I went to the first preview of JERICHO because two of my former students had featured roles. I hadn't see their work since they were undergraduates two decades ago. Thanks to TDF, I got a good, very cheap ticket -- another incentive. I also read the favorab;e TIMES review of the previous production at the New Jersey Repertory Theatre in Long Branch.
Essentially, JERICHO centers on the isolation of two people who are riddled with guilt. Because they don't like themselves, they cause damage to the people that love them. The moment of crisis for both of them was 9/11. The night before, Beth (Eleanor Handley), with a history of broken relationships, tells her husband Alec (Kevin Isola) that she wants a divorce. He goes to work in the World Trade Center the next morning and never comes back -- except in Beth's mind where he is a constant presence. She even sees him in her middle-aged female Korean therapist (the same actor plays Alec and the therapist). Beth is trying to have a relationship with Ethan (Andrew Rein) a nice Jewish bloke with his own history of multiple failed romances. Ethan's brother Josh (Noel Joseph Allain) is even more haunted by 9/11. His placing his own survival ahead of the needs of the people around him have led him to hate himself, his wife and his country. His refuge has become his Judaism. Feeling no part of any other community, he wants to go to Israel where he thinks he will find a sense of belonging. He identifies with Israel's condition of being constantly embattled. His wife Jessica (Carol Todd) is infuriated at Josh's bitterness and rejection. All this comes to a head at a Thanksgiving dinner from hell at the home of Ethan and Josh's mother (Jill Eikenberry as the stereotypical guilt-inducing Jewish mother).
JERICHO is a mixed bag -- one of those plays where you say there's a good play in there but it needs more work, more tightening the parallels between the two focal characters and cutting back on less essential, more stereotypical figures like the Jewish mother. Jack Canfora writes very well, but one problem is that his characters tend to alternate between inarticulacy -- speeches filled with hesitations and "You knows" -- and eloquent long speeches. There's too much of the bickering between Josh and Jessica. We get increasingly heated versions of the same argument that finally goes over the top at the Thanksgiving dinner (alcohol fueled, of course). The first long scene between Josh and Jessica cut be cut down-- one could feel the restless of the audience during that long scene.
With one exception, the cast is very strong. Eleanor Handley serves as a quasi-narrator, beginning and ending the play. She's a charming actress who understand's Beth's complexity. Carol Todd manages to make Jessica's rants sympathetic. Andrew Rein shows us that there's something going on under the surface of Ethan's pleasantness, an anger that could bubble up. Kevin Isola has to play Beth's imaginary Alec, more her fabrication than who he really was, but he makes Alec a totally winning figure. Jill Eikenberry wisely underplays the Linda Lavin role. This is a strong ensemble in an ensemble play. They are let down by the one note performance of Noel Joseph Allain who sulks and broods monotonously throughout the play. As a result, it is impossible to feel any sympathy for Ethan. With such winning colleagues, he stands out like a sore thumb.
Director Evan Bergman and his designer Jessica Parks have filled the stage with stacks of old furniture. The actors have to take the furniture necessary for a scene from the stacks and replace it at the end of the scene. The set may be a metaphor for the crippling power of memory, but unfortunately the stage just looks like a bunch of miscellaneous old furniture and getting the pieces back on the stacks is sometimes a problem. Simpler would have been better. Within this detritus, the play is well staged and, with one exception, Bergman has built a solid, well-functioning ensemble.
Despite Allain's performance and the weaknesses in the script, I enjoyed JERICHO. There's enough good stuff there to make an absorbing play. I do think it would play better as a one and three quarter hour intermissionless play. Like most contemporary playwrights, Canfora writes in episodes, not in the larger structure of an act (a lost art). The act break seems arbitrary, except as a reason to set up the big dinner scene. And we've heard those Jewish mother jokes before.
JERICHO by Jack Canfora. Directed by Evan Bergman. 59E59 Theatre B. October 4, 2013.