Two Jews walk into a Christmas Tree yard…
WEST BLOOMFIELD, Mich. – A Christmas romantic comedy about two jews? Though this might sound like an improv comedy prompt, it also aptly describes Jason Odell Williams’ play Handle with Care, now being staged by Jewish Ensemble Theatre.
Set in a dingy motel room in Goodview, Virginia on Christmas Eve, the drama begins with an aggravated Israeli woman, Ayelet (Annie Keris), dressing down a baffled package delivery man, Terrence (Dan Johnson). The two have no way to communicate with each other, yet have a desperate need to, so Terrence calls on his childhood friend, Josh (Michael Lopetrone), for help, assuming that Josh “speaks Jewish.”
Josh arrives and explains to Terrence that he only took a crash course in Hebrew leading up to his bar mitzvah; but as Ayelet continues speaking, he picks up on the word “grandmother” (Henrietta Hermelin Weinberg), and this sets a fateful series of events – and many stilted conversations – in motion.
Criticizing romantic comedies for being too cute and contrived by half might seem Grinchy (or just downright silly, given that this is the genre’s basic formula); but the emotional and narrative leaps that “Handle” makes in fairly short order (the show runs an intermissionless 90 minutes), and the coincidence that ultimately ties up this holiday romance with a big fat bow, make “Handle” a tough holiday treat to swallow.
For in order to be really moved by a story, we have to be able to believe it, and not be yanked out repeatedly by doubts. To name one example, it’s hard to believe that two people who can’t really talk to each other spend a single evening simply speaking things aloud and somehow grow close. Yes, we, the audience, get to know more about each character, thanks to the glimpses we get of each one; but how much can they share of themselves with each other on this one night? Almost nothing, thereby making the whole enterprise feel narratively shaky, particularly given the huge, impulsive decision they both make at show’s end.
And of course, being a conventional romantic comedy, there is a moment when Ayelet changes into a red dress and emerges from the bathroom, causing Josh to suddenly view her romantically. Because that’s how red dresses work.
Fortunately, there are also several clever moments of charm and fun and humor in “Handle with Care,” thanks in part to Robert Grossman’s direction, and the four actors’ charming performances. Johnson makes Southern-accented Terrence unworldly but well-meaning, and his beleaguered explanation of how to say Ayelet’s name – I yell it, adding “And believe me, man, she does like to yell it” – earn a laugh while also indicating how out of his element he is. Hermelin Weinberg plays Ayelet’s grandma with spunky self-possession, and Lopetrone imbues Josh, a widower who lost his wife in a car accident two years earlier, with quiet decency and a sense of being adrift. Keris anchors the show, having learned to speak the play’s copious Israeli lines via a CD provided by the playwright. Keris delivers the dialogue with impassioned naturalness, and as Ayelet pushes through her Christmas Eve crisis, a spare Shabbat dinner scene with Josh reminds us of the healing power of rituals, even for nonbelievers.
Leo Babcock designed the show’s roadside motel room set, with windows that show the Food Lion across the street, as well as two cars covered in snow; Diane E. Ulseth designed the show’s props. The show’s lighting design, by Neil Koivu, reflected Josh and Ayelet’s growing sense of closeness and intimacy. Finally, costume designer Mary Copenhagen provides clothes that are age-, personality-, and season-appropriate – flannel, sweaters, Grandma’s monochrome track suit, and Terrence’s nicely executed package delivery service uniform.
There are references to “It’s a Wonderful Life” embedded throughout “Handle with Care” – during one amusing scene, Josh flips through channels to find nothing but that movie classic on every station (courtesy of Matt Lira’s sound design) – and as you learn by the end, this isn’t just an added bit of holiday puckishness. There’s more to it than that; but its role also comes with a too-deliberate wink.
Yes, Odell Williams does a fine job of making this Jewish Christmas story accessible to everyone. Terrence acts as a kind of stand-in for non-Jews in the audience, so that things that might not otherwise be clear get an explanation from Josh; and as familiar as the rom-com tropes in the play are, this is the first time I’ve seen a Jewish one that plays out during the Christmas holidays – which give it an air of originality.
Yet as the title suggests, people who are in vulnerable positions must be handled with care; and that’s just as true for characters as it is for living, breathing people.