Illusions and dreams are often enough the stuff needed to help us keep on truckin’ through life. Certainly Prospero in The Tempest and Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon suggested it was so.
But, neither of those iconic productions have the wild start that the audience is given at Theater J with the premiere of Renee Calarco’s G-d’s Honest Truth. We are greeted with a mischievous grin as Eric M. Messner, as Josh, tells us that we will be seeing a show that is “Jewish, but not too Jewy.” Yup, I think I wrote that down correctly in the dark through my own laughter. The dead-pan, in-character, breaking the actor-audience wall remark had the sold-out audience of 240 in stunned silence for a beat. Then, a totally loud delightful uproar.
That coy Jacobson had us in the palm of her hand readying everyone to receive though a plentitude of stinging astringency from G-d’s Honest Truth. For Calarco’s new work focuses upon a community, in this case a Jewish community, trying to figure out how to keep on truckin’ down the line, even as ”factual” stories from a respected, reputable authority figures prove false. And the untrue stories were “glue” stories that bound the community and families together.
Under the briskly-paced direction of Jenny McConnell Frederick, G-d’s Honest Truth utilizes a top-notch cast to great advantage as the storyline builds into its hard, harsh truths. The cast is so in-synch with their various characters that they don’t seem to be acting even as they deliver sharp, pin-prick humor punctuated with plenty of animated body or as bad news sink into each of them.
So what it G-ds Honest Truth about? It was inspired by the story of Rabbi Menachem Youlus, a self-described Jewish Indiana Jones. In dramaturgy notes, Shirley Serotsky, acting artistic director at Theater J wrote, that while G-ds Honest Truth “is a work of dramatic fiction, it was inspired by the real-life story of Menachem Youlus, a Baltimore-area rabbi and Torah scribe who falsely claimed he had rescued Holocaust-era Torah scrolls…” He was arrested and convicted of fraud and is serving time.
The real-life Youlus story is the jumping-off point for G-d’s Honest Truth. Calarco created a fictional Rabbi Dov, (As Dov, a charismatic Sasha Olinick delivers a High Holiday Days sermon about Isaac that had me in hushed silence of respect and admiration), who uses his intuitive knowledge that “we all want to leave a legacy” to work his magic over impressionable adults.
He comes into the lives of a long-time married couple (Roberta played brilliantly by Helen Hayes Award recipient Jacobson, and Larry played by finely-tuned “knowing his place in the marriage” John Lescault). The couple want to do a mitzvah by bringing a supposedly rescued Holocaust Torah to their synagogue; one that Dov has in his possession.
Along the way the show journeys through a number of linked scenes bringing in focus other representatives of the community. There is Roberta and Larry’s commitment-phobic, tech save son Josh (the quite protean Eric M. Messner), a future daughter-in-law (a snappish with good reason Audrey Bertaux) and friends and community members (in multiple roles, the splendidly insightful skills of Helen Hayes Award recipient Rena Cherry Brown and the well-calibrated work of Helen Hayes nominee Michael Kramer).
Over time, we witness, not only the trials and tribulations of the Torah’s miraculous rescue but take in nicely played scenes depicting the run-up to a too-longed delayed marriage ceremony, a delightful Bat Mitzvah (Bertaux as a gangly girl on the bemah and then at the after party is simply a sweet hoot), sitting Shiva after the death of a parent, arguing and losing a good friend, life as a parent of a young child (Messner in pajamas being his inner-child) and the regular tussles within a marriage of two people who love each other, but know what buttons to push and when.
Robbie Hayes’ set design frames the Theater J proscenium stage with horizontal and vertical cubby-holes containing memorabilia important to the community. G. Ryan Smith’s projections design are a movable feast of pictures, maps and data as prompts and aids about various aspects of Jewish life relevant to the production. Deb Sivigny’s costume design give visual definition to the upper-middle class characters. Sound (Patrick Calhoun) and lighting (Brian S. Allard) give plenty of nuanced cues for the audience as the multitude of scenes move briskly through time of day and night in front of the audience
G-d’s Honest Truth is the latest in the Locally Grown: Community Supported Art Festival of new plays at DC’s Theater J is skillful performed and produced with a high-gloss. It is bracing in its aims to show that even those we respect can come up short, leading to humiliation for true-believers. It is sharp and snappy in it humor. One doesn’t have to be Jewish to appreciate the issues that the show raises or savor the delightful humor (though to make sure, Jacobson often breaks the audience/actor wall to explain the finer points of Judaism and Jewish history)
“Jewish lives are stories, Roberta. We read. We study. We’re the people of the book,” says Larry to his wife Roberta. But then what if the stories aren’t true? How can a true believers carry-on after they learn they have been hood-winked? How can anyone move forward after learning that a family or community story is far from true?
Sometimes moving forward might just take sitting quietly in a comfortable chair and taking stock of life and deciding we have our own true stories and go from there. Calarco’s G-d’s Honest Truth is well worth a visit to Theater J to see how one community, in this case a Jewish community, faces up to a charlatan.
Running Time: 1 hour and 45 minutes, with no intermission.
G-D’s Honest Truth plays through April 19, 2015 at Theater J at The Washington DCJCC’s Aaron & Cecile Goldman Theater – 1529 16th Street, NW, (16th and Q Streets), in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (800) 494-8497, or purchase them online.
Note: A series of talkbacks and discussions will accompany the run of G-d’s Honest Truth, which will directly address how the Jewish community heals and moves forward in the wake of local scandal.
Renee Calarco is a Helen Hayes Award-winning playwright and recent recipient of the 2014 Jewish Plays Project Award.