A Modest Suggestion
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
May 12, 2012
Apple Core Theatre Company makes a significant contribution to the current season with their presentation of Ken Kaissar's absurdist satire A Modest Suggestion. Kaissar, born in Israel, educated at Carnegie-Mellon and Columbia and currently making his home here in New York, has written a play that is both clever and smart: it's sharp, witty, and enormously provocative, in the tradition of Ionesco and (early) Woody Allen.
It takes place in a corporate boardroom, neatly rendered by designer Jared Rutherford in the intimate Theatre Row Studio space via a conference table, executive chairs, coffee station, and prominent whiteboard. The four men who occupy this boardroom are simply referred to as A, B, C, and D in the program, and it's never clear exactly who they are or whom/what they work for (they talk elliptically about their superiors, but that's all they reveal). Written on the board in large letters when we enter the theatre is the word "ILLUMINATE," which my companion and I both originally took to say "ILLUMINATI," which strikes me as possibly not accidental.
Whoever they are, they are apparently charged with making Important Decisions. They have just finished (as the play opens) dealing with a thorny issue related to airport security. Next on the agenda is a topic that has to do with school lunches. And then they come to.... well, I don't want to give it away, exactly. A touchy subject that has certainly come up before in the annals of human history; one they recognize as particularly problematic. In order to resolve it, they determine they need to understand more about Jews. And so, one of them (D) goes out and finds a Jew, brings him in to the meeting, and they begin to interrogate him. But their interrogation, talmudically, only entangles them further in their dilemma.
What is a Jew? What does it mean to be Jewish? Is a man Jewish because he says he is? Does being Jewish mean you believe in God? Do Jews eat bacon? Does this Jew, whose name is Adam Miller, eat bacon? Is Miller a Jewish name? Are Jews stingy? If Adam Miller is generous, are all Jews not stingy?
And on and on; so many questions, so few definitive answers. A Modest Suggestion punctures irrevocably the skimpy internal logic that underlies the act of stereotyping (and not just of Jews, but of everyone). By casting A, B, C, and D at once as the most innocent of naifs and the most stringent of judges, Kaissar makes valuable points about the ways we manage our fear of the unknown and assert control over our turf—and how those impulses sometimes bump up against our innate humanity and eagerness to do good.
Kaissar's script is literate and very funny, full of twists and surprises including an ending that I totally did not see coming. It's been given a fine, well-realized production by Apple Core under the even-handed, splendidly paced direction of Walter J. Hoffman. The six-man cast is uniformly excellent, with Jeff Auer, Jonathan Marballi, Russell Jordan, and Bob Greenberg offering a quartet of contrasting yet conforming middle-management-executive types as A, B, C, and D, and Ethan Hova and Robert W. Smith providing exemplary takes on two different kinds of archetypal Jewish men.
A Modest Suggestion has important and valuable stuff to say about humanity in general and anti-Semitism in particular. It's a worthy addition to the theater season and highly recommended as a thoughtful, insightful, and very entertaining way to stretch and challenge some (possibly) long-held assumptions.