Review: HANDLE WITH CARE Brings Carol Lawrence Back to the New York Stage
On the surface, Jason Odell Williams' Handle With Care closely resembles those commercial comedies by playwrights like Neil Simon and Woody Allen that were so popular with the Jewish audiences that dominated Broadway during the 1960s.
There's an awkward romance between a nice (if lapsed) Jewish boy and a pretty Israeli woman, a sweet, but controlling mother from the old country, humorous references to religious practices and a funny goy with a thick regional accent.
But while there's much to admire in the cleverness of Williams' story and his playwriting craft in presenting it, the comedy's humor is of the innocuous, family-friendly sitcom style that substitutes cuteness for real wit. Handle With Care is surely sweet, but whatever is funny about the evening comes mostly from the efforts of the hard-working cast and director Karen Carpenter's swift and steady staging.
Set on December 24th in a Virginia motel room, the play opens with Israeli citizen Ayelet (Charlotte Cohn) in a panic because her deceased grandmother's body seems to have been lost in transit to the airport. By Jewish tradition she should be buried within 24 hours and Ayelet is trying to get quickly back to Israel. (Though logically, the feat seems impossible even with an on-time delivery.)
The fact that Ayelet only speaks Hebrew has got delivery guy Terrence (a goofy Sheffield Chastain) in a panic himself. Unable to communicate with the angry customer, he sends for his Jewish buddy Josh (Jonathan Sale) to help translate, assuming he can communicate with her.
But Josh barely remembers the Hebrew he was force-fed to get by his bar mitzvah. Left alone with Ayelet, their hesitant attempt to communicate has all the makings of a "meeting cute" romantic comedy set-up, especially when she prepares for an improvised Shabbat dinner by changing from her old jeans to a flattering red dress.
Cohn and Sale make for a charming couple as their characters slowly start opening up to each other, particularly when Josh tenderly remembers his deceased wife.
In flashbacks to the previous day, we see Ayelet with her grandmother, Edna, played with pixyish energy by Broadway legend Carol Lawrence. In context, what Lawrence is really playing is the beloved older star, remembered for her sophistication and elegance, now getting laughs through her character's obsession with Wheel Of Fortune and stereotypical concern over her granddaughter's state of singleness.
Though Cohn speaks Hebrew for most of the play, she and Lawrence converse in English using standard American accents, diverting from them only when their characters speak English words.
As the circumstances behind Edna's urge to visit America are slowly revealed, it becomes more apparent to Josh and Ayelet that fate had a hand in their unorthodox way of meeting.
With one set and a small cast, Handle With Care certainly has the potential to become a nice enough regional or dinner theatre diversion, but, despite the fine company, the play is bland and forgettable.