“How often do you see a comedy that’s not only consistently hilarious but is also a work of real substance, a play that makes you both laugh and think at the same time? Not often, I’d venture to guess.”

Thus began my review of Daniel Goldfarb’s Modern Orthodox a little under three years ago, and the same can be said of the playwright’s Sarah, Sarah, now delighting audiences as part of West Coast Jewish Theatre’s 2009-10 season.

When first we meet her, middle-aged Russian Jewish immigrant Sarah Grosberg (Cheryl David) is about to welcome her son’s fiancée Rochelle (Robyn Cohen) for tea at the family’s Toronto apartment, though “welcoming” hardly describes Sarah’s attitude towards Rochelle. It’s clear from the get-go that Mrs. Grosberg considers Rochelle far beneath her boy Artie (Patrick J. Rafferty), and even more so once she has learned the history of illness and death that has plagued Rochelle’s family—and their current financial straits. It matters not a whit that Sarah’s cross-dressing Polish “cleaning lady” Vincent (Bart Braverman) tells his employer in no uncertain terms that she should let go of her prejudices and give the young couple her blessing. Once Sarah Grosberg has set her mind to something, nothing is going to stop her from getting what she wants, in this case Rochelle out of her son’s life.

Things don’t quite go as planned for Sarah, the revelation of a dark secret buried deep in her closet leading to a second act set forty years later, in a Holiday Inn room in Hefei, China, with a very different Sarah Grosberg center stage.

To reveal anything more about Sarah, Sarah would be to spoil Goldfarb’s comedy-drama’s many surprises and rewards. Suffice it to say that as he did in Modern Orthodox, the talented young playwright knows precisely how to segueway seamlessly from outrageous comedy to poignant drama, making the Los Angeles premiere of his 2004 hit every bit as entertaining as it is emotionally involving.

David is magnificent as Act One’s Sarah. When Mrs. Grosberg tells Rochelle (referring to Vincent’s wife of forty years), “That Yadwiga of his is ugly and dumb and poor and still, after forty years of suffering, he stands by her.  A good man,” you know precisely what kind of woman you’re dealing with. Spoken in a deliciously thick Russian/Jewish accent, David makes lines like these (Goldfarb at his most devilish and Sarah at her most passive-aggressive) positively zing, so much so that when later we see her break down and declare between sobs, “I am good girl, Artie. I am good girl,” the effect is all the more stunning.  Stunning can also describe David’s transformation into Act Two’s modern Canadian single mother, and though buying the actress as thirty-nine is a bit of a stretch, her terrific work goes a long way towards suspension of disbelief.

Supporting performances are all-around splendid, beginning with Braverman’s babushka-and-housedress-clad Vincent.  Moments like his reaction to Sarah’s gift of some “extravagant, luxurious” women’s lingerie are treats, but Braverman too gets to play it serious as the staunch defender of Artie and Rochelle’s right to a future together.  Shedding his Polish accent in Act Two as a Canadian grandfather dealing with Chinese bureaucracy, a crying baby, and a bad case of constipation, Braverman too creates two entirely different characters to impressive effect.

Cohen, honored by StageSceneLA as “Lead Actress Of The Year” for her superb work in Modern Orthodox, here gives bang-up performances in two couldn’t-be-more-different roles. In Act One, her hair hidden under a jet-black 1960s flip, Cohen is the Jewish girl-next-door that any mother with an ounce of good sense (i.e. not Sarah Grosberg) would want her son to marry.  In Act Two, she’s a contemporary wife and mother with an unfortunately uncontrollable tendency to burst out laughing at the most inopportune moments. In a lesser actress’s hands, these roles could play two-dimensional. Cohen gives both women all three.

It’s great to see the affable Rafferty (memorable in Richard Martin Hirsch’s The Quality Of Light) back on stage again, and though he gets less to sink his teeth into than the other three actors, the talented leading man does fine work as a loving son stuck with the most “difficult” of mothers and a loving husband stuck with the most “difficult” of wives.

Director Howard Teichman helmed Theatre 40’s production of Modern Orthodox, and here again he proves himself as adept at comedy as he is at Sarah, Sarah’s dramatic moments, of which there are many.

Jeff G. Rack’s set is perhaps a bit more believable as Sarah’s Toronto apartment than it is (following a lot of furniture moving during a very long intermission) as a Holiday Inn room, but it’s solid work once again from the busy scenic designer.  John E.D. Bass contributes the production’s excellent lighting design, Sarah Register’s costumes have just the right 1960s/2000s look, and Bill Froggatt’s sound design incorporates some well chosen between-scene music.  Danielle L. Burrie is stage manager.

An entirely appropriate choice for a West Coast Jewish Theatre season, Sarah, Sarah would be an equally appropriate choice for any theater company’s season.  It’s made this Daniel Goldfarb fan even more of a fanatic! 

Pico Playhouse, 10508 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles.

–Steven Stanley
May 20, 2010
                                                                               Photos: Michael Lamont

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