James Sherman's Beau Jest is the sort of comedy that could quickly become tiresome if all its stereotypes came forth with full force. It's contrary to what you might expect, but Live Theatre Workshop's production of Beau Jest draws its brightness and energy not from fatiguing flailing and shouting, but from the cast and director's courage to underplay the goofiness and treat the characters like real people.
Not that they find themselves in a particularly real situation. Sarah Goldman, a nice Jewish girl, is in a quandary. She's been dating a Gentile (his name is Chris Kringle, which suggests how broadly this all might be played), but her parents object. She continues to see him on the sly, but in order to save her parents the heartache of letting a goy infiltrate the family, she fabricates a new, perfect boyfriend, who is not only Jewish, but a doctor.
Of course, the parents must inevitably meet this imaginary fellow--she calls him David--so Sarah has the Heaven Sent Escort Agency send over an intermittently employed actor named Bob to impersonate David. Perfect, except that Bob isn't Jewish, either. Not a problem, he insists; he's got improv experience, and he's picked up enough Jewish stuff from Fiddler on the Roof and enough doctor stuff from ER to get by.
Naturally, Sarah and Bob fall for each other, which places Sarah right back where she started--without a real Jewish boyfriend. Except now she's got two gentiles vying for her affection.
It's thin stuff, but very amusing in this production. Director Leslie J. Miller and her actors refuse to let Sherman push them into caricature.
The parents, especially, could reek of sitcom-character shortcuts: The father, Abe, kvetches about how long it takes him to find parking; the mother, Miriam, fusses when Sarah tries to reheat food in the microwave instead of the oven; and the two bicker over so many little details in every story that they rarely get around to making their point. But Bill Epstein and Peg Peterson, very well cast, take Abe and Miriam at face value. They come off exactly like Jewish parents we've actually met, rather than exaggerations of Jewish parents we'd never want to meet.
Sarah, cowed by her parents and eager to please them, seems in that respect like more of a member of Miriam's generation than a modern young woman, but Elizabeth Leadon gives her a sweet earnestness that makes her less of an anachronism. Similarly, Chris Moseley plays Bob without resorting to mugging and pratfalls; at the risk of making his character seem just a bit dull, Moseley accomplishes something surprisingly difficult--he convincingly portrays a simply nice guy, free of tics and double-takes.
As Chris, Gary McGaha is offstage much of the time until the play's climax, but in the few moments he has before then, he's a master of contemptuous politeness when Bob, his potential rival, is in the room. There's one other character who's onstage a lot but doesn't have much to say until near the end, and that's Sarah's brother, Joel. He has a medical background himself--he's a psychologist--yet Joel doesn't confront Bob about his charade until rather late in the action. Then, of course, he has to play counselor to Sarah. It can be a thankless role, but Steve McKee handles it well; he's full of silent skepticism early on, and he approaches his analysis scene with sincerity, not a bag of psychologist clichés.
The night after I saw the show, I encountered two of the actors at a party, and I was gratified to hear one confirm what I'd been thinking: Miller, the director, does a very good job of blocking in a cramped space. She knows exactly where a person--or his spoon--needs to be at any time, and how and when to get him there.
The best scene, however, pretty much has the characters immobile. They're seated at the Passover seder table, presided over by Abe, whose main interest is dinner. He tries to hurry through the Haggadah ("We were slaves, then we were free. Let's eat."), but his family insists on a slightly more proper observance, and Bob does his best to participate. The writer, director and actors all employ just the right amount of restraint here; it's too low-key for farce, but it rings true.
Nothing is overplayed, and that's the general strength of this production. We're better able to appreciate the little awkwardnesses between characters who don't yet know each other well--and between characters who perhaps know each other too well.