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The Ties That Blind

A Seder feast dissolves into intra-family strife

Janise Whelan, Mike Barret, and Dianne Hoode break bread.

By John Barry | Posted 7/1/2009

Speaking as a non Jew, I've always assumed that the Seder was meant for the benefit of outside observers. First of all, it's highly annotated. It doesn't answer all of the questions--for instance, if you really want to eat something that tastes bad, is horseradish the worst you can come up with?--but it answers many of them. Unlike the Catholics, being out of the club doesn't mean you can't break bread with the insiders. And, finally, instead of offering outsiders the opportunity of changing their ways or frying in hell, this meal ends with the more upbeat "Next Year in Jerusalem." And you can take that as you want: either the prophet Elijah is coming or, if someone at the table is actually a citizen of Israel, it's an invitation to hop on El Al and drop by when you feel like it.

In other words, there's a little room for ambiguity in Seder, just as there is in The Guide for the Perplexed. But in the Baltimore Playwrights Festival's Bloodlines, playwright Daniel Baum rips the band-aid off the surface good feeling that ambiguous multiculturalism involves. It's a Seder disaster that leaves family members more divided than ever, between the Jews and non-Jews, orthodox and reformed, widow and mother-in-law, boyfriend and girlfriend. Baum packs it all in and, by the end, gives you much to think about. The final question--who is a Jew?--surfaces and Baum, quite correctly, leaves it unanswered.

For the most part, though, this play is meant for the long ride home and the discussions it might provoke. There are times when you figure that Baum could do without the stage entirely and, in the style of The Vagina Monologues, leave each character with a stool and a microphone, and maybe a little bread of affliction. The set is well constructed, but it's not used to real effect. There's a table in center stage--the living room, where the actual Seder is carried out--but most of the action occurs in spotlights on either stage left or stage right, in a kitchen, or later, in a hospital. During those periods, characters in the middle sit, literally paralyzed, as individuals deliver monologues. It's an interesting directorial choice by Marianne Angelella and Peter Shipley, cleverly cinematic in effect, but at points it feels as though the stage itself is getting in the way of the action.

This production is most successful at creating five distinct and memorable characters in the process of this extended dissolution. The young woman at the center of the conflict, Sarah (Lucia Diaz-French), gives the play a sense of balance with a steady, careful performance that is appropriate to her position in the tug-of-war between her Jewish grandmother and her Muslim mother. She has always considered herself Jewish--her father was Jewish--but since her mother, Lila (Janise Whelan), is Muslim, it's an assumption that orthodox Jews might question.

It does matter to her boyfriend, Josh (Chris Krysztofiak), whom she has invited to the family Seder. Krysztofiak is given the unenviable task of playing a guy who dumps Sarah on the spot when he realizes that her mother is a Muslim, but he inserts a sort of nebbishy appeal to his role. Yes, he's a little bigoted, but when he dumps Sarah, it's like pulling his own teeth. As Sarah's grandmother Miriam Friedman, who wants Sarah to erase her Muslim side with an Orthodox conversion, Dianne Hood is a convincing force of nature: her character is a little on the senile side but, somehow, capable of monopolizing discussions and arguments. And in a beta-male performance, Mike Barret plays Herb Friedman, Miriam's long-suffering husband--and Sarah's grandfather--who goes through life with the thankless job of massaging egos after his wife tramples them.

It's no surprise that Baum has the most difficulty with Sarah's mother Lila, whose Muslim bloodline is the cause of all this trouble. Having married a Jew, Lila is basically there to throw the wrench in the works. The rest of the characters spend much of their time talking about what it means to them that she's a Muslim, without much direct confrontation. At the end, our understanding of her Muslim identity is limited to a prayer rug and a couple of family mementos. It's a shallow counterpoint in a play where there's a wealth of soul searching about what it means to be Jewish. Then again, Baum may be telling us that that's part of the problem.

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