340 West 50th Street
Starring Craig Bierko, Molly Ringwald, and Jason Biggs
With Jenn Harris
Written by Daniel Goldfarb
Directed by James Lapine
Set Design: Derek McLane
Costume Design: Dona Granata
Lighting Design: David Lander
Sound Design: Fitz Patton
Casting: Tara Rubin Casting
Production Stage Manager: Jane Grey
Production Management: Kai Brothers
Casting: David Caparelliotis
Press: Carol Fineman/Barlow*Hartman
General Management: Stuart Thompson Productions/James Triner
Associate Producers: Amanda Lipitz and Greg Smith,
Michael and Marjorie Stern
Producers: Ars Nova and Kara Medoff,
The Underwood Theater, and Jewcy
Dr. Roberta E. Zlokower
February 1, 2005
Modern Orthodox is another of the Broadway/Off-Broadway bad sitcoms this season, but, in this case, there’s no tune to hum on the way out of Dodger Stages. There were a couple of good characters, both women, Molly Ringwald as Hannah and Jenn Harris as Rachel, who could have saved this show from that part of the mind, reserved for bad memories, but the two male characters, Craig Bierko as Ben and especially Jason Biggs as Hershel, were quintessentially under-acting (the former) and over-acting (the latter). In fact, Hershel, the Orthodox diamond dealer, is so incredibly annoying that I fantasized throughout this no-intermission (Now I know why there were no breaks) production about ways to tune him out.
This is essentially a play about Jewish dating services (See Jewtopia instead), relationships, engagement rituals, and mainly the vast divide between what’s called the mainstreamed, three-day (High Holidays) Jew and the ritualistic Orthodox Jew, who, on Sabbath, never answers the phone or turns on a light. Ben, about to be engaged in NYC, meets an Orthodox diamond dealer, who is persuaded to remove his yarmulke, at Ben’s impulsive demand, as a condition to seal the much-needed sale.
Ben then proposes to his live-in girlfriend, Hannah, a doctor, in one of the best sets on or off Broadway (Kudos to Derek McLane), a three-dimensional and ever-changing (Add kudos to David Lander for lighting), New York City scene. Just as the engagement is sealed, with a repeat proposal waiting for dinner at a sought-after restaurant, Hershel appears on Ben’s door and moves in for a while, to “undo” the wrong surrounding the yarmulke removal. Right, and it gets worse.
Hershel is not only boring and unrelenting in Yiddish or Hebrew expressions and hyper, nervous mannerisms, but he also makes a pass at and kisses Hannah, while Ben is burying and unearthing his china, to make the apartment kosher for Hershel. Meanwhile, Ben and Hannah find a Jewish dating service and arrange a date for Hershel, which ends up as one date leading to marriage and memorized sex. Right again, one date, some jokes, then a proposal accepted, right at the same blind date table. This is supposed to exemplify a modern day “arranged marriage” and religiously correct marital bed scene.
But, this blind date and instant aftermath become the turning point of the play, as Jenn Harris is a jewel of an actress, with split timing of jokes, facial double-takes, and dead-pan adorable acting. Molly Ringwald (formerly reviewed in Enchanted April), as Hannah the doctor, and soon pregnant fiancée, is well cast as the modern day Jew, doctor, city dweller, lover, and pregnant fiancée, and her compassion and independence are persuasively portrayed. Ms. Ringwald deserves a better play. Craig Bierko, as the “modern” Jewish financial consultant, could have been more persuasive as a lover to Hannah and as an extremely inconvenienced “friend” to Ben. He and Jason Biggs both lent an aura of Saturday Night Live quality to this production, but this was not network TV, where actors and guests read cue cards. It could have been, however.
L. to R.: Craig Bierko, Molly Ringwald (standing) and Jason Biggs in a scene from Daniel Goldfarb’s MODERN ORTHODOX.
Photo courtesy of Richard Mitchell