NJT Review: The Bee Play


Photo: Jon Gitchoff

JUDITH NEWMARK, Special to the Jewish Light

Much of the expansive, loosely-defined oeuvre of Jewish theater is set in the past. From such towering titles as “Fiddler on the Roof” and “The Diary of Anne Frank” to such less-celebrated but essential pieces as “Brighton Beach Memoirs,” “Old Wicked Songs” and “Indecent,” Jewish theater tends to look back – sometimes in anger, sometimes in joy, often in confusion.

That doesn’t mean that contemporary theater artists have consigned Judaism and Jewish culture to the past. Nevertheless, how remarkable to find that the New Jewish Theatre’s second play of its 2022-2023 season is the world premiere of a truly modern play, a family drama that stretches our definition of “family” to the farthest reaches of our Earth.

Even though it never ventures outside of a run-down Bronx apartment and its rooftop – and even though only one of its four characters is Jewish – “The Bee Play” brings a wide, fresh, and distinctly Jewish viewpoint into the elegant little Wool Studio Theatre.

Thoughtfully written by Elizabeth Savage and smartly directed by Sarah Whitney, the drama centers on Carver Washington (Miles Brenton), a high school senior.

Carver shares that cramped apartment with his little sister, Paris (Riley Carter Adams), and their disabled grandmother, Ma’Dear (Margery A. Handy). But he devotes his precious time on the roof to his passion: The bees that he cultivates there.

Carver is obsessed with bees. In particular, he is obsessed with Colony Collapse Disorder, a peculiar syndrome that is no good for the bees and doesn’t bode well for the rest of us. Carver explains CCD, and other facts of apian life, in clear language for those of us in the audience. (In this modern play the “fourth wall” separating the actors and the audience is more like a “fourth screen.” It can go up or down.)

Brainy and single-minded, mocked by the kids at school and laden with adult responsibilities at home, Carver at least has one good friend: Devora (Ellie Schwetye). Fresh from Yale, she lives in the Bronx by choice, which baffles Carver. She and her friends have formed an “intentional community” there, through which they hope to repair the world. By baking bread and pickling beets?, Carver asks, not unkindly.

He thinks it sounds like a hippie commune (he’s not wrong) and Devora concedes that her ideas are a work in progress. But isn’t that better settling for conventional  choices? How well have those worked out so far – for anybody? For the world?

The heart of the play lies in Devora and Carver’s impassioned conversations on the roof – which Savage makes believable through a brilliant choice. She’s made both her principles very smart, and very, very young.

She wants to know about bees. He wants to know what being Jewish means. They could talk for hours about biology, philosophy, their families, their hopes and fears.

Are they in love? Paris is sure of it, Ma’Dear is afraid of it, Devora and Carver are trying to figure it out. But remember what it’s like to be young and bursting with ideas that you can discuss all night with the right person? That’s exactly the feeling that playwright Savage pours into these two, and then grants them freedom to voice.

Schwetye, a veteran St. Louis theater artist, lets us laugh with Devora instead of at her. There’s nothing strident in Schwetye’s portrayal, which is just this side of ingenuous. And when Devora shares her idea for big apologies (with the melody of “Avinu Malkeinu” playing softly behind her), you can see why NJT had to put this play in its High Holidays slot. Schwetye pulls this tough scene off without jerking a single tear; she earns every drop.

Brenton may have the tougher job, because Carver is just about the most thoughtful teenager you’ve ever encountered, on stage or off. But he powers through it, and in his scenes with his family he exposes both tenderness (comforting Paris after a nightmare) and irritation (pursing his lips when Ma’Dear summons him with some kind of air horn) that bring him down to earth.

In their supporting roles, Handy and Adams are standouts. Handy’s long, solo speech/prayer, near the end of the play, is controlled and moving; Adams is all sparkle and charm.

Paris loves dancing school, and treats us to an assortment of specialty numbers in shiny recital costumes. These are a triumph for NJT’s longtime costumer Michelle Friedman Siler, and everybody else looks right in character.

Another NJT stalwart, scenic designer Dunsi Dai, once again gives us a persuasive setting – even for a Bronx rooftop apiary. Who knows what that’s supposed to look like? Evidently, Dai does, and we believe him.

Alas, the conclusion leaves a great deal unresolved. I know, that’s modern life, but we care too much for these characters to let them go so easily. Of course Savage doesn’t need to tie it all up with a bow. But could she spare a piece of Scotch tape?

“The Bee Play” is not going to be to everyone’s taste. It’s very different, in style and subject, from other NJT productions. But it’s smart, and it’s forward-facing. If a living theater won’t take some chances, how can we know it’s alive?

“The Bee Play” at New Jewish Theatre

When: Through Sept. 25

Where: Wool Studio Theatre, The J’s Staenberg Family Complex, 2 Millstone Campus Drive

More info: 314-442-8283; newjewishtheatre.org