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At the Hillel last week,: the 10-minute The Gray Matter, by David Zeltser '97 and Alexis Gallagher '98, and the main feature, Isn't It Romantic, by Wendy Wasserstein, dealt well on a superficial level with characters who struggle with their Jewishness, but both also lacked depth.
The Gray Matter, which opened the evening, was very short and nearly plotless. In context, however, that was acceptable. The play was a banal but appropriate introduction to the theme of the evening--exploring the Jewish mind. Ben (Zach Shrier '99), the main character, is a nice Jewish boy, whose Id (David Weiner '00) and Superego (Bede Sheppard '00) fight over control of his body. As the play ran through a standard repertoire of Jewish humor, it was most successful when the punkish, roller blade-wearing Id and stuffy, English-accented Superego take turns in dominating Ben. In these changes, Ben's voice changed in a manner reminiscent of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
In contrast, Isn't It Romantic very definitely had a plot. It concerns the lives of two Jewish girls quickly approaching thirty who realize that they don't know where their lives (particularly their love lives) are going. The play traces their search for resolution. Janie (Stacey Gordon '98) starts off weaker and less self-assured, while Harriet (Rachel Greenblatt '98) has a clear sense of direction.
The play was most successful when it dealt with Jewish angst. A continual stream of advice is freely and insistently dispensed by the two girls' strikingly contrasting mothers, who have the same goal but different means of achieving it. They just want to do the best for their daughters, but frequently don't have enough foresight to do this well. Ilana Kurshan '00 was terrific as Tasha, Janie's mother, keeping a balance between pushy and pathetic in her interaction with her daughter. This combination of emotions was touching if predictable. On the other hand, Lillian (Aviva Preminger '00), Harriet's mother, was stiff in giving advice to her daughter. Lines seemed forced, as when she called Harriet "baby" in nearly every scene.
When the play deviated from the theme of being Jewish and the characters' attempts at dealing with it, the shallowness of the characters became glaringly obvious. All that the actors could do was promulgate the stereotypes with which the play is rife. Although the stereotypes are funny up to a point, the viewer, while still laughing at the jokes, tires of them as the play continues.
The audience's feeling of ennui and superiority to the characters becomes clearest with the resolution of the play. Janie's boyfriend, Marty (Shrier), moves very rapidly through their relationship. He places a down payment on an apartment without even consulting her; when she doesn't feel comfortable moving in with him, he becomes upset. But as she starts to push him away from her life, he becomes more insightful, telling Janie that she's "shy and clumsy" and that she makes her life "harder than it has to be." Ironically, Janie uses Marty's advice and insight to dump him, as she realizes that they don't fit together and that she needs to live on her own, without her parents and without a boyfriend, but with her own talents and sense of motivation.
The resolution to Harriet's dilemmas is much less credible. After having a relationship with her pompous and obnoxious "boss's boss" (Weiner again) that doesn't work out, she starts dating and then gets engaged to another man after only two weeks. Throughout the play she has emphasized to Janie the importance of living on your own--and then defies all of that with a quick marriage.
The acting for the most part was fine: actors dealt well with the aforementioned weaknesses in plot and portrayed the stereotypes effectively. Some of the funniest scenes included cameo appearances by Mike Sugarman '98 as Vladimir, a cab driver who barely speaks English, who Janie's parents thought would be a good match for her.
Technically, there were a few serious problems with the play. The set changes were awkward and took too long because the set of each scene was very different from the one before. Director Stephanie Smith '98 attempted to cover up the length and noise that accompany the set changes with well-chosen music, but this didn't completely mask the problems. Janie's phone messages, which begin each scene, were poor in sound quality. They echoed through Beren Hall and were barely understandable for the audience members straining to hear.
Overall, Isn't it Romantic presented an amusing take on Jewish twentysomethings trying to come to grips with their lives in the early '80s. Weakened by overused character types and technical difficulties, the play lost some of its initial punch as it went on. But it remained eminently viewable, though not especially meaningful.
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