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A CurtainUp Review

by David Avery

There are three things you need to be a Jew: a circumcision, a love of deli, and a bar mitzvah. -- Ben.
Hal Linden and Mare Winningham in
Hal Linden and Mare Winningham in "Lessons."
(Photo by David Elzer)
"Opposites attract" could be the catch phrase for Lessons, a new play by Wendy Graf but on an intellectual level rather than a romantic one. The characters in it find common ground though they begin at diametrically opposed starting lines.

The play follows the attempt of Ben (Hal Linden), a widower and a "watered-down Jew," to learn enough Hebrew and Judaic culture to have a Bar Mitzvah. Having never really explored his culture or religion, he now aims to catch up. He begins lessons with Ruth (Mare Winningham), an ex-rabbi with severe social impairments. When she learns that the lessons are for his Bar Mitzvah she initially balks and refuses to help him, but his persistence persuades her to reluctantly assist him.

The play's action takes place exclusively in Ruth's apartment, and the first thing the audience is struck by is Laurence Bennett's spare and utilitarian set. It has little in the way of personality or style, and purposefully so as Ruth has closeted herself away from the world in a kind of prison. She is a woman who speaks several languages and can translate them on command, yet now works (badly as the play reveals) as a waitress. She is divorced, has trouble sleeping, and chain smokes.

Ben, on the other hand, is a lively senior who jogs, has a successful business, a wonderful family, and in his twilight years wants to know more of his heritage. Another local rabbi recommended her to him, for reasons she claims she can't fathom (the audience has a good idea why, though). Ruth finds Ben's exuberance for life continually annoying. What we have are two characters couldn't be more dissimilar: An aged, outgoing eager to learn male and a young, bitter, private woman that wishes to recant her former piety.

Hal Linden and Mare Winningham completely inhabit their roles. They interact immediately and maintain an easy stage repartee throughout. I can't speak to Winningham's familiarity with Judaism, but her Hebrew sounds amazingly authentic and she is a convincing Judaic scholar. In a nice directing touch by Adam Davidson, each scene begins with a recorded message from Ruth's answering machine that highlights the previous action, or events to come. Most of these messages are from Ben, and Linden's readings are a delight.

Unfortunately, a so-so script offsets many of the production's positive aspects. Nothing especially dramatic or interesting happens. The reasons for Ruth's self-imposed exile bring no surprises, especially since they are telegraphed by some heavy-handed plot points. The conceit of the teacher learning from the student has also been well-covered.

The play offers a wealth of interesting information for those not familiar with Jewish traditions or the specifics of a Bar Mitzvah. And it is in these details that the play achieves its best moments -- for example the details about Ben's "portion," which turns out to be from Leviticus, requiring him to discuss the proper way to handle lepers.turns out to be from Leviticus. Ruth carefully walks him through the passage, explaining the metaphors that could be divined from it and how the words and ideas could relate to everyday life. Her obvious love of the words and ideas in the Torah conveys a sense of how religion gives a foundation to so many people. We are treated to a glimpse of true devotion. Lessons would have been a more satisfying lesson if Wendy Graf had focused more on such scenes and by-passing the dramatic clichés.

Playwright: Wendy Graf
Director: Adam Davidson
Cast: Hal Linden (Ben), Montana Tsai (Amanda), Mare Winningham (Ruth)
Scenic Design: Laurence Bennett
Lighting Design: J. Kent Inasy Sound Design: Marek White
Sound Recording: Herb Isaacs
Costume Design: Cynthia Herteg Running Time: approximately 2 hours minutes (including a 15 minute intermission)
Dates: From 7/29/05 to 8/27/05
Thursday through Saturday @ 8pm, Sundays @ 2pm and 7pm. The Marilyn Monroe Theatre, 7936 Santa Monica, West Hollywood, CA 90046
Tickets: All shows $25, group discounts available Reviewed by David Avery on 8/5/05.

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