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February 11, 2014 6:41 pm
An offstage character can be, paradoxically, an immensely forceful presence in drama – the granddaddy of them all, of course, being Godot. In Daniel Kanaber’s new play there are two unseen figures, both female, both significant. One is Maggie, the partner of Ben, who rings him up frequently. The other is Sadie, Ben’s mother, and the most important person in the drama, despite being recently deceased. It is Sadie that Ben has come home to honour – to observe the Jewish practice of sitting shivah with his father Mordecai. The trouble is that no one quite knows what he is doing. Ben is an atheist, Mordecai has lapsed, and their guide in the ritual is Joshua, a trainee rabbi who is very nervous about getting things wrong.
It’s a great premise, perfectly poised for a poignant comedy that, although specifically Jewish, deals with universal concerns about grief, faith and identity. And there are several lovely moments: the young rabbi’s anxiety about whether Mordecai’s humming counts as song, which is forbidden, for instance. It feels though like a first full-length play: there are clunky moments when characters leave or enter, confrontations that feel over-engineered, one dismayingly bad scene, and it doesn’t reveal as much as you might hope.
It’s well played in Derek Bond’s production. David Horovitch is touching as Mordecai, a man who is near mad with grief and is driving his feelings into getting things just right for Sadie, his beloved but, we gradually realise, unpopular wife. He wants his taciturn son Ben (a nice performance by Ben Caplan playing an implausibly stubborn character) to pray with him. But as Joshua (Ilan Goodman, funny and poignant as the well-meaning young rabbi) points out, the prayers are really to help the living let go of the dead, something Mordecai is refusing to do.
There are some really interesting and meaningful issues here about the way people deal with the body blow of bereavement and how they orientate themselves within their inherited faith. But just as Kanaber starts to get into them, he makes a bizarre move, bringing a ghostly presence into the room that sends the whole piece suddenly into melodrama. And there are plot twists that are startling: would Ben, resistant even to reciting a prayer, really make preparations for his unborn son to be circumcised, as he suggests at the end? Great subject; patchy execution.
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