SOMEWHERE IN THE MIDDLE (OR GUESS WHO’S COMING FOR PASSOVER)

A Catholic mom, her Jewish husband and mother-in-law, and a couple of kids raised somewhere in the middle. Meet the protagonists of Gary Lamb’s Somewhere in the Middle (or guess who’s coming for Passover), a World Premiere Crown City Theatre Company dramedy that transcends its “Very Special Episode” premise to make for a discussion-prompting, terrifically acted look at the religious ties that rarely bind in today’s polarized world.

“Good Yom Tov,” a Weird Al Yankovich-style takeoff on The Rascal’s “Good Lovin’,” sets a lighthearted tone as we are introduced to the ever-kvetching, guilt-inducing Grandma Roz (Cynthia Kania), whose three-month stay with adult son David (Richard Van Slyke), daughter-in-law Lauren (Saige Spinney), and teenage grandson Adam (Adam Simon Krist) has stretched into a year and counting.

Completing the family circle is 20-year-old Sarah (Julie Lanctot), off studying philosophy at Stanford but on a plane back to Chicago for a Passover visit that promises at least one humdinger of a surprise.

Though press materials (and a production still you won’t find here) reveal the nature of the first surprise Sarah has in store for her family, I’ll refrain from spoiling it.

Suffice it to say it’s a doozy, though the even bigger whammy Sarah has planned for David and Lauren turns out to be Jamal (Luke King), smart, handsome, British, black, and as his name might suggest, about to add something extra to an already combustible ethno-religious mix.

Yes, Somewhere In The Middle does feature its fair share of sitcom-style setup-and-punch jokes (“The Orthodox are crazy! They don’t even eat lobster!”) and yes, there are times when conversations veer into talking points, but the points being made are hardly out of the question given the circumstances at hand.

Since Lauren is Catholic, does that mean her children aren’t actually Jewish? (Having been raised somewhere in the middle, all the kids know for sure is that “Jesus was a Jew who celebrates his birthday on Hanukah and comes back from the dead to deliver Easter eggs for Passover.”) On a related note, does the word “Jewish” refer to a race, a religion or both? And this is just small latkes compared to when talk turns to the Middle East.

Without this meat, Somewhere In The Middle might be nothing more than a contemporary Abie’s Irish Rose, and it wouldn’t get you to thinking just as often as you find yourself laughing at the jokes.

At a brisk eighty-five minutes (not counting intermission), it does seem a bit of a stretch to divide Somewhere In The Middle into two acts, particularly these days when “ninety-minutes, no intermission” are often the sweetest words a theatergoer can hear.

Still, a fifteen-minute break does allow the audience to mull over what they’ve seen and heard even as they sing the praises of yet another terrific Crown City cast displaying laugh-getting comedic timing while fleshing out Lamb’s characters under the playwright’s assured direction.

A subtle, authentic Spinney is a particular standout as a wife and mother who could give Donna Reed lessons in parenting. So is recent UCLA grad Lanctot, who makes her every line sound like it’s being spoken for the first time (and by a young woman of intelligence and depth). As for native Londoner King’s sweet-and-smart Jamal, Sarah’s beau could hardly be more appealing.

A delightfully salty Kania’s against-type casting helps prevent Roz from becoming another standard-issue Jewish mom, Van Slyke’s rare departure from musical comedy reveals an adept dramedian, and Krist plays Adam with smart-alecky flair.

Scenic-and-properties designer Joanne McGee’s meticulously appointed Midwest living room/kitchen set provides a believable backdrop, Amanda Walter’s costumes tell us much about each character, lighting designer/stage manager Zad Potter lights sets, props, and costumes with authenticity, and an uncredited sound design gets its own laughs from between-scenes song parodies like “Gimme Some Latkes.”

Casting is by Reneé Cohen. Zach Louis, Susan J Sommer, A Martin Sottile, Sarah Yannie, and Tony Tambi are alternates.

I approached Somewhere in the Middle (or guess who’s coming for Passover) with some trepidation, if only for its rather unwieldy title. I need not have fretted. The latest from Crown City may not win a Pulitzer, but it’s a crowd-pleasing winner in its own sweet, funny, conversation-starting way.

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Crown City Theater, St. Matthew’s Church, 11031 Camarillo St., North Hollywood. Through October 8. Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00. Sundays at 3:00. Alternate cast performances on Thursdays September 14, 21, and 28. Reservations: 818 605-5685
www.crowncitytheatre.com

–Steven Stanley
September 2, 2017
Photos: Rainer Tischler

 

 

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