Presented by Ars Nova and Kara Medoff in association with the Underwood Theater and Jewcy, casting by David Caparelliotis, at Dodger Stages, 340 W. 50 St., NYC. Opened Dec. 6 for an open run.
Daniel Goldfarb has written a hilarious comedy, clearly destined to be highly popular, that is also a shrewd dramatization of the tensions between ultra-Orthodox and secular Jews—a burning issue for American Jewry, not without implications for gentiles.
Hershel Klein, who represents Orthodoxy in "Modern Orthodox," is an unkempt young man: nerdy, needy, nervous, wily, fast on his feet, wielding boyish charm to get what he wants, gifted with an astounding degree of chutzpah, played with irresistible round-shouldered eagerness by Jason Biggs. Opposite him is the ideal upscale secular Jewish young(ish) couple: Ben Jacobson, a handsome financial consultant, and his girlfriend, Hannah Ziggelstein, a pretty doctor—suitably played by Craig Bierko and Molly Ringwald. You would never know Ben and Hannah were Jewish. When Hershel pushes his way into their lives, they find him a suitably Orthodox bride (played with remarkable comic imagination by Jenn Harris) through "jewdate.com."
"Modern Orthodox" is obviously written from a non-ultra-Orthodox point of view, but to this secular Jewish observer it did not seem unduly loaded against Hershel and what he represents. Rule-bound as he is, he has something that Ben and Hannah lack—something aside from chutzpah, manipulative shrewdness, and wild energy—and they feel it. And yet the play never seems ponderously evenhanded. The author has a light touch, and so has the director, James Lapine. For all its Upper West Side realism, the play is a kind of fable. It asks us to swallow some major implausibilities.
Derek McLane's spare, cheery scenery, backed by cutout photo images of New York buildings, and David Lander's cheery lighting help the implausibilities to go down smoothly. "Modern Orthodox" will obviously have a special meaning for Jews, but I think gentiles would enjoy it, too. Hershel Klein is not just Mr. Ultra-Orthodox. As brought to life by Jason Biggs, he is a vivid personality, a marvelous comic creation.