In Bar Mitzvah Boy, faith sneaks up on you

Playing Rabbi Michael, actor Gina Chiarelli stands at a synagogue lecturn in Mar Mitzvah Boy.

Playing Rabbi Michael, Gina Chiarelli radiates faith in Bar Mitzvah Boy—some of the time. (Photo by Emily Cooper)

Emotionally, Bar Mitzvah Boy is a sweetly stealthy play.

It takes a while for the script to find its feet. In the set-up, we find out that Joey, a successful divorce lawyer, wants to be bar mitzvahed before his grandson is. Somehow, Joey missed out on the ceremony when he was a youth. When the female rabbi, Michael, refuses to let Joey buy himself a quickie ritual, he insists on private classes with her and, for some reason—perhaps because she senses that there is something unspoken at stake—she agrees.

As we watch the lessons unfold, precious little teaching takes place. And the theological discussion is superficial and unlikely: Joey is shocked that Michael doesn’t take the creation myth literally, for instance. It’s as if he’s never considered that faith might be possible outside the confines of conservative beliefs. But Michael is a female rabbi, which is not so traditional.

Nonetheless, the rhythms that playwright Mark Leiren-Young has written into the script are always pleasing. Right off the top, a playful sense of banter emerges. When they first meet, Joey doesn’t think that Michael could possibly be the rabbi. “But you’re…” he stutters. “Uncircumcised?” she asks. And, throughout the play, Leiren-Young builds in lovely transitions in which Joey sings prayers in Hebrew.

Bar Mitzvah Boy finally acquires stakes and a focus when mortality makes its entrance. I won’t tell you how that happens—I don’t want to give too much away—but, when it does, the evening finds its core question: How can one reconcile the existence of death, suffering, and a loving God? It’s not a fresh question but, if you’re a believer, it is a doozy.

Having found its plumb line, the play goes deeper, exploring both Joey and Michael’s crises of faith. In doing so, it finds a defence of religion: through the lens of the growing friendship between Michael and Joey, we understand in a visceral way that religious communities offer us arenas in which we can love and support one another. To its credit, Bar Mitzvah Boy also acknowledges that those communities can be hateful, small-minded places. It doesn’t begin to address the toxic ways that religion can be used on political battlegrounds.

Partly because actors Gina Chiarelli and Richard Newman do such fine work in this production, Leiren-Young’s argument in favour of the benefits of religious identity is persuasive.

It’s a pleasure to see Chiarelli, who has been working in film and TV, back on-stage. Here, she is, as she has always been, skinless—so thoroughly, subtly present and emotionally honest that I defy you not to be moved by her work as Michael. All of that and comic timing too.

Playing Joey, Richard Newman matches Chiarelli step for step. He sings beautifully and, metaphorically, this production is a well-executed duet between the two actors.

The streaked blue wall and floor and the wavy organic shapes of Carolyn Rapanos’s set evoke liberalism, I guess, but they’re a little tacky. And I could have done with smidge less of Matthew MacDonald-Bain’s sound design: too much emotional prompting starts to feel like manipulation.

Still, by the end of Bar Mitzvah Boy, I was moved, even though, at the beginning, I didn’t think I would be.

BAR MITZVAH BOY by Mark Leiren-Young. Directed by Ian Farthing. A Pacific Theatre production. At Pacific Theatre on Friday, March 24. Continues until April 14.

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About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

Comments

  1. A great review of a great and moving production — a credit to everyone involved.

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