New Jewish Theatre is an undisputed success story. Over the past decade, artistic director Kathleen Sitzer has assembled a support staff comprising many of the area's most talented actors, directors and designers. She has built up a solid subscriber base. The only thing that prevents New Jewish from being a consistently first-rate theater is Sitzer's sweet tooth for inferior plays. Her current offering, Bluish, is yet another example of a formulaic script that is only likely to be staged by a myopic, culturally specific theater.
"Culturally specific" is Sitzer's phrase, and it certainly defines Bluish. It's hard to imagine anyone whose primary concern is quality theater becoming involved in this verbose, didactic story about the life change in a 34-year-old woman who assumes she is a Christian, only to discover that her long-deceased mother was Jewish. The Seinfeld episode about Jerry's goy dentist converting to Judaism covers the same general territory and is much funnier in one-fifth the time. All right, so playwright Janece Shaffer is no Larry David; she's also no Alfred Uhry. Shaffer and Uhry are both Georgians who write about growing up Jewish in Atlanta. But whereas in Uhry's Driving Miss Daisy the title character simply lives her life, in Bluish our protagonist dwells on her ethnicity morning, noon and night.
Beth Richardson (Nicole Angeli) is not really a character at all. Despite the transformation Beth undergoes, she is merely a mouthpiece, put here to dance around the Maypole of the evening's unrelenting motif: How Jewish is too Jewish? It goes without saying that Beth is going to clash with Ben (David Cooperstein), her ambitious, career-oriented Jewish fiancé, and if you can't see the resolution of that relationship coming at least an hour before the plot finally limps to a close, you'd best see your optometrist. Along the way we also meet Ben's parents (Peggy Billo, John Contini). Nuanced they are not. Three months ago in the St. Louis Actors' Studio production of Greetings! (another poorly written play), Contini played essentially the same one-dimensional role — only that character was Catholic. There's also Ben's wisecracking sister (Sarajane Alverson), who has little reason to exist other than to amuse us with her retorts. The talented William Whitaker seems to be at a loss as to what to make of any of this; he seems to have directed the play under duress.
Some folks might de-scribe Bluish as a comedy; by evening's end it certainly strives for drama. But really this polemic is yet another in the seemingly endless assembly-line output of get-out-the-menorah, light-the-candles, put-on-the-prayer-shawl scripts that want to reassure their complacent viewers that being Jewish is the answer to all of life's problems. The opening-night audience at New Jewish ate it up with a spoon. Bluish might pass for effective cheerleading practice, but by any objective standard it provides thin, shallow, unsatisfying theater.
There are two kinds of plays. There are those of such a caliber that any theater company would consider staging them. Some recent New Jewish offerings — Broadway Bound, Via Dolorosa and Kindertransport — fit that category. But then there are the scripts that no self-respecting theater would touch with a ten-foot pole. Not because of their themes, but because — regardless of how well-intended those scripts might be — they are poorly written. Just because the characters in these orphan plays are Jewish is not reason enough to justify a production. C'mon, Kathleen: Give us a break. You've got a really good thing going. Good direction; some of the best ensemble acting in town. But enough preaching to the choir. As you enter your second decade, it's time to raise the bar and set a more ambitious — and, dare I suggest, even a more inclusive — agenda.
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