Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Set in Chicago in 1990, the play focuses on Sarah Goldman, a young Jewish kindergarten teacher with a problem. Sarah's parents want her to marry a nice Jewish boy but she is in love with the appropriately named gentile Chris Cringle. Tired of her parent's relentless attempts to fix her up with someone they believe is appropriate, Sarah hires a Jewish man from an escort service, Bob Schroeder, to fool and impress her parents as her boyfriend, the very Jewish Dr. Steinberg, and invites them over for dinner to meet him. Unfortunately, it turns out that Bob isn't actually Jewish but he is an aspiring actor who has appeared in productions of Fiddler on the Roof and Cabaret, so he is able to quickly convince Sarah's parents and her brother Joel that he knows his way around a seder, even if that means he has to use a line from Fiddler's "To Life" during the seder prayers. Hilarity ensues as Sarah, unable to get her parents off her back and still not ready to tell them about Chris, hires Bob for more family dinners, which only makes them continue to keep up their deceptive ways. When Bob finds himself falling for Sarah, things really get complicated.
Sherman's script does include a few corny one-liners but there are some very funny parts and a great heart at the center of the story and the characters are all realistic enough and the dialogue not only funny but carefully constructed as well. Director Jere Van Patten keeps the pacing fast and doesn't allow his cast's portrayals of the somewhat stereotypical characters to cross the line into caricature. He also stages the show very effectively in Hale's intimate in-the-round space, ensuring that no matter where you sit you never feel left out of the action, with the actors moving naturally around the space so any audience member is only temporarily viewing an actor's back.
As Sara, Laura Anne Kenney achieves the right balance between wanting to please her parents and being desperate to get them off her back so she can live her life the way she wants to live it. Sarah is mainly the straight "man" throughout the play, letting the comical events unfold around her, yet she expertly delivers Sarah's frustrated actions and reactions to make sure we understand her unpleasant situation, without coming across as a whiny person, and in doing so creates a realistic character. Aaron Blanco is perfect as Bob, with his expressive wide eyes instantly providing comic relief to the "role" he finds himself playing. Blanco seems to relish portraying an actor who is playing a surgeon. He makes it seem like Bob has found the part of a lifetime, and attacks it with glee. He also brings a natural spontaneity to the role, which works perfectly since Bob has to be able to think fast on his feet as Sarah didn't have time to give him all of the details he needs to know to play her boyfriend. With Sarah's parents and her brothers' constant questions about Bob's medical practice and his relationship with Sarahand the need to be familiar with Jewish customsBlanco lets us see how Bob stumbles through the part he is playing while finding a family and a woman that he falls in love with. Blanco creates an honest and realistic portrayal of this very lovable man.
Allyson Van Patten and Wayne Peck are hilarious as the loving, yet very opinionated, parents. They seem like a natural couple with their constant, hilarious bickering. Van Patten is simply superb. She doesn't overdo the part, not letting her portrayal turn into a whining and loud caricature of a Jewish mother. She exudes a warmth beneath the non-stop questioning, direction, and unapproving remarks. Also, her accent is spot on. Peck is equally as good with his well-measured comical delivery of his lines, providing a few zingers. Raymond Barcelo is especially likable as Sarah's somewhat supportive therapist brother Joel. His monologue in the second act is filled with warmth and humor. Jeff Deglow is fine as the persistent Chris Cringle.
Creative elements are perfect, with set designer Dave Dietlein's static, two-tiered set effective in portraying the dining and living room of Sarah's apartment. The period costumes from Mary Atkinson are spot on with Miriam's loud ensembles, Joel's ugly sweaters, and Sarah's patterned dresses right out of the '90s; and Cambrian James has found a perfect wig to turn Van Patten into the Jewish mother of all Jewish mothers. While most of the cast isn't Jewish, they do well in making the Hebrew and Yiddish phrases flow naturally, thanks to Robin Wolf and Carly Kastner's instruction on Jewish customs and phrasing and dialect coach Diane Senffner.
While Beau Jest may not be the greatest comedy ever written, it is still fresh and funny today even though it's been almost 25 years since its New York run. With a great cast, including expert turns by Blanco and Van Patten, solid direction and perfect creative touches, Hale Centre Theatre's production is instantly relatable to everyone who has ever had an overreaching parent or relative; the end result is a comic delight.
The Hale Centre Theatre production of Beau Jest runs through February 13th, 2016, with performances at 50 W. Page Avenue in Gilbert. Tickets can be ordered at www.haletheatrearizona.com or by calling 480-497-1181.
Written by James Sherman
Cast: (in order of appearance)