To Jerusalem, with Laughs

The first Gulf War is the setting for Florida Stage's loopy family drama

Comedy tends to bubble up from deep anxiety or perhaps even worse. "The secret source of humor," Mark Twain once remarked, "is not joy but sorrow." Hence, Miklat, Joshua Ford's 2002 comedy about... well, personal angst, moral confusion, poison gas attacks, and war in the Mideast. Despite -- or perhaps because of -- its heavy themes, this Florida Stage production has a knack for finding raucous humor even in the bleakest of moments. Ford's tale follows the plight of an American Jewish couple, Howard and Judy Kleinman, who arrive in Jerusalem in 1991 to see their graduate student son, who has been visiting Israel for several months. The Kleinmans' trip starts out badly -- just as the Gulf War breaks out, they have to check into their hotel amid air-raid sirens, the distribution of gas masks, nervous buzz about shelters (the Hebrew word miklat means shelter or refuge), and, of course, the impending threat of scud-missile attacks from Saddam Hussein.

To this international crisis is added a personal one. Howard and Judy are shocked to learn that their son, Marc, has become an ultra-Orthodox Hasid named Moishe, turning his back on grad school to stay in Israel and study the Torah. Not only that but he's about to wed a teenaged girl in a marriage arranged by his yeshiva rabbi. Thus begins a wild couple of days for the Kleinmans, for whom Jerusalem is as bewildering as the rabbit hole was for Alice.

While the play's frequent air-raid sequences add some excitement, the wartime setting is mostly window dressing; this is really a traditional family relationship comedy that could just as easily play out back in the States. Howard's impatience with his son masks his own anxieties about his Jewish identity, and his quest to persuade the young man to return home turns into a deeper reflection about his own core beliefs. Likewise, Judy's more patient strategy reveals her frustrations -- she realizes that Marc/Moishe's sudden breathless discovery of faith is a form of freedom and release she has never allowed herself. Underlying all these characters is a profound sense of dislocation, of rational modern people longing for order in a chaotic world. Part of what drives Howard crazy about his son's sudden religious certainty is his own uncertainty. He can scoff at Orthodox Judaism but can't deny his own spiritual confusion.

What's most interesting about Miklat is its positive portrayal of religious faith. Most plays nowadays use believers as ideological punching bags -- at best deluded, at worst dangerous. Here, Ford offers a humane, warm portrait of people -- believers and agnostics alike -- in search of meaning. None are superior, and none are certain -- Marc/Moishe's joyous faith is colored by his needy desire to avoid doubt, while Howard's smug skepticism masks his deep desire for meaning. Stylistically, Miklat veers, sometimes awkwardly, between broad farce and psychological conflict, but it is most effective in its many comedic sequences, especially when characters find themselves in startling or embarrassing situations. Marc/Moishe's pre-nuptial meeting with Sarah, his prim 19-year-old fiancée, is flat-out funny when she earnestly recounts the details of her wild sex history. But playwright Ford relies overmuch on his facility with joke telling and dodges the hard work -- the play's potent ideas never get a full airing, and the show drifts toward a facile, sentimental ending.

As Howard, Mike Burstyn offers an assured performance, equally at home with the rat-a-tat jokes and the emotional nuances. Laura Turnbull as Judy is equally fine: plausible, funny, and touching. In the play's most critical role, Dustin Sullivan makes Marc/Moishe's passionate faith thoroughly engaging while revealing the character's deep insecurities. The supporting cast is terrific, with Lauren Feldman as the hilarious deadpan fiancée, Demosthenes Chrysan as an overhelpful Israeli waiter, and Ben Rauch as a yeshiva student with a secret penchant for the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue.

Director Bill Castellino has a fine knack for physical comedy and timing -- the play's initial scenes are choreographed beautifully, and he effectively deploys a small cadre of extras to create the sense of a bustling, crowded Jerusalem, darting in and around the massive stone walls of Richard Crowell's maze-like set, a series of massive, ancient stone walls flecked with modern street signs. Castellino uses his supporting company to help overcome the play's awkward stagecraft -- scene after scene requires different sets of furniture and complicated set changes. But the busy, realistic staging flags as the story unravels, pointing out the play's fundamental unreality: This Jerusalem is a decorative convenience, a fairy-tale place with no sign of Palestinians or Israeli-Palestinian conflict in evidence or in passing reference. Even funnyman Ford couldn't figure how to make a joke of that sorrow.

 
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