Introducing a significant other to Mom and Dad is a ubiquitous rite of passage that can be simultaneously exciting and terrifying. You want that first meeting to go perfectly. You hope your partner will like your parents. You pray your parents will return the feeling and give you both their blessing. But, what do you do when your family DOESN’T approve of your relationship? If you are Sarah Goldman, the main character in the Greenbelt Arts Center production of Beau Jest (written by James Sherman and Directed by GAC staple Norma Ozur) the answer is clear– you conjure up a more “suitable” suitor to introduce to your parents– and then hire an actor to bring the character to life.
As the play opens, the lights come up to reveal Sarah Goldman, a 30-year-old Jewish woman from Chicago, passionately kissing Kris (wait for it…) Kringle – her very gentile boyfriend. Through the dialogue that follows, we learn that Sarah’s parents know about Chris, but aren’t happy with Sarah dating outside the tribe. So, to assuage their concerns (i.e., to get them off her back) Sarah tells them that she and Chris have broken up and she is seeing a new man– a Jewish doctor. It seems like a great plan, but when Sarah’s parents hear the news, they predictably start kvelling (a word derived from the Yiddish for “rejoice”) and insist on meeting the faux beau. Thinking quickly, Sarah contacts a local agency to hire an actor– specifically, a Jewish actor– to play the role of her new boyfriend, Dr. David Steinberg. Then she plans a Shabbat dinner to introduce him to her parents and brother, which she is frantically preparing for as the show begins. Unfortunately, as Sarah discovers too late, the agency has made a mistake. Actor Bob Schroeder actually isn’t Jewish– even if his last name sounds like he should be. Plus, he knows very little about the medical profession. To illustrate, when Sarah’s brother Joel asks “Dr. Steinberg” what kind of surgery he specializes in, Bob just rattles off random body parts. Seeing this, Sarah secretly fears her parents will figure out the ruse and want to kill her– figuratively, of course. It’s just a good thing that Dr. Steinberg, the heart– oh, and brain– surgeon is in actuality a self-proclaimed master improviser….
This production is well-cast with highly talented actors. Sarah Scott, who might be mistaken for Semitic in real life, plays the energetic Sarah Goldman with aplomb. Her portrayal of the quintessential Jewish daughter willing to go to great lengths to please her parents is beautifully crafted and evokes my own experience as a tokhter (daughter.) Shelley Rochester as mother Miriam and Steve Rosenthal as father Abe Goldman are nothing short of hysterical. In fact, the pair banters so effortlessly and has such incredible chemistry that I had to check the program to see if they are married in real life (they’re not.) As Bob Schroeder, Anwar Al-Mallah is appropriately low-key and– like the improvising actor he plays– has an easiness onstage as he goes with the flow of the action. Winard Britt gives a solid performance as therapist Joel Goldman– Sarah’s know-it-all brother– the only person in the family, incidentally, who catches on to Sarah and Bob’s shenanigans. Rounding out the cast is Tunde Sho as Kris Kringle. Although Chris has less stage time than the other characters, Sho grabbed my attention from his very first appearance, because it is clear that he really pays attention to what is happening onstage and reacts organically in the moment, a skill every actor should have, but not all do.
Set in the early 90s, Beau Jest is a throwback to a simpler time– before the internet– before social media– a time when families sat down together at the dinner table and actually talked to one other. And talk they did! Listening to Miriam and Abe’s amusingly heated exchanges about what they were doing the week before made me belly laugh. It reminded me of my own grandparents’ legendary bickering sessions. There is something about the way many older Jewish couples communicate that I find incredibly comedic. However, there is a moment in the show that is unintentionally amusing. As members of the Goldman family say their berakhahs (blessings) at dinner it is apparent to me that while Miriam and Abe (Rochester and Rosenthal) are Jewish in real life– or at least are very comfortable with Hebrew– Sarah and Joel (Scott and Britt) are hesitant and pronounce the words like true goyim (non-Jews.) However, that doesn’t at all detract from the enjoyment of the show.
Bottom line? Beau Jest is a taut production with excellent performances that everyone can enjoy– whether you are Jewish or not. So, why not bring the spouse, the kids, some challah and a batch of lukshen kugel and join the Goldman family for Shabbat dinner at the Greenbelt Arts Center this weekend? You won’t leave unsatisfied.
Running Time: 2 hours with two 10-minute intermissions