By Alan Gross
Directed by Steven Robman
At the Goodman’s Owen Theatre
Cliche-ridden coming of age tale one long guilt trip
Playwright Alan Gross’ High Holidays come off as an ersatz Neil Simon kitchen sink comedy but without Simon’s wit and zinging one-liners. It is September, 1963 on Kevin Depinet’s realistic 60’s suburban house set as we meet a precious, highly imaginative 13 year old boy, Billy (Max Zuppa) as he imagines being a quarterback for the ’63 Chicago Bears or being in touch with native Indians. Billy’s procrastinating about studying for his Bar Mitzvah and his nagging, at times mean mother, Essie (Rengin Altay) mixes large doses of threats and Jewish mother’s guilt at her son. Billy fights her all the way.
When Dad (Keith Kupferer) comes home, he prods Billy to study his Torah for the entering manhood Jewish ritual. Billy can’t either understand nor pronounce Hebrew. Threats and guilt trips abound in this cliche-ridden unoriginal script. To spice things up, playwright Gross sprinkles a mostly mispronounced assortment of Yiddish terms and phrases into this family’s dialogue. My Jewish colleges were offended by the strange use of Yiddish terms that most second generation American Jewish seldom uses. It was as if Gross had a quota of Yiddish he needed to get into the script.
When 19 year old Rob (Ian Paul Custer) returns home from University of Indiana to announce that has quit college and on his way to California to be a folk singer, sparks fly with his father. You know the story, son feels misunderstood by his rigid, conservative father while the father feels that his son has betrayed the family and the faith. High Holidays moves back and forth from a comedy to a serious drama never making up its mind what it is. Most scenes are filled with loads of guilt spread by mother and later the father. Hey, Dad fought in WWII so his sons could have a Bar Mitzvah and go to college. They should be grateful.
There is nothing new here but lots of screaming and manipulating guilt trips. Being peppered with too much Yiddish, High Holidays seems to play to Jewish audiences yet I’m not so sure that Jewish audiences will take kindly to Gross’ portrait of them? The show seems a tad under rehearsed as several cast members flubbed their lines several times. Young Max Zuppa, as Billy and Ian Paul Custer, as Rob were particularly effective and believable. For me the acting was far superior to the writing. Gross didn’t have much new to say about an era that has been written to death. Some may find this show poignant, I found it redundant and predictable.
At the Goodman’s Owen Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn, Chicago, IL, call 312-443-3800, tickets $10 – $40, Tuesday, Wednesdays & Thursdays at 7:30, Fridays at 8 pm, Saturdays at 2 & 8 pm, Sundays at 2 & 7:30 pm, running time is 2 hours, 15 minutes with intermission.