Richard Newman and Gina Chiarelli in Bar Mitzvah Boy, at Pacific Theatre until April 14. (photo by Damon Calderwood)
The number 13 means different things to different people. To a baker, it’s that extra pastry that he adds to a dozen; to the superstitious, it’s considered bad luck to the extent that some buildings do not have a 13th floor. To a Jewish boy, it means his right of passage into manhood, a journey fraught with both angst and joy.
But what if you missed that momentous occasion, for whatever reason, and now, as a grandfather, as your grandson’s bar mitzvah approaches, you have an urgent need to have a bar mitzvah ceremony? This premise forms the basis of local playwright Mark Leiren-Young’s Bar Mitzvah Boy, a two-hander being staged at the intimate Pacific Theatre in Vancouver until April 14. It won the American Jewish Play Project’s prize for best new Jewish play last year, with successful staged readings in New York, Boston and Charlotte, N.C.
Joey Brandt (Richard Newman) is a successful Vancouver divorce lawyer who wants to study privately with Rabbi Michael (Gina Chiarelli) in order to have his bar mitzvah before his grandson’s big day. He is surprised to learn that she is female, and even more surprised when she refuses him as a student, suggesting that he join Cantor Rubin’s bar mitzvah class instead. Joey is obviously a man used to getting his way and, not surprisingly, his stint in Rubin’s class turns into a fiasco, as Joey disrupts the class and takes all the boys out for Hawaiian pizza (you know, the kind that has ham on it). The rabbi eventually relents, in light of both Joey’s advocacy skills and a big donation to the synagogue’s renovation fund.
The chemistry between the two actors is palpable. The audience is led through a witty pas de deux, and both teacher and student experience personal metamorphoses through their weekly interactions. Joey – who has not been to shul for 52 years – learns to put on tefillin, as well as studying the liturgy and history of his people, in a crash course in Judaism. Meanwhile, the somewhat bohemian rabbi (she jogs and smokes marijuana – for “medicinal purposes” only) works through her own demons, which include an almost-12-year-old daughter with cancer and a husband who cannot cope with the illness. In an engaging twist, the professional roles reverse as the players grapple with the existential question of whether G-d is a metaphor or a real entity on which to base our faith.
Newman, who says that he is “Jewish on both sides” is stellar in his role as Joey (and his Hebrew is not too bad, either) but it is Chiarelli who steals the show with her sublime portrayal of a working mom having to deal with a sick child and an unsupportive husband. Kudos to Chiarelli, who is not Jewish, but who has mastered the dialogue and rituals of the script.
The set design is sparse but effective. One side is a backlit bimah with a lectern and a dove-shaped eternal flame hanging above. The other side does double duty as the rabbi’s study (replete with a library that includes Kosher Sex by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach and the Kama Sutra) and Joey’s office. The costumes are simple and the music – klezmer, what else.
Leiren-Young peppers the play with local references that will resonate with some of the community audience – names like Cantor Rubin, Rabbi Solomon, Schara Tzedeck, the astronomical prices of the real estate – some contemporary quips about the Broadway musical hit Hamilton and singer Kenny Rogers, and a multitude of Jewish clichés. He is the master of witty repartee, as anyone will know who has seen his play Shylock, which was, most recently, at Bard on the Beach last year.
“I had a truly crazy bar mitzvah at the Beth Israel,” said Leiren-Young when asked in an email interview by the JI about his own bar mitzvah experience. “There was a snowstorm and my mom’s car was hit en route to the shul for Friday night services. After that, standing at the bimah
and singing was easy! I drew a lot of inspiration for this play from real experiences – a mix of my own and stories from friends – but I just realized I left out the snowstorm. Maybe that’ll go in the movie.”
As to whether or not you have to be Jewish to get the play, he said, “No more than you have to be Catholic to ‘get’ Doubt or Mass Appeal or Sister Mary Ignatius (three ‘Catholic’ plays I love). But there are definitely moments that will hit harder for a Jewish audience and, I suspect, there will be jokes only Jewish audience members will laugh at.”
It is somewhat ironic that the world première of this play is being held in the basement of an Anglican Church, but that is part of its cachet.
The audience take-away from any play is deeply personal but, as Joey says in his bar mitzvah speech at the end of this journey into his faith: today, I am a man here to honour my family and ancestors, to celebrate being a Jew and becoming a member of a community with all the rights and responsibilities that go along with that membership. And, to that, we say, amen.
For tickets, visit pacifictheatre.org or call the box office at 604-731-5518.
Tova Kornfeld is a Vancouver freelance writer and lawyer.