The Universal Accessibility of an Incredibly Jewish Play

by Pat Launer November 28, 2016
 

 

beau
Director Kerry Meads, co-star Erika Beth Phillips, and co-star Ross Helwig

Sarah Goldman is a Nice Jewish Girl whose parents just want her to marry a Nice Jewish Boy. A doctor wouldn’t hurt. There’s only one problem. Sarah’s been having a secret relationship (well, secret from her family, anyway), with a guy with the unlikely name of Chris Kringle. Needless to say, he isn’t Jewish. But that didn’t stop Sarah from telling her parents that the boy is the Jewish doctor of their dreams. Now, her parents are dying to meet him.

In desperation, Sarah calls an escort service and hires an out-of-work actor to assume the role of her haimishe beau. But uh oh! Disaster strikes when Bob Schroeder arrives and Sarah finds out that he’s not Jewish either! Not to worry, though, he’s been in “Fiddler on the Roof.”

This is the wacky, gut-busting setup of “Beau Jest,” a 1989 comedy by James Sherman that played for two and a half wildly successful years Off Broadway, and has been produced all over the country – and far beyond.

“The play is extremely universal,” says Kerry Meads, the Lamb’s Players Theatre associate artistic director, who’s directing this production.

“It’s not just funny,” Meads continues, “it also has substance. The family dynamic is really beautiful. It’s got real heart and poignancy.”

The play has been a big hit for Lamb’s in the past. The company first produced the comedy in 1994 in their original National City home, and reprised it at the Lyceum Theatre downtown in 1998. Meads directed it both times.

Then, in 2014, when Lamb’s presented its “100 Hours of Stories,” an ingenious marketing idea intended to celebrate the company’s 20th anniversary, raise $100,000 for future productions, and break the Guinness World Record for Longest Marathon Theatrical Performance (it ran 24 hours a day, was closely monitored, and did break that record), Meads played Miriam, Sarah’s mother.

“It was so popular during the 100 hours, that we did it a second time. That’s why Bob [producing artistic director Robert Smyth] put it in the season again. He really believes it’s important to remember, to look back and reflect on what the company has done.”

While Lamb’s started out as a faith-based Christian theater, Meads says that at present, only about “half of our audience is ‘churched,’ as we say. There are many Jews filling our seats now.”

After the family is smitten by Sarah’s boyfriend, Bob, he is of course invited for Passover.

“I found it very, very moving that the play contains almost an entire seder scene,” says Meads. “I didn’t know much about it the first time I directed it. There’s a hilarious aspect to it, but I didn’t want any sense of making fun of it. I wanted the whole cast to treat it with respect. I didn’t want the words to be just words – especially for Bob.

“In preparation, I wanted the entire cast to attend a seder – so we did. The family’s Haggadah was Reform; I actually liked it better than what’s in the script. The translation was more modern. The way the language was spoken was more accessible.”

The playwright, James Sherman, is a Chicago native who began his career as a writer and performer with Chicago’s famous improv group, The Second City. He earned his MFA from Brandeis University.

When “Beau Jest” premiered at the Victory Gardens Theatre in Chicago, it ran for a year and became the most successful play in the theater’s 27-year history. Sherman wrote and directed the 2008 film version, which starred Lainie Kazan as Sarah’s Mom.

The Wall Street Journal called “Beau Jest” “very funny … a well-crafted play [that] has a lot to say about nuclear families of any ethnic persuasion.” The Chicago Sun-Times was also taken with the “hilarious and quite moving [play]. Sherman wonderfully blends farce with a genuine insight.”

The playwright, who has a terrific comic sense, also has his pulse on all things Jewish, from kugel to motzi to guilt.

His play is set in the late 1980s. There are references to answering machines and pagers and hand-held speed-dialers. To Meads, in addition to the technological advances, many social elements have changed since that time.

“There’s a lot more mixing going on in relationships,” she says. “For the generation of Sarah’s parents, it mattered in a different way from now. I think that, culturally, we’ve really shifted.

“Millennials, like my son, want things to mean something. I want this story to mean something. I definitely think they can relate. The sense of family is so key to having a connection to something. Though it sounds so trite, longing to connect in a meaningful way.

“I love what happens in the family. Finally, they come to a place where they have to be honest, to create an environment of honesty and openness.”

In “Beau Jest,” Sarah has spent her entire life trying to please her parents. And, says Meads, “after everyone starts to come clean on all sorts of subjects, Sarah says, ‘I want to know who my parents are as people – not just as my parents.’

“Later in the play, Sarah suddenly sees her parents as two individuals. They want the best for her, but they don’t realize the pressure that puts on her. ‘We just want you to be happy,’ they say. But she says, ‘No, you just want me to do what you want.’

“By the end, everyone is given a gift – to see who the others really are.”

For this production, Meads has amassed an impressive cast; three of the six actors are Jewish, including Erika Phillips as Sarah, John Rosen as her father, and Omri Schein as her cynical psychotherapist brother.

“You need to love Sarah,” says Meads. “Because she’s such a basket-case. From right out of the chute, you know she’s gonna be in big trouble.”

Kerry Meads grew up Baptist, but something about Judaism has always appealed to her.

“That sense of remembering is a thing I’m drawn to. People are longing to know where they came from, what their history is.

“Somehow, I’ve always identified with being Jewish. The Jewish culture and religion always seemed interesting and unique to me. Just recently, I found out that I have a little Jewish in my background. My great-grandmother came from a Jewish family from Russia.

“It was in the mid-1860s, at a time when the Germans were lured to Russia so they didn’t have to fight in the war. They were in Russia for a while. I’ve always felt I was slightly in the wrong family. I thought I was German and Norwegian. Now, I’m going to have my DNA tested to find out the real details.

“Being from Minnesota, I related to this Jewish family in Chicago. Sarah says it, too: ‘I was raised to be nice.’ But maybe that doesn’t suit her any more than it did me.”

For Kerry Meads, “Beau Jest” is undeniably Jewish, but it’s also a play that any ethnic or religious group can relate to. 

“Beau Jest” runs at Lamb’s Players Theatre in Coronado from Jan. 6-Feb. 12. Tickets and info at (619) 437-6000 or lambsplayers.org.

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