NJT presents poignant, biting family drama

BY ROBERT A. COHN, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF EMERITUS

The Last Seder, by award-winning playwright Jennifer Maisel, the current production of The New Jewish Theatre through Dec. 21, reminds one of therapist Mary Karr’s famous definition of a dysfunctional family: “any family with more than one person in it.”

All families have their ups and downs and their mishegas, and certainly Jewish family gatherings, whether for a Passover seder, Thanksgiving, a wedding or a funeral, are as likely as any to be settings for settling scores, dealing with unresolved issues and sometimes bringing about healing among wounded relationships. The Jonathan Demme film, Rachel is Getting Married is a current example of the genre of family gatherings producing tensions, joys and sorrows in equal measure.

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So it is with The Last Seder, directed with sensitivity and empathy by Doug Finlayson, who says in his production notes, “I was struck by how much the Price family (in the play) reminded me of my family. The Finlaysons did not celebrate Passover or have a seder, but the familiar dynamic of siblings returning home for family ritual, is deeply identifiable.”

Finlayson’s personal identification with the issues raised when the Price family gathers for a Passover seder, which may be the last of its kind, is evident in the way he directs the interactions among the strong and diverse cast of characters.

Jennifer Maisel is an award-winning playwright, television and film writer whose plays have been praised as “inventive and sophisticated” and “human and eternal” with a “formidable flair for the mysterious.” All of these qualities are evident in the script for The Last Seder, which alternates between sadness and impending loss, unfolding young love, sibling rivalry, parent-child and husband-wife conflict and out-of-left field humor which sometimes catches the audience off-guard.

The Last Seder, which received the 2002 Fund for New American Plays Award from the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, centers on Marvin and Lily Price, a long-married Jewish couple. Marvin is in advancing stages of Alzheimer’s disease, going back and forth between semi-lucidity and nearly total dementia, driving Lily, his wife of many years nearly to distraction as the impending celebration of Passover at their home approaches. While Lily wants to remain the loyal and loving wife and mother, holding the family together during a time of great personal crisis, she finds herself more and more angry, peppering her conversations with frequent profanity, including the “f-word.”

While Lily’s angry use of profane language may be offensive to some, it makes sense in the context of a caregiver at her wit’s end, trying to cope with all her strength with what seems to be a hopeless and worsening situation.

As the family comes together for what they all realize will be the last Passover seder at which Marvin will be present, they are aware of the increasingly apparent reality that he may have to be moved into a nursing home setting.

Nancy Lewis as Lily Price and Richard Lewis as Marvin Price deliver strong performances in their demanding roles.

Nancy Lewis must reflect the entire range of emotions of a loyal wife whose husband is “disappearing” before her very eyes, and who is becoming increasingly demanding, while Richard Lewis as Marvin must perform a role that calls for his character to be seemingly “with it” at times, and nearly helpless at others, and with no predictable pattern at his stage of Alzheimer’s.

Both actors manage to convey the strengths and weaknesses of Lily and Marvin, whose plight is shared by many real-life couples dealing with advancing age and illness.

Talent is also reflected by the other members of the large and very busy cast. The characters include: Julia Price, the oldest daughter, in her mid-30s, who is very pregnant, portrayed by Ruth Heyman; Claire Price, the second daughter, in her early 30s, played by Michelle Hand; Michelle Price, the third daughter, in her late 20s, played by Nicole Angeli; and Angel Price, the youngest of the four daughters, in her early 20s, played by Cara Barresi. Rounding out the cast are Kate Frisna as Jane, Julia’s lover; Richard Stelinger as Jon, Claire’s fiance; Tyler Vickers as Kent, in his late 20s; Robert Moore as Angel’s on-again-off-again boyfriend, Luke, and John Contini as Harold Freedman, the next door neighbor and friend of Marvin and Lily Price.

There is a lot going on in The Last Seder, a kind of stage version of the Bill Keanes comic strips “Family Circus,” a fact of which playwright Jennifer Maisel makes clear is deliberate, even down to the instructions on how the stage should be designed. “The set needs to imbue the audience members with a sense of how in this house stories are woven and lives move forward simultaneously. Minimal prop pieces can indicate a room — things pulling out of moving boxes that litter the house…In any home a family lives, at once, the same life and different lives. It is my intention that the play and the production reflect that.”

Maisel’s intentions are fully respected in the splendidly produced NJT presentation of her play. Dunsi Dai does another superb job with scenic design; Stage Manager Danny Maly, assisted by Elizabeth Pajares, orchestrates the complex action flawlessly.

In some scenes, various characters are engaged in intense interactions, where the audience can pick and choose which pair of actors on which to focus. Families do indeed simultaneously move on different tracks all at the same time. Angle Price and her boyfriend Luke are tyring to sort out the difference among like, love and lust in their very young relationship; Julia and Jane look forward to being the “two mommys” to their expected child; Claire and Jon, while officially engaged, obviously are having difficulty getting their respective needs met and respected. Meanwhile Lily and Marvin’s relationship is declining and Lily is being a bit more than just “comforted” by the attentions of their next door neighbor, Harold Freedman.

One is also reminded of Wendy Wasserstein’s award-winning play The Sisters Rosenzweig, which was largely autobiorgraphical as it told the story of the gathering of strong-willed siblings with lots of unresolved issues.

Maisel insists that The Last Seder is not about her own family — exactly, but one can say that practically any Jewish or other family can identify with how the Price family struggles mightily to make sense out of the chaos and drama of everyday living.

The struggle of the Price family is a time-tested and honorable struggle, and Passover, with its universally welcoming seder, is a perfect setting to at least attempt to resolve some issues and celebrate the very fact of being alive and the blessing of making it to yet another season with our beloved family and friends.

All in all, The Last Seder is a several-course meal of dramatic offering, some as bitter as horseradish and others as sweet as charoset. Invite yourself to the Price seder: there will be some fireworks, but also lots and lots of real blessings.

(The Last Seder completes its New Jewish Theatre run at the Clayton High School Little Theatre, 2 Mark Twain Circle, l on Dec. 21. For information about this and other NJT productions, click on the Play Guides link on the New Jewish Theatre Web site, www.newjewishtheatre.org).