‘Bar Mitzvah Boy’ wrestles with keeping the (Jewish) faith when bad things happen to good people

Rabbi Michael (Diane Di Bernardo) and Joey Brant (Peter Palmisano) prepare for Joey’s upcoming adult Bar Mitzvah in ‘Bar Mitzvah Boy.’

By Shelley A. Sackett

Right out of the gate, playwright Mark Leiren-Young challenges his audience to leave their assumptions in the (virtual) lobby. ‘Bar Mitzvah Boy,’ his prize-winning 90-minute two-hander, opens as a young woman wearing jogging gear, baseball cap and rock-blasting ear buds pauses by a bench, then continues on the wooded trail, straight up the front steps of a stately mid-20th century synagogue.

Inside the rabbi’s office, a 60ish man, dressed in full rabbinic regalia —  gray suit, tallis (prayer shawl), kippah and tefilln (phylacteries) — pulls a book from the book shelf. He sits at his desk, poring over it somberly, as a woman’s nasal voice bleats over a tinny loudspeaker, “Rabbi. You’ve got a visitor.”

The jogger enters and freezes. “Excuse me?” she says with ambiguous inflection. “I don’t mean to be rude, but I’m waiting for someone,” the man replies. In the first of many twists meant to keep us untethered, it turns out the woman is Rabbi Michael Levitz-Sharon (Diane Di Bernardo) and the man, a prosperous divorce attorney, is Joey Brant (Peter Palmisano).

Joey has a mission; he begs her to prepare him for a traditional Bar Mitzvah. He is desperate to carry on this family practice before his grandson, Ben, celebrates his own Bar Mitzvah the following week in the same synagogue, but “no one can know.” Rabbi Michael objects, complaining only a magician could pull off such a feat, but when Joey deploys his talent for persuasion, she reluctantly agrees to take him on as a student.

These opening scenes lay the groundwork for this thinly-plotted, character-driven play, and establish Leiren-Young as a gifted craftsman. The dialogue is witty, smart and fast, full of one-liners and prickly punch lines delivered by two talented actors. Although Joey and Rabbi Michael initially seem poles apart, the more they talk, the more their chemistry grows. They riff off each other. Both make their livings through words, and they delight in the gamesmanship of debate. They are skilled active listeners and articulate, honest responders. They share a sense of humor which has helped each navigate life’s hardships and disappointments. And they both wear their hearts — and their pain — on their sleeves.

Yet, on other levels, the two couldn’t be more different. Joey is impatient, pushy and demanding, a man who knows what he wants and is used to getting it. He abandoned Judaism 52 years ago and hasn’t  been in a synagogue since.

Rabbi Michael, on the other hand, is a third-generation rabbi who entered the “family business” because she wanted to help people. She is in love with the sense of home she gets every time she enters any synagogue, anyplace in the world. Her faith is her bedrock;  her community, her lifeline.

As the play evolves, the tenor of their conversation deepens and Leiren-Young lets his characters ask the question the audience has been pining to have answered. “Why are you here?” Rabbi Michael finally asks. Joey replies, “I want to believe in God,” but admits he has trouble when he sees “stuff like this,” referring to Rachel, the 11-year-old terminal cancer victim he saw at services the previous Saturday. “She’s my daughter,” Rabbi Michael (whose name, ironically, means “beloved of God) answers, and with that, ‘Bar Mitzvah Boy’ shifts gears as the two join forces in their quest to make sense of Judaism in the light of unspeakable tragedies.

The pitch of their conversations deepens in intellectual, spiritual and emotional tone as their relationship morphs from teacher/student to trusting friends. The rabbi shepherds Joey on his journey of Jewish rediscovery despite her breaking heart, putting on a “good face” for her congregation and supporting her daughter’s desire is to be called to the Torah as a Bat Mitzvah before she dies. She candidly admits that Rachel’s imminent passing and the marital separation it caused has stressed her faith to the breaking point. Whether it will survive her death is anyone’s guess.

Joey, too, lets down his guard and reveals the real reason he never had a Bar Mitzvah. For him, a Bar Mitzvah doesn’t represent a coming-of-age rite; it is a coming-back-to-faith turning point.

Joey and Rabbi Michael’s meaty discussions about the Bible as metaphor, miracles, forgiveness, tragedies, and what it means to “feel” Jewish are certainly heady and thought provoking. ‘Bar Mitzvah Boy’ is, after all, a Jewish play with a universal story about keeping faith when bad things happen to good people.

But at the end of the day, these scholarly concepts alone can’t save them. Rather, it is their personal connection as caring friends that helps them build a bridge over the rough waters of their doubts, and their shared faith in the power of community that might just carry them across.

‘Bar Mitzvah Boy’ — Written by Mark Leiren-Young; Directed by Saul Elkin; Produced by David Bunis; Managing Director- Jordana Halpern; Stage Manager- Keelin Higgins; Set Design by David Dwyer; Costume Design by Ann Emo; Sound Design by Nicholas Quin. Presented by Jewish Repertory Theatre. ‘Bar Mitzvah Boy’ is available for digital download from November 5-25. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit jccns.org/event/bar-mitzvah-boy/

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