Bethany Lieberman’s adoptive parents are at their wits’ end. The privileged seventeen-year-old has turned to sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll to the point that she now sees Mom and Dad as the devil incarnate. Fearing that their child, born to a crack-addicted mother, may possibly be beyond saving, Susan and Jerry Lieberman ship Bethany off to Israel, kicking and screaming.

What the Liebermans are hoping for is a miracle. What they get is the same kind of nightmare Sally Field faced in Not Without My Daughter.

Wendy Graf’s world premiere play Behind The Gates is the story of Bethany’s seduction into the world of Orthodox Judaism and of her parents’ desperate search for her in the ultra-conservative Jerusalem neighborhood called Mea Sharim.

Benefitting from some excellent performances including a particularly stellar turn by Annika Marks as Bethany, Behind The Gates starts off with a bang, then develops into an edge-of-your seat (albeit) melodramatic mystery thriller, later veers off onto a bizarre tangent which almost sinks the second act, and ultimately returns to the powerful simplicity of its central mother-daughter relationship.  The result is an imperfect but still powerful drama with much to say about religious fanaticism.

Beyond The Gates is nothing if not informative.  I, for one, had no idea that this branch of Judaism was every bit as restrictive as fundamentalist Islam—women denied basic rights, segregated into separate busses, pressured to maintain “modesty” in dress nearly as severe as in some Muslim countries, and forced into arranged marriages; ultra-Orthodox males patrolling the streets, stoning “violators,” beating disobedient wives … all in the name of Hashem (God).  No wonder the Liebermans fear for their daughter’s life every bit as much as they did when she was taking drugs and having indiscriminate sex in L.A.

The first half-hour or so of Behind The Gates is a solo performance by Marks of Graf’s one-act Bethany/Bakol, which debuted last year at the Attic Theatre.  Though other Behind The Gates characters make silent appearances during Marks’ monolog, it’s still a one-woman-show, and as brilliant an acting tour-de-force as you’ll see this or any year. As the fiery rage of punk teen Bethany slowly but surely morphs into Bakol, a radiant convert to the ultra-Orthodox life, Marks’ brilliant work here is Behind The Gates at its simplest and best.

Exit Bakol, enter Jerry and Susan who, unable to reach their daughter by mail, phone, or email, travel to Israel to search for her. Aided by an Israeli investigator named Ami Dayan, Bethany/Bakol’s parents soon find themselves braving the labyrinth of Mea Sharim, their own lives in as much potential danger as Bethany’s.

Melodramatic as these scenes may be, they have a power and fascination that mostly transcends movie-of-the-week clichés, especially given the overall quality of performances and of David Gautreaux’s direction.

Keliher Walsh and James Eckhouse are absolutely convincing as Susan and Jerry, whose search for their missing daughter exposes cracks in their marriage and disparities in their feelings towards their adopted child. Steven Robert Wollenberg is a forceful presence as Dayan and Tom Beyer does an interesting and effective take on an Embassy official who is merely a cog in the diplomatic bureaucracy. (At least one reviewer inexplicably called Beyer “miscast,” as if only a certain type of person could work in an overseas embassy.  Say what?)  Oren Rehany is a frighteningly real Rabbi Meir, convinced that his way is God’s way and therefore the only way.  Understudy AJ Meijer does commendable work as a Russian, an Arab, and an Israeli.

And now we come to Shirona, a character who through no fault of the excellent Robyn Roth takes Beyond The Gates onto an unexpected and (in this reviewer’s opinion) unnecessary plot tangent which has Susan determining to take the Iraqi immigrant’s teenage son back to the U.S. (“Not without her son!”) between bouts of “Jerusalem Fever” which turn the previously relatively well-balanced Susan positively loopy.  It’s as if Beyond The Gates didn’t feel complete to its playwright without the kitchen sink thrown in. There are also a number of coincidences that are (how can I put this?) extremely coincidental.

Fortunately the play returns to its original focus in its final, powerful scenes.

Stephanie Kerley Schwartz’s set design is mostly gauzy curtains, Middle Eastern style walls, and plastic lawn chairs, and could have been better looking and more effective, even under a tight budget. On the other hand, costumes by Sarah Register, lighting by Angeline Summers-Marvel, and sound design by Keith Stevenson all contribute to giving the production an appropriately Israeli look and feel.  Katherine Haan is production stage manager and Adam Michael Rose is dialect coach.

Beyond The Gates begins and ends so powerfully that, with some judicious tweaking (and the excision of a big chunk of Act Two), it could develop into a real stunner.  As it is, Graf’s political/religious/suspense drama still proves educational, thought-provoking, and frequently compelling.

Marilyn Monroe Theatre at the Lee Strasberg Creative Center, 7936 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood.

–Steven Stanley
May 23, 2010
Photos: Ed Krieger

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