James Sherman’s “Beau Jest,” the second in Jewish Repertory Theatre’s “Season of Humor,” is just what the doctor ordered. After this fall’s “Old Jews Telling Jokes,” which I found to be staid, archaic and alienating, “Beau Jest” reminds us of a kind of humor we can all find in our own lives. The kind that renews us from within, if only in passing moments.
It builds on the same stereotypes about modern American Jewry that the last play, and plenty more just like it, are so desperate to adhere to: nagging Brooklyn-and-vicinity mothers; curmudgeonly but saintly fathers; nervous, modern adult children; and traditions that are both achingly prideful and just a little bit weird.
This time around, we’re guests at a familiar dinner party, one that we’ve visited in many stories before. If it reminds you of “The Birdcage” (or its French foremother “La Cage aux Folles”), or even “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” in a roundabout way, then you’ll sit comfortably at this table.
It opens on Sarah, a young professional who is preparing for a visit from her parents, but first has to exchange boyfriends: her handsome, obliging Chris – not a Jew –for Bob, her not-a-Jew escort-for-hire. If her parents found out, goes the setup, they would have a fit and then some ambiguous negative reaction would occur. It’s never clear if Sarah fears disownment or mere disappointment, but either way, she’s nervous.
What follows is as expected and as deep as it gets. Every subsequent interaction, setup, gag, confusion and resolution is as obvious as any rom-com template. It’s weighted down by a number of unnecessary side plots and context, like the fact that it’s set in “modern day” but is clearly being played as if in the early 1990s, which is neither important nor thoroughly executed. It’s also told in three acts, with two intermissions. It still clocks in at a little over two hours, to be fair, but it’s unnecessary. It’s like hearing your grandfather set up a joke with the speed of a tired turtle, and have him ask you if you know the punch line. Yeah, we got it.
So that aside, it’s still enjoyable. That thing about comedy being the result of a series of minute details and chemical elements that add up to the right potion: This lab is in working order.
Most refreshing is a remarkably fluid staging by Steve Vaughan. Saul Elkin stars as Abe, Sarah’s father. Elkin’s daughter, Rebecca Elkin-Young, stars as Sarah, and to heartwarming results. It’s a joy to see these two play their assumedly fictional doppelgangers. The nuance between the two is endearing to say the very least, and suitable for their roles. Darleen Pickering Hummert is mother Miriam, a mother anyone would be embarrassed – but honored – to have. Hummert nails the Jewish mother’s facial remarks, silent nods and wayward eye choreography. She and Saul make a comfortable, worn-in pair of parents.
Adam Yellen is a perfect disgruntled Joel, Sarah’s brother whose own missteps have earned him the brunt of their parents’ grief, too. Yellen and Elkin-Young make convincing siblings who must rely on each other when not picking each other’s last nerve. Matt Snyder is a suitable Chris, whose third-act appearance proves how overwritten this story is. Snyder, meanwhile, does a fine job but doesn’t receive much air to catch.
Leave that to Brian Mysliwy, our Bob. Our boyfriend-for-pay, our not-Jewish boyfriend-for-pay, our not-Jewish, not-a-doctor boyfriend-for-pay. Despite an assertive ensemble, this is Mysliwy’s show. His Bob is likable even when his company is not. Sarah’s success rests like a ball of clay in Bob’s lap, and Mysliwy picks up that clay and makes a skin-tight sculpture of a boyfriend that has yet to be found in this modern America. His performance is adorable, spontaneous, zany, grounded and rewarding. Mysliwy delivers what a young Steve Martin was able to, only with less ego and more generosity. Yet another fantastic performance.
These are the gems of a comedy gold mine that can forgo, or even rely on, its own shortcomings. If you’ve ever asked where you came from, and how these people could possibly be in your blood, then you know the way out: Admit your own faults, dance around the table and make ’em laugh.
What: “Beau Jest”
Where: Jewish Repertory Theatre, 2640 North Forest Road, Getzville
When: Through March 1
Info: (888) 718-4253, www.jewishrepertorytheatre.com