The more romantic your soul, the more likely you will be to fall in love with the West Coast Premiere of Handle With Care at Burbank’s Colony Theatre. Cynics may carp, but if you’re anything like this reviewer, Jason Odell Williams’ cross-cultural romcom will have you believing in soul mates and destiny all the way up to its uber-romantic finale.
The premise is simple, though admittedly farfetched.
Proud “DHX” driver (and Virginia bumpkin) Terrence (Jeff Marlow) has done what any express courier employee must never do. He has lost a package. And not just any package. No, poor Terrance has “misplaced” the recently deceased body of an Israeli grandmother vacationing in the “For Lovers” state, an unfortunate incident that Handle With Care’s first scene has him rather ineffectively attempting to explain to the elderly woman’s adult granddaughter—who speaks barely a word of English.
It’s in an effort to calm down a justifiably distraught Ayelet (Charlotte Cohn) that Terrence has summoned childhood buddy Josh (Tyler Pierce) to the motel room where Safta Edna and her granddaughter had checked in just yesterday—in hopes that his one-and-only Jewish friend can serve as interpreter.
Unfortunately, the only “Jewish” Josh can “talk” comes down to assorted words recalled from a long ago weekend of pre-bar mitzvah cramming. Sure he can say “Shabbat shalom” and Manischewitz (and even extol his male member in the language of The Chosen People), but that’s not going to get him very far with Ayelet.
Still, there’s something about the Israeli beauty that makes Josh (and us in the audience) come to believe that she just might be the woman to help him rediscover love after the death of his beloved wife Rachel some twenty months ago. And since Ayelet is herself coming out of a post-breakup depression, it’s clear from first sight that these two might just be each other’s bashert. (That’s Hebrew for “divinely foreordained spouse or soulmate” for those without Wikipedia at hand.)
The first of several flashback scenes then takes us back a day (from Christmas Eve to December 23) to Edna (Marcia Rodd) and Ayelet’s arrival at the rundown Grandview, VA motel that is the latest stop in the Israeli duo’s whirlwind tour, not of the New York City landmarks Ayelet had been promised but of small-town Virginia motor hotels.
As to why Ayelet’s granny has bypassed Times Square and the Statue Of Liberty for one shabby Virginia motel after another (and more specifically why each is within walking distance of the local Food Lion), well that’s just one of the many surprises playwright Williams has in store for audiences willing to suspend disbelief in destiny and simply savor the romantic ride.
Despite a certain proximity to sitcom land, an occasionally cartoonish Terrence, and an Ayelet who may be just a tad too perky for someone whose grandmother has died only hours before, Handle With Care gives us a quartet of characters we quickly come to care about, particularly as brought to life by the kind of couldn’t-be-better cast that has become a Colony Theatre hallmark.
Given that Williams wrote Handle With Care at his Israeli actress wife’s suggestion (and with her in mind for its romantic female lead), it is indeed fortuitous that Cohn (who originated the role in 2011 when the play was titled At A Loss before reprising it in its off-Broadway debut last year with Broadway legend Carol Lawrence as her grandma) has journeyed west from New York—along with crackerjack original NYC director Karen Carpenter—for Handle With Care’s first West Coast production, one which adds local favorites Rodd, Marlow, and most importantly Pierce to the mix.
Simply put there is no finer, more charismatic, or more versatile L.A.-based leading man than Tyler Pierce, who can effortlessly transition from the dark drama of How To Write A New Book For The Bible to Everything You Touch’s electrically sexy Victor to the quintessential romcom lead he plays here. (Watch how the mere mention of Josh’s deceased spouse releases oceans of just-below-the-surface despair and you’ll see just one more example of why Pierce already has two Best Lead Actor Scenies to his name.)
A cross between Helen Hunt and Rachel Griffiths (with a star quality all her own), Cohn is in a word divine, whether rattling on in flawless Hebrew (the actress gets “Hebrew written by” credit in Handle With Care’s published script) or conversing with Edna in scenes Williams allows us to comprehend by letting us hear Hebrew as colloquial English. (If only it were so easy to understand those whose languages we don’t speak at the flip of a switch!)
As for the romantic chemistry that ignites between the two impossibly attractive stars, can you say “hot” in Hebrew?
Tony-nominated stage-and-screen vet Rodd makes for a fabulously feisty and (rather ironically given her soon-to-be fate) still full-of-life Edna.
Last but not least is the always marvelous Marlow, who though Terrence may be broadly enough drawn to fit neatly into Green Acres territory, manages to make us believe that this local yokel is someone real … and sweet and vulnerable and appealing to boot.
I wouldn’t be surprised if Handle With Care’s West Coast Premiere production turns out to be the play’s most superbly designed to date, beginning with scenic designer David Potts’ terrifically tacky motel room, dressed to perfection by properties designer John M. McElveney and lit with consummate finesse by Jared A. Sayeg. Costume designer Dianne K. Graebner once again scores highest marks for one character-appropriate outfit after another, with special snaps for Terrence’s red-and-yellow DHX shirt and matching cap and Ayelet’s stunner of a scarlet dress. Drew Dalzell’s Christmas carol-laden sound design (based on Jill Du Boff’s original) is another winner, as is Orlando de la Paz’s scenic art.
Mary K. Klinger is production stage manager. Robert T. Kyle is technical director.
In reviewing year’s Colony end-of-year show, Tom Dudzick’s Miracle On South Division Street, I wrote: “If ever there were a holiday play that both Christians and Jews could enjoy in equal measure, Dudzick has written just such a play.”
That Jason Odell Williams’ Handle With Care achieves the same November-December miracle a year later provides ample reason to once again fill Barbara Beckley’s Colony with equal parts Saturday worshippers, Sunday churchgoers, and romantically inclined folks of a more secular bent thrown in for holiday good measure.
Colony Theatre, 555 North Third Street, Burbank.
November 8, 2014
Photos: Michael Lamont