Regional Reviews: Connecticut & the Berkshires
Bar Mitzvah Boy
The two-hander co-stars Tara Franklin as a youthful, warm, conversational rabbi named Michael Levitz-Sharon, who jogs onto the bimah (an area in a synagogue where Torah is read) wearing yoga pants and a tightly fitting top. There she finds Joey or "Yosef" Brant (Will LeBow), a middle-aged man (on one side or the other of 60) wearing a suit and seeking a rabbi. He is quite surprised that she is, well, not at all aged.
Joey, decades and decades earlier, told by a rabbi that the Torah was "not for you," never did proceed to receive a bar mitzvah. Now, Joey is desperate to make that happen before his 12-year-old grandson becomes a man, in the Jewish religion, when he turns 13. There's the question of whether Joey, by trade a divorce lawyer, will be able to give up his Friday night poker game to attend services and meet the demands of the program. Initially, he tries to pull a fast one by asking the rabbi if she can just get him through in a matter of days.
Denied, Joey persuades Rabbi Michael that he needs to be tutored, rather than partake in a class with his grandson. She, with a full plate of her own personal troubles, isn't certain that she can work with the guy. She does, however, elect to school him in the Hebrew alphabet. They move on to procedures for adjusting tefillin (tiny boxes with important Torah passages to be strapped on one's arm and head) and to metaphors within the faith. She, a third generation rabbi, urges Joey to "look beyond the story."
He, growing more receptive to the rabbi and the task at hand, roams the theater at times singing hymns like "Adon Olam." The character is likably sympathetic. Meanwhile, Rabbi Michael, grappling with upsetting personal issues, comes to share them, every so often, with Joey. Call it role reversal. Thus, what seemed predictable yields to a far more creative second portion of the production. While the initial moments are amusing, the interpersonal exploration later is what clearly distinguishes this play. The friendship between Joey and Michael, at first casual, becomes more affecting and heartfelt.
Bar Mitzvah Boy speaks to the value of community which is sometimes facilitated through religion. The ending is lyrical and, perhaps, optimistic.
Chester Theatre Company is fortunate to have two experienced and poised actors as leads. LeBow is widely known for his many Boston area appearances. He plays Joey with some grit but compassion, too. Franklin, an intimate and versatile presence on stage, is often seen in western Massachusetts as she has been cast numerous times in Berkshire Theatre Group shows. The actors, led by Ben-Aharon's direction, establish a neat balance. Each listens well and each delivers dialogue with emotion. Rabbi Michael, early on, explains that she loves shul while the expedient Joey shows up for what he considers pragmatic reasons. The shifts in viewpoints and dimensions of character enrich the play.
Bar Mitzvah Boy, through July 1st, 2018, at Chester Theatre Company, 15 Middlefield Rd., Chester MA. For tickets, call 413-354-7771 or visit chestertheatre.org.