The Synthetic Theatre

at the New Lincoln Theatre

In an interview with Chicago magazine’s Bob Daily, Nicholas Pennell–the Stratford Festival veteran guest-directing Macbeth at the Court Theatre–called Macbeth a “domestic play.” It may be that. But the inverse, unfortunately, isn’t also true: domestic plays are not all Macbeth. Not by a long shot.

The Shiva House, for instance, isn’t Macbeth. Nor is it the Arthur Miller-cum-Neil Simon play it may wish it were. It is, instead, an awkward early work by a young playwright who I think will be doing better in time.

Hannah Gale’s script takes its title from the Jewish way of mourning, or “sitting shiva”–which involves hanging around the house for anywhere from three to seven days, eating a variety of sawdust-dry kosher baked goods and meeting cousins you’ve never heard of before. In the play, the Kagans are sitting shiva for the family patriarch, who went peacefully at an advanced age.

They themselves, however, are none too peaceful. Leon, who followed the old man into the family schmatte business, is an indefatigable schmuck–a money-grubbing, petulant, bullying, litigious slime with a talent for turning every conversation into a rank-out. He wafts around the house like a bad odor, making everybody a little queasy.

More insidious than Leon’s rotten manner, however, is the feud he’s been carrying on with his brother Max for two and a half decades. Still implacable after all these years, Leon won’t even let Max come over for shiva.

Of course, Max shows up anyway. But not until very, very late in the play. Too late, in fact. What should be the central confrontation of the evening becomes a quick-fix coda. And what should be the seething issue of the drama, the dirty-down skeleton in the Kagan family closet, gets a perfunctory airing followed by a hasty reinterment. After 25 years! The emphases are way off here.

And so are a good many other things. Like Leon’s far too heavily stressed obnoxiousness. Or the knee-jerk appearance of various formula characters and gambits: the feminist daughter, the shiksa girlfriend, the let’s-have-a-baby debate.

Still, Gale’s got a strong wit. I judged a collegiate criticism competition she won last year, and found her work in that (this) medium to be serious, passionate, and literate. In Shiva House she exhibits an old-fashioned, almost vaudevillian sense of humor that’s especially refreshing in a time when all the young playwrights are trying to be Sam Shepard. An ongoing gag about the various people who never show up for shiva is both pointed and funny. A bit involving an old man who can’t stay awake manages to be cornball hilarious even as it leads to the tenderest moment in the play. Gale’s use of that old man suggests the writer she might eventually be.

Gale’s sense of structure, however, is old-fashioned in a more debilitating way. She attempts a strenuous and unnecessary sort of naturalism that finally defeats her. If I could suggest just one thing I’d like to see in a hypothetical next draft of Shiva House, it would be a greater willingness to use the resources of the stage to tell her story. Gale truly doesn’t need to remain stuck in a single room, plodding through real time. Rather than allow a convention to dictate her boundaries, she should force it to expand them. I mean, Miller put a ghostly brother in Death of a Salesman, didn’t he? And Simon lets his hero talk directly to the audience in his recent autobiographical trilogy. Even an old domestic play like Macbeth sports a spectre or two. Why can’t Gale’s?

The acting in this Synthetic Theatre production is mostly pretty bad–though Karen Bachner makes an exception of herself as Leon’s incredibly patient wife, Esther. The strange, comic sweetness she puts into a line like, “Oh look! They gave us cream cheese with chives!” makes a lot of things bearable. Jonathan Curelop and Mara Casey also manifest an attractively cheeky presence as Leon’s son-in-law and daughter.