Review: 'Bar Mitzvah Boy' doesn't quite come of age at Chester Theatre Company
That's not necessarily a gimme, especially early in a summer theater season in the Berkshires that's seen three plays — in addition to "Bar Mitzvah Boy," "Church & State" at Berkshire Theatre Group and "The Cake" at Barrington Stage Company — with central characters whose deeply rooted faith systems come under serious scrutiny.
As played by Franklin, Rabbi Michael ("It means 'gift from God' or who is like God," she tells her unlikely Bar Mitzvah pupil, a sixtysomething divorce lawyer named Joey Brant, who has had his own decades-long issues with God and Judaism) is an efficient, dutiful, thoughtful spiritual leader who has a keen sense of her responsibilities and obligations to her Conservative congregation, her family, her God and the Torah, especially the Torah. Next to her 11-year-old daughter, Rachel, the Shul is and always has been Michael's great love.
"The Shul always felt more like home than home," she tells Brant (played by Will LeBow with staccatolike wise-cracking flippancy). "I loved it the way Rachel does. Any Shul anywhere in the world always feels like home. The Torahs [the first five books of the Old Testament]... I always loved the ceremony around the Torahs. The feel, the smell, the love for The Word... " Michael sees the words of the Torah, the stories they tell, not as literal accounts but, rather, as metaphors for life. It's not what the stories say, she says; rather, it's what the stories mean.
There is a sense of sanctuary, figuratively as well as literally, at Shul; a fixed point in a turning world, especially home where the rabbi is dealing with the hard consequences of having an 11-year-old daughter named Rachel, who has terminal cancer; whose motivation is to live long enough to be a Bat Mitzvah. That not all is as calm and purposeful as the rabbi would have Brant believe is hinted at in the ever-so-slight edge in the rabbi's voice when she talks about her husband or in her phone conversations home. Brant knows better. His professional experience tells him that Michael's marriage of 13 years to her Russian husband is in deep and serious trouble.
For his own part, Brant, who has not set foot in a Shul in nearly 50 years, has come to the rabbi's synagogue to have the Bar Mitzvah he never had as a youth and to have the ceremony done before his grandson Benny's Bar Mitzvah scheduled for a few months later November in the very same congregation.
With the exception of one scene in Brant's office and a few brief scenes during services, "Bar Mitzvah Boy" — which too often sounds like a basic primer on Jewish ritual and philosophy — unfolds primarily in the rabbi's study at Shul in the months leading up to Brant's Bar Mitzvah.
LeBow's Brant, whose Friday nights are spent at a poker table rather than at Shul, has a boyish verbal impulsivity about him. He wants what he wants when he wants it and the quip is his go-to position. For the rabbi, working with him means using all the skills she's developed as a mother, teacher and counselor. But Brant also has a perceptive, insightful mind. He's a good, hard-working student. His penchant for shtick is as much defense mechanism as it is born of a certain arrogance and willfulness. During a moving conversation with the rabbi at his own office, LeBow's Bryant reveals not only professional acumen and skill but also an honest paternal compassion that runs counter to his public reputation.
Franklin and LeBow work dutifully through a by-the-numbers script that ends as one character's rite of passage is winding up while another's is only just beginning.
Jeffrey Borak can be reached at email@example.com or 413-496-6212
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