Jewish By Injection Only
nytheatre.com review by Michael Bettencourt
July 21, 2006
Jewish by Injection Only takes as its theme a matter of constant importance to human beings: the search for an anchored personal identity. For Jews, this search is especially important, given the historical dislocations they have suffered. Unfortunately, the richness of the theme is not matched by either the script or the production that playwright / producer / director Michael Stockman has created to explore it.
The action begins on Passover, when Joseph Goldman (John D. McNally), the head of a not-so-observant Jewish family, will complete the sale of his Queens-based real estate business to a German company. The sale will allow him to get out from under a business he loathes and spend his days with his beloved wife, Delphine (Elizabeth Elson).
However, these best-laid plans are sent astray when son David (Jason Kaminsky) crashes home, obsessed about uncovering the true story of his mother’s past. Why the obsession? His girlfriend of less than a year refuses to accept his marriage proposal because he isn’t Jewish enough. David believes that Delphine, abandoned by her mother into the care of Catholic nuns during the German invasion of France, is actually Jewish. If she is Jewish, then he, too, is an authentic Jew, and he can get the girl back.
Two sisters, Lily (Sonia Perez) and Annabelle (Lani Shipman), have their own long menus of resentments (for example, Annabelle went to a private prep school while Lily was stuck going to public schools in Queens), and David’s unexpected return and obsession about his mother’s secret causes those resentments to boil over.
Eventually, all this huffing itself resolves into a vicious family reconciliation. Delphine is not Jewish, but her father was, and her dark story is that she saw the Nazis drag her father away and kill him. Joseph decides not to give up the business that has so disgusted him because David has convinced him that the five of them could resuscitate it into something grand and glorious. Lily and Annabelle kiss and make up.
The play feels jury-rigged in terms of both the writing and directing. At every dramatic turn in the play, one can feel the story shoehorned into what the writer wants to do rather than what the situation and the characters are creating moment-to-moment. And, like Alice in Wonderland, the audience is often asked to believe six impossible things before breakfast. For instance, in an office occupied for decades, only on this day do Joseph and David discover the pen Joseph’s father may have used to sign contracts and a yarmulke from Joseph’s bar mitzvah. Only found today? On Passover? When the family is in crisis? It's a little too convenient.
This clumsiness is also reflected in the production values. Set design is sloppy, using cardboard boxes and folding chairs instead of actual office furniture. The klezmer pre-show music seems clichéd. And Stockman doesn’t so much direct his actors as simply move them around his clutter of boxes and chairs.
Stockman has taken on an important topic, but he has written it up in a way that drains off all urgency by relying on the re-telling of past events and limiting the present action to reactions to things the audience has not experienced. This is a sure recipe for making a 90-minute theatre piece feel much much longer than its hour and a half upon the stage.