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LA Theater Review

Modern Orthodox

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There's an often-stated belief that if you put three Jews in a room, you'll get at least five opinions. There are as many gradations within the Jewish community as there are opinions -- from the ultra orthodox, who practice the ancient rituals, through "High Holiday Jews," to "ersatz Jews," a label Hershel (a superbly spot-on, marvelously colorful characterization by Michael Goldstrom) attaches to Ben (a charming Ross Benjamin). Seeking a diamond for his girlfriend, Hannah (Robyn Cohen), Ben goes to Hershel, who sells diamonds out of a briefcase shackled to his wrist. Hershel, a strictly observant Jew, finds the totally assimilated Ben lacking in spiritual passion; Ben finds Hershel tediously irritating; battle lines are drawn. The two well-tuned actors provide a hilarious combination, even enhancing writer Daniel Goldfarb's often scintillating dialogue.

The romantic comedy boils over into farce when Hershel bursts into Ben's apartment and collapses. Rapidly conscious, he announces he's moving in with Ben and Hannah; it's their obligation because he was sent to them by "the Holy One." In the subsequent frenetic scenes, many of the conflicts between religious and secular Jews are bounced around, in a seriously comedic and comedically serious manner, and there's much soul-searching, where Deuteronomy's rules for living are outed, flouted, and thrown into the ring. Despite themselves, each is tainted by the opponents' points of view. Less and more are relative but have equal heft when applied to spirituality. This is farce comedy at its best, bearing a serious message. And you don't have to be Jewish to enjoy it.

The solution to everyone's problems is to marry off Hershel, which Ben and Hannah manage with the help of JDate -- as in: "Modern Orthodox Jewish man seeks woman (maybe with big breasts) same." Shari Albert, the first responder, is sensational, juicy, and wildly funny as Rachel Feinberger, who's into ancient marital rituals, which turn out to be exotic, erotic, and strictly orthodox. Ben's relationship with the secular Hannah pales by comparison.

Director Howard Teichman works well with a highly competent cast, which gets all its laughs as well as all the context. For this one-act play, however, there are too many scenes set in disparate locations, attenuating it beyond its scope; the script desperately needs tightening. The lag time for scenery setup was interminably long on opening night, making the production in danger of losing its audience. The director's proven creative eye might remedy this.

Presented by Theatre 40 at the Reuben Cordova Theatre,

241 Moreno Dr., Beverly Hills.

Repertory schedule. Jul. 28-Aug.-31.

(310) 364-0535. www.theatre40.org.

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