Amy Lee & Nicholas Rice in "Bar Mitzvah Boy"

Reviewed by BERNIE BELLAN
In the annals of questions that ask something totally ridiculous, such as “Would King Kong have really beaten Godzilla?”, we can now add: “Who are you more likely to turn to for counseling: A rabbi or a divorce lawyer?”

 

 

 

 


Such was the quandary imposed upon the sold-out audience at the opening night of the Winnipeg Jewish Theatre’s season-opening production: “Bar Mitzvah Boy”.
While I had read something about the storyline prior to entering the Berney Theatre Saturday night, September 14, I deliberately wanted to keep myself as ignorant as possible about this play. Was it going to be simply a series of one-liners? I wondered - as the graphic used in advertisements for the play might lead you to believe (a bearded, bald old guy surrounded on both sides by two young boys, evidently both of bar mitzvah age).
Or, might it have a deeper meaning – and the comedic premise of a much older man deciding to have a bar mitzvah late in life might be a forerunner of a more profound message?

The truth is, “Bar Mitzvah Boy” was both those things. This 90-minute play (without an intermission) moves along at a crisp pace and the one-liners do tend to come fast and furious in the early going.
As the play opens we see a young woman dressed in running gear and sporting a baseball cap bounding on to the stage where she sees a much older man sitting in a chair behind a table.
As we soon learn, the young woman is actually Rabbi Michael (played by Amy Lee), and the older man, whose name is Joey (played by Nicholas Rice), is someone who has a request to make of the rabbi: He wants to have a bar mitzvah and he wants the rabbi to be the one to teach him.
Naturally, this leads to all sorts of clever repartee, as when Joey discovers some books about sex in the rabbi’s office and he asks her why she has those types of books. Rabbi Michael says: “I can’t talk to you about sex. You’re not a man yet.”

But, as the play develops, and despite the rabbi’s initial reluctance to accept Joey as a student, there does develop a clear bond between them. We’re not quite aware why it is that Joey wants to have a bar mitzvah late in life – although we do eventually understand the reason for that, but the rabbi accepts his purpose as sincere – although she insists that Joey go through the same process of preparation as any other bar mitzvah boy. That entails having to sit in on classes with Cantor Rubin (whom Joey refers to as Cantor Putin)
Joey, however, is soon expelled from Cantor Rubin’s class. (He had the temerity to order Hawaiian pizzas for the other boys in the class, which leads to an interesting discussion about kosher pizzas, by the way.)

Eventually though, we see that Joey is deadly serious about his bar mitzvah preparation and, as the rabbi, too, begins to note that, she and Joey begin to develop a real bond. It turns out that Joey is not just some wisecracking old guy, he’s actually a very respected divorce lawyer who has years of experience counseling individuals going through the trauma of divorce.
Joey does offer up one juicy bit of street-smart wisdom that might have been taken straight out of “Bull Durham” (when the Kevin Costner character explains to the Susan Sarandon character what are the things he’s learned most out of life.)
Joey says to Rabbi Michael: “There are three things in life I’m sure of: ‘Never draw to an inside straight; never play poker with a man named ‘Doc’; and, there is no such thing as an ‘amicable divorce’.”
One thing I don’t want to do in this review though is give any more details about what ensues. Suffice to say that the play takes quite a serious twist – and Joey the wisecracker turns out to be far more profound a character than one would have initially expected. He explains that his years of counseling individuals seeking a divorce have given him insight into the human psyche that prove to be of immeasurable help to the rabbi herself.
One more clever quip though: Joey observes – with reference to any divorcing couple: “If they don’t hate each other when they decide to split – counseling will do it!”
This is a well-thought-out play. Playwright Mark Leiren-Young evidently has a background not only in writing for the stage, he is also an accomplished TV and movie writer, as well as a seasoned journalist. He knows how to grab an audience’s attention immediately and just the right moment to surprise you with a sudden plot twist.
“Bar Mitzvah Boy” is terrific from start to finish. The acting is first-rate – with a special shout-out to Nicholas Rice, whose occasional engaging in reciting Hebrew prayers is absolutely credible. Rice does have a beautiful singing voice, it turns out. And Amy Lee is marvelous as a young rabbi who has been forced to offer counseling to so many others while she, herself, has been in desperate need of some herself.

“Bar Mitzvah Boy” is on at the Berney Theatre until Sept. 22.