Love's invention mocks convention in 'Beau Jest'

September 29, 1993|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Theater Critic

The plot is at least as old as "Romeo and Juliet": You're dating someone your parents can't stand, so you go to extremes to avoid their disapproval.

Playwright James Sherman has co-opted this basic premise for "Beau Jest" -- an off-Broadway hit currently playing at Ford's Theatre in Washington, under the direction of Dennis Zacek. The play's premise, however, is just about its only similarity to Shakespeare. The rest of Sherman's light, diverting romantic comedy is more like "Bridget Loves Bernie," the 1970s sitcom about an interfaith relationship.

In this case, Sarah Goldman, a Jewish kindergarten teacher, is dating a gentile with the ultra-gentile name of Chris Kingle (fortunately, most of the play's humor is a little subtler than this). But to please her parents, Sarah has invented a Jewish boyfriend -- a doctor, no less -- named David Steinberg.

When the play begins, Sarah's parents and her psychologist brother are on their way over for Friday night dinner to meet this paragon. The difficulty, of course, is that David Steinberg doesn't exist, so Sarah has hired an actor to play the part. Hence, the title, which refers not to the various movies about the French Foreign Legion, but to the fact that the actor is Sarah's beau only in jest.

There are a few complications to Sarah's scheme. For instance, it turns out that the actor isn't Jewish, either. However, he once toured in "Fiddler on the Roof," and one of the most amusing scenes comes when he surprises everybody, including Sarah, by reciting the blessing over the wine in Hebrew.

In fact, he does such a good job that a few weeks later Sarah hires him for a return engagement -- this time to participate in her family's Passover Seder. By now, Sarah's parents are so smitten with "Dr. Steinberg," they'd probably marry him themselves, if it were possible.

As the parents, Roslyn Alexander and Bernie Landis -- who, like most of the cast, are repeating their New York roles -- deliver such convincingly comfy performances, you'd swear they'd been married for 40 years. And as the hired actor, Sal Viviano clearly enjoys his part in Sarah's elaborate charade. However, his character's enthusiasm creates another complication -- he enjoys pretending to be her boyfriend so much that soon he isn't pretending.

Isabel Rose's Sarah seems a little too old to be basing her behavior on her parents' approval, but the actress does an acceptable job in the largely unflattering role of someone spinning a web of deception.

Though Sherman's script is highly predictable, it's the sort of predictability that makes you anticipate the punch, then savor it when it's delivered. The playwright also has a tendency to tell the audience too much; Sarah's climactic scene with her psychologist brother, in particular, is excessively didactic.

But mostly, "Beau Jest" is a nice, little entertainment whose nicest quality is that it works the same spell on the audience that it does on the actor Sarah hires -- it welcomes you into the warm embrace of a happy family. Be warned, however, that this happy family likes to eat and does quite a bit of it on stage. Even if you've had a full meal before the show, you may come out craving a slice of fresh-baked challah bread or steaming hot noodle pudding.

THEATER REVIEW

What: "Beau Jest"

Where: Ford's Theatre, 511 10th St. N.W., Washington

When: Tuesdays through Sundays at 7:30 p.m., matinees Thursdays at 1 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m.; through Oct. 24

Tickets: $23-$34

Call: (202) 347-4833

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