Linguistic Gymnastics

Dazzling Hebrew-speaking actress shines in `Handle with Care' at IT

Hebrew is flying fast and

furiously as the lights come up on Invisible Theatre's "Handle with Care," a romantic comedy whose central figure, Ayelet, speaks very little English. It's Christmas Eve and Ayelet is urgently pleading with an American delivery guy who seems to have screwed up something big time.

Soon enough we learn that Terrence has misplaced a package belonging to the distraught young visitor from Israel. Well, not so much a package as a coffin, containing her recently deceased grandmother.

It's Christmas Eve and Terrence, not the brightest bulb on the tree, calls his Jewish friend Josh for help. All Jews speak Hebrew, don't they?

Josh is a former teacher with not much of a life since his wife died a couple of years back. When he shows up at the cheap motel room in Goodview, Va., he's armed with only a hazy grasp of the Hebrew he learned long ago for his bar mitzvah.

Right away we know that Ayelet and the morose, irritable Josh are destined for each other. But long before intermission, we know something else: Invisible Theatre found exactly the right actress to play Ayelet.

Her name is Noga Panai, and where in the world did director Susan Claassen find her?

Panai has an open face, gallons of charisma and a soulfulness that beautifully serves this comedy by Jason Odell Williams. And if her Hebrew sounds like that of a native speaker (I wouldn't know), there's a good reason. She recently moved to Tucson from Tel Aviv. This is her U.S. stage debut, and we can only hope we'll see more of her.

Luke S. Howell has several nice moments as Josh, and Jesse Boone earns plenty of laughs as the goofball Terrence. Finally, there is Lois Lederman as Edna, the Israeli grandmother we meet in flashbacks. Lederman makes us want to learn exactly what kind of journey she and her grandkid are on.

During the play's first half, it bugged me that Ayelet spoke barely any English with the guys, but rattled on like an American teenager in the flashbacks with Edna. But that's what I get for not reading the program until intermission.

A note explains that she and her bubbe would indeed be speaking Hebrew together, but so that we could understand them "the respected theatrical contrivance of them speaking in English has been utilized by the playwright."

There are other contrivances at work in "Handle with Care," which debuted Off Broadway late last year. It relies heavily on quips and coincidence, and its theme of "everything happens for a reason" is stated in a fashion more amiable than convincing.

Sure, we know from the get-go where this comedy is heading. But there's more than enough gentle mystery and heart to hold our attention until we get there.

"Handle with Care"

Presented by Invisible Theatre

7:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 3 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, and 3 p.m. Sunday. Closes Sunday, Nov. 23.

Invisible Theatre, 1400 N. First Ave.

$30; discounts available.

Runs about 90 minutes including an intermission.


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