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Gentle Jest

A Play You Could Take Home to Mom

(From left) Lou Ghitman, Deborah Desmone, Victor Carr, and Harriette Bush Clark in Beau Jest

By Anna Ditkoff | Posted 5/30/2001

Beau Jest

James Sherman

The Vagabonds' production of Beau Jest is the theatrical equivalent of a pleasant sitcom. You'll smile, occasionally laugh, and in general feel no need to change the channel, but the play probably won't pull you in any further than that. James Sherman's comedy focuses on the mixed-up love life and familial relationships of Sarah Goldman, a Jewish kindergarten teacher obsessed with pleasing her parents. Unfortunately, pleasing her parents means dating a nice Jewish boy, and Sarah's current boyfriend isn't just a gentile--his name is Chris Kringle. Rather than risk her parents' disapproval, Sarah tells them that she's broken up with Chris and has met the perfect guy, Dr. David Steinberg.

All goes well, and Sarah continues to date Chris on the sly, until her parents want to meet her fictitious beau. Sarah doesn't come clean, though. Instead, she gets Bob, an out-of-work actor who's moonlighting as a professional escort, to play the role. This just further complicates the situation, as Sarah's parents and Sarah herself start to get attached to Bob--who, by the way, isn't Jewish either.

Beau Jest has all the makings of a fun little romantic comedy: mistaken identities, unnecessary lying, competing suitors, familial obstacles. The problem is that the play never becomes anything more than a fun little romantic comedy, largely because it lacks character development. Why does a grown woman feel the need to lie and complicate her life to please her parents? Why would both Bob and Chris fall for this ridiculously stressed-out chick?

Deborah Desmone gives a fine performance as Sarah but isn't able to fill the holes in her character's personality, making her little more than a pleasant but irrational, approval-seeking bag of nerves. Bob/Dr. David is played by Jim Handakas, who originated the role off-Broadway. Handakas gives an oddly mannered performance that seems too stylized for such a small, intimate theater. But his mannerisms grow on you as the play progresses, making Bob endearing. Jeff Roberts gives a more natural performance as Sarah's other suitor, Chris, but you never really understand why he is so hell-bent on being with Sarah, so his evolution from nice guy to jilted lover lacks resonance.

The cast is rounded out by Harriet Bush Clark's energetic performance as Miriam, the prototypical Jewish mother, Vic Car's curmudgeonly portrayal of Sarah's dad, Abe, and Lou Ghitman as her brother Joel, who is, conveniently, a therapist. (Joel spends the last act psychobabbling everyone into a tidy resolution.) Handakas pulls double duty as director, and he runs the show the way he acts: in a sort of gentle, languid manner that works for Bob but makes Beau Jest drag. A brisker pace might give the play some of the snap it needs. Also, some of the jokes might be hard to follow if you have no experience with Jewish traditions. (In particular, you might miss the killer punch line when Abe leads his family through a speed Seder.) Even if you get the jokes, you'll probably find Beau Jest an unexceptional if a thoroughly pleasant night of theater.

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