Handle with Care
Reviewed by Elizabeth Wachtel
The Colony Theatre
Through December 14th
On November 1, at my local CVS, Halloween decorations were whisked away from the three front aisles of the store and replaced with shelves of Christmas kitsch. In spite of the Indian summer we’d been experiencing in Los Angeles, like CVS, theater companies around the city are gearing up for crowd-pleasing winter-time fare. The Colony theatre in Burbank is no exception.
The west coast premiere of Jason Odell Williams’s Handle with Care gets off to an entertaining, high-energy start. As the big band Christmas carols of the pre-show fade out, the lights come up on a frantic Ayelet (Charlotte Cohn) railing at deliveryman Terrence (Jeff Marlow) in rapid-fire Hebrew. She is clearly out of her element in a run-of-the-mill American motel room (aptly dressed by John M. McElveney with “No Smoking” signs, a “Virginia is for lovers” poster, and a dingy bedspread. Several English cognates pop out of Ayelet’s adrenalized monologue, most notably her reoccurring use of the Hebrew word for idiot (‘iyd-yot’) whenever she addresses Terrence. It quickly becomes clear that Terrence has seriously screwed something up: En route to the airport on a snowy Christmas eve, he lost the corpse of Ayelet’s Israeli grandmother.
Not knowing what else to do, Terrence enlists the help of a childhood friend who he thinks can serve as a translator for Ayelet.
Enter well-spoken Josh (Tyler Pierce), the child of a Jew and a Catholic, whose faith in a larger power (and love) has taken a serious beating after the loss of his wife in a car accident. Josh’s only knowledge of Hebrew comes from a weekend of training for his Bar Mitzvah (or as Terrence says, his “hare krishna”) — and here begins the type of culture-clash romantic comedy that is more commonly told on the screen than on the stage (think Penelope Cruz and Adam Sandler in Spanglish). The drama of Handle with Care arises not so much from the loss of Edna’s dead body, but from Josh’s and Terrence’s efforts to communicate with Ayelet.
The play’s main problems stem from Odell’s decision to alternate between the action of December 24th and the backstory of the 23rd, when Ayelet and her grandmother, Edna, arrived at the motel. The inclusion of the previous day allows for sweet exchanges between grandmother and grandchild, but given that the play’s success rests on comic momentum, a good deal of the scenes between Ayelet and Edna seem extraneous at times.
Odell’s choice to write the scenes between Ayelet and her grandmother Edna in perfect English further complicates the dramatic structure. Perhaps the audience should be able to accept that the pair are non-English speakers, despite their dialogue. However, when the second scene begins with Ayelet casually throwing around English colloquialisms, when only minutes before she was completely lost in translation, we’re no longer in the realm of romantic comedy. Suddenly, we’re watching a play about two Israeli con artists and trying to figure out why Ayelet is feigning a lack of English-language fluency in her scenes with Josh and Terrence. Eventually audiences accept the linguistic convention, although it’s not a good sign that multiple conversations overheard during intermissions began with variations on, “So the two Israeli women don’t really speak English?”
Despite these snags in the play’s construction, director Karen Carpenter’s production charms. The play’s major turns are predicable — for example, from the moment Josh steps on stage, it’s clear that he and Ayelet are going to end up together. That being said, there’s a simple sort of pleasure that comes from watching the story unfold given the palpable chemistry between Cohn and Pierce.
The world of Handle with Care is ultimately one in which things are meant to be, and everything happens for a reason. If your beliefs don’t boil down to this buoyant view of causality, this play isn’t going to do much for you. However, if, like Edna, you believe in true love and fate, Handle with Care will satisfy and inspire.
The Colony Theatre, 555 North Third Street, Burbank; Thurs.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 3 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through Dec. 14. (818) 558-7000 ext. 15, http://www.ColonyTheatre.org.