Victory Gardens Theatre

Anyone who goes to James Sherman’s latest play expecting yet another attempt to milk the Jewish experience for some shallow sitcom-style yuks (a la Sherman’s smarmy hit The God of Isaac) will be sorely disappointed. On the surface Beau Jest covers the same details and rituals of Jewish life that Philip Roth, Woody Allen, and especially Mel Brooks have been mining for years. But Sherman is after something bigger than retelling all the same old Jewish mother and shiksa girlfriend jokes. This time Sherman aims for nothing less than a carefully crafted three-act farce driven by a vexingly universal problem: how to make your parents happy and still live the way you want to live. And for the most part, Sherman succeeds admirably.

At the center of the play is the mildly neurotic 30-year-old Sarah Goldman. As the faithful, somewhat wimpy daughter of Jewish parents–Abe and Miriam Goldman, from Skokie no less–she wants to make them happy. But making them happy means going out with (and maybe even marrying) some nice Jewish boy. A doctor, maybe? Or a lawyer? She could do worse. And has. Her current beau, Chris Kringle (no kidding), is a whining, Waspy account executive at Leo Burnett. He couldn’t pass for Jewish if his life depended on it. So Sarah invents an imaginary boyfriend, a “beau geste,” named David Steinberg (Dr. David Steinberg), a fantasy figure who is considerably more acceptable to Abe and Miriam than Mr. Kringle could ever be.

One day, two weeks before Passover, Abe and Miriam ask to meet this wonderful Dr. Steinberg. So Sarah invites them over for Sabbath dinner, and ignoring Chris’s protests, hires an escort to impersonate the fictional boyfriend. Unfortunately, the man the escort service sends, Bob Schroeder, is not Jewish either. “Oh my God,” she laments when she finds out. “I’m going to die. They’ll find my body.” Luckily, Bob happens to be an actor. “I can improvise,” he reassures her. “I took classes at Second City.” Even better, he knows Fiddler on the Roof by heart, having appeared in it at Candlelight Dinner Theatre; he was so convincing “even Herschel Bernardi thought [he] was Jewish.”

Sarah’s deceits multiply as she tries to pass off gentile actor/escort Bob Schroeder as the Jewish MD David Steinberg. Happily, after some initial difficulties, Schroeder/Steinberg is a real hit with the Goldmans. His few goyish gaffes pass for wit; when Miriam says, “You don’t look Jewish. Are you Sephardic?” Schroeder responds, “No, Jewish.” And the only real test of his medical expertise comes in an area in which he’s had some personal experience, because his uncle had a mild heart attack.

In fact, Schroeder does so well as Steinberg that Sarah hires him to come back for an even more complicated Jewish ritual–the Passover seder. Once again his minor mistakes go unnoticed, and his trite, pompous speeches on Judaism (“That’s what we Jews do . . . we hope”) only endear him to Sarah’s mother. Inevitably, Sarah falls for Schroeder, for she finds in him the perfect lover and he’s Jewish enough for her family. Of course such a house of cards cannot stand for long, at least not in a farce, and so eventually everything comes to the surface in a series of very funny third-act revelations.

All of the complicated plotting is accomplished with a subtlety, craft, and degree of polish that belie Sherman’s Second City roots (he performed there in the 70s and teaches acting there now). It’s hard to imagine a play less like either a Second City revue or any of its various improvisational mutations–Del Close’s Harold, David Shepard’s improvised scenario play, or Paul Sills’s story theater.

True, from time to time Sherman indulges in that Second City trick of tossing off local references in a misguided attempt to draw the audience in. And the play does begin with the glib abruptness of a Second City sketch:

Sarah: I love you.

Chris: I love you.

(They kiss. Doorbell rings.)

Sarah: That’ll be my date.

But most of the time Sherman disciplines his admittedly facile wit, making it serve the more important elements of farce–tight story telling and character development. The show’s laughs–of which there are many–arise naturally, even at times gracefully, from the action. In fact Beau Jest is so much more mature and polished than The God of Isaac, that shallow, glib collage of old Jewish jokes posing as autobiographical comedy, that it’s hard to believe the same author wrote both.

Some credit for the grace should go to Dennis Zacek and his able cast, all of whom do their best to avoid easy stereotypes. Roslyn Alexander’s funny, likable Miriam is the very antithesis of the stereotypical Jewish mother. And Linnea Todd could not have done more to make it clear that Sarah is not a Jewish American princess. Michael Guido proves quite charming as Schroeder/Steinberg. It is not hard to see why Sarah eventually falls for him, just as it’s not hard to understand why she falls out of love with Peter Curren’s appropriately colorless Chris. In point of fact, there is not one disappointing performance in this unexpectedly terrific play.

Seeing how far James Sherman has come in four years restores my faith in an artist’s ability to grow. Sherman is now a comic writer to be taken seriously.