GRANDPARENTS squabble over the lighting of ceremonial candles. A father expounds on the virtues of his young son while the boy eagerly counts the checks in the gift envelopes. A waiter carries in a tray of lobsters for the hungry guests but a grandfather hastily takes them back to the kitchen. "They are not kosher," he declares.
These are among the amusing incidents that form "Bernie's Bar Mitzvah," a new audience participation piece premiering tonight and playing through Dec. 15 at the Fell's Point Cabaret Theatre.
The action takes place during the celebration which follows a youth's bar mitzvah, the rite of initiation marking a boy's first step into the adult world of Judaism.
" 'Bernie's Bar Mitzvah' is a funny . . . look at the extravagant parties usually thrown for the new 'son of the commandment' when he has reached the significant age of 13," said Howard Perloff, the show's author, director and producer.
The audience will be "guests" at the celebration, partaking of a cocktail party, dinner and dancing as if they were actual guests at the bar mitzvah.
"The food will be served Kosher style," Perloff said, "from the lavish hors d'oeuvres and fruit display to the elaborate dinner and Viennese dessert table. There will be dancing to a live band and audience members or 'guests' will be invited to dance with the cast."
The producer's previous success last year, "Tony and Tina's Wedding," a broad takeoff on Italian nuptials, partly inspired the bar mitzvah piece, which he said he had been wanting to produce for two years.
"It is an entirely different kind of play than 'Tony and Tina,' " he said, "which ran for six months at the Fell's Point Cabaret. It is more lush . . . elegant. The humor is more subtle.
"The play itself is a comment on the excessive amount of money spent on these functions," Perloff observed. "There are lots of little family problems going on. The running theme is that the mother gets so emotionally involved she loses sight that the celebration is a turning point in her son's life. The bar mitzvah ends up being a coming out party for the mother, not a coming of age party for the boy."
Perloff described the central character of Bernie as a good kid who nicely participated in the formal service at the synagogue and then becomes "somewhat of a pain in the neck.
"Family and friends all make speeches about Bernie being a wonderful boy but all the kid wants to do is open the gift envelopes to see how much money he got," he said laughing.
The role is being played by a young gentile, 12-year-old Ian Bonds (the son of local actor Rodney Bonds), who already has been featured in several community productions. "He was the best one who auditioned, a good little actor," said Perloff. "Listen, you don't have to be Jewish to be in this show or to enjoy it. It's universal."
Perloff divides his time between Philadelphia (where he lives with his wife and two sons) and Baltimore. The fictitious bar mitzvah event is the fourth production presented by his Fells Point Cabaret Theatre.
Perloff, who is Jewish, is also a musician who has played the bar mitzvah scene for 20 years. "Believe me," he said, "my play is based on real-life experience. I have put in everything I saw that goes wrong at these shindigs.
"The comedy comes from the turmoil at the cocktail party and reception when things run amok," he explained. "There are the parents, Bernie's siblings, cousins, and friends, two sets of quarrelsome grandparents and three sets of aunts and uncles who also want to get into the act.
"During the important lighting of 13 candles [honoring the bar mitzvah boy] a lot of things happen. That segment is all choreographed movement. The relatives fight over who lights the first candle."
Neighbors, waiters and a six-piece band make up the rest of the cast. "Altogether, counting the musicians and band's vocalist, there are 34 performers working the show," he said. "Eighty percent are from the Baltimore area. Others are from the Bethesda-Washington region.
The three-hour event begins with a cocktail party at 7 p.m. and will be held in the Sanctuary, 723 S. Broadway, next to Perloff's Fell's Point Cafe. Then the audience/guests will move into the large reception room which accommodates 175 people. The tables form a circle around the center of the floor where the play transpires.
Perloff said, "We are not spoofing the actual sabbath service in the synagogue in which the boy partakes. If we did God would probably strike me dead!"
"Bernie's Bar Mitzvah" plays from 7 to 10 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday at the Fell's Point Cabaret Theatre, 723 S. Broadway. Tickets are $55 a person Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays and $65 on Saturdays. Special prices for groups. For reservations and further information call the theater at 327-8800.