey to be called to the Torah before his own grandson and that Michaela’s daughter is enduring cancer treatments.
Their early scenes have a screwball-comedy vibe as they trade barbs about love, death, and divorce. These lively exchanges are offset by monologues, as we watch Joey practise Torah verses and the rabbi speak to her congregation.
Chiarelli and Newman are both veteran performers and they have found an easy chemistry in Michaela and Joey’s wry repartee. Chiarelli naturally inhabits the role of an overworked community leader, soldiering on despite personal sorrows.
I wouldn’t necessarily expect to mention the costuming in a contemporary two-hander, but Kaitlin Williams’s designs were exactly right. Joey the divorce lawyer wears a tired-looking suit with a too-wide tie, while the rabbi is a kind of bohemian soccer mom in her tunic tops and flowered prayer shawl.
The actors find their way around the stage with a welcome minimum of pretence and fussiness. But I did wonder if director Ian Farthing might have found a little more in his staging and Carolyn Rapanos’s set. The show runs 95 minutes without intermission. While it’s very watchable, the play’s final minutes might have been enlivened by a little theatrical magic.
Leiren-Young’s program notes explain that the playwright was himself bar mitzvahed a few blocks away at Beth Israel synagogue. The play is full of details that were new to this gentile. Along with Joey, we learned about tefillin—the black boxes worn on the head and left arm containing verses of the Torah—and the ner tamid, the sanctuary lamp that burns continuously in front of the ark in every synagogue.
Bar Mitzvah Boy is having its world premiere at Pacific Theatre. It’s always a treat to see a brand-new play. This one is a gentle, bittersweet comedy that’s both charming and undemanding—a perfect date show, regardless of your faith.