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a Comedy
by Janece Shaffer

COMPANY : Alliance Theatre Company [WEBSITE]
VENUE : Woodruff Art Center [WEBSITE]
ID# 1535

SHOWING : February 10, 2006 - March 05, 2006



When a woman about to be married discovered she carries the gene for a singular Jewish condition, she embraces Judaism with all the fervor of a holy-roller. What's a poor fiance (and his family) supposed to do?

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The Ties That Bind ... and Gag
by Dedalus
Tuesday, March 7, 2006
Okay, here’s an irony for you. In her program notes for “Bluish,” director Susan V. Booth focuses on the recognition factor – the “That’s ME up there” feeling you get when you see a piece that really strikes home. I’m the sort of theaterphile who is ALWAYS finding myself in what I see – even the most bizarre and outlandishly-removed-from-real-life pieces. The characters in “Bluish” even have an aspect that strikes especially home for me – does family and love trump “ethnic identity” or “faith presuppositions.” Now here’s the irony – in the end, the heroine makes a choice that I found not only repellant, but utterly at odds with everything I am and believe. That wasn’t me up there – it wasn’t even someone I’d like to know.

Which is a shame, because the set-up is so good. Beth and Ben are shown as a loving couple – she’s your basic “Shiksa Goddess,” he’s your basic “Nice Jewish Boy.” A blood test shows Beth also has a Jewish heritage – and, with all the fervor of the newly converted, she embraces Judaism with a passion that would put a holy roller to shame. The reasons for this are very well established – her mother died when she was still young, and she finds in Ben’s family (and the Jewish community) the kind of love and acceptance she missed while growing up.

Atlanta playwright Janece Shaffer is very good at setting up a well-rounded picture of family life. We see “the ties that bind … and gag” clearly – Ben is both aggravated and amused by his parents and sister. They drive him crazy, but it’s a trip he’s willing to take, because, all protestations to the contrary, he loves them very much. Shaffer also is able to find humor in the family’s confrontation with and acceptance of Beth. It’s easy to see why Beth would fall in love with her future in-laws – they are vibrant and caring people and fill the piece that was “missing from her life.”

[SPOILER ALERT – If you plan on seeing the play, stop reading right here!]

What’s not so clear is why Beth chooses to follow her new faith and reject her fiance. Here was someone who literally turned his life upside-down to be with her, someone who gave her the sort of companionship and affection she wanted. And yet, she chooses an ethnicity that is literally thrust on her and a “faith” she is in the process of learning as more relevant, more fulfilling. It’s a triumph of “nature over nurture” – everything she is, everything she believes, everything she wants is rejected by a simple blood test.

Worse still, Shaffer makes Ben’s passion for his career seem somehow dirty – as if he’s a lesser person for choosing that over Beth’s more superficial posturings. Never mind that it’s a lifelong dream, never mind that his own faith is not now (nor was it ever) more than skin deep, never mind that Beth makes him happier than anyone he knows. Somehow, according to this play, he’s shallow and wrong if he chooses happiness over Shabbat.

Shaffer even acknowledges that love can trump faith – Ben’s parents are shown as a couple who accommodate each other, even though the intensity of their beliefs is miles apart. The ending of the play makes even this seem shabby – as if forty years of happiness was a wrong choice to make.

Maybe I’m really mis-interpreting this because of the skeptical lenses I watched it with. I am, admittedly, a person of little faith, and tend to doubt its power and usefulness. At the same time, my wife is a practicing Catholic. In our case, there was little debate, little tsuris – love trumped faith completely.

So, maybe Ms. Shaffer is actually critical of Beth’s choice. She certainly provides us with enough jokes at her expense. If that’s the case, it just didn’t work for me. Because the separation is the last thing we see, everything that comes before is filtered through that lens. I guess if we’re supposed to feel that Ben’s career success is hollow without Beth, and Beth’s new-found faith is hollow without Ben, then, it succeeded – I’d have to add that if that were the author’s intent, the romantic in me would still reject it. Such a “downer” ending sends us from the theater angry at the characters and the playwright, not pondering the questions raised or considering its impact on our own life.

On a purely technical level, everything seemed to be in place. Staged “in the round,” the characters are never far from the audience, and the actors skillfully find the humor and the humanity underneath what would pass as caricature in a lesser play. I especially liked Joyce Reehling and Suehyla El-Attar as Ben’s mother and sister. In the leads, Kati Brazda and Todd Gearhart were good at setting up the relationship, but rather cold and passionless when their lives began to go down different paths – maybe that’s why it was so hard for me to accept the ending – by then, I didn’t really care about them enough.

It may be relevant to point out here that mine is evidently a minority opinion. Audience chatter afterwards was generally positive, and the run has been extended, with most performances on the verge of selling out. And there was much to be positive about. Much of the dialog is very funny and very natural. There’s a moment when Beth hears her mother’s voice on a tape recorder that is moving because it hits all the right notes. But if an ending doesn’t work, so much that good goes right out the window.

In the final analysis, this is a play about families, both literal and metaphorical. The joke is that families are the “ties that bind and gag.” I’d add that any supernatural faith, especially for the newly converted, does a better job of binding and blinding. In this case, I was certainly blinded to the much-pursued “That’s-me-up-there” feeling. Sorry …

-- Brad Rudy (



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