Review: SUKKOT at Skylight Theatre

6th Act world premiere has holiday angst amidst forced rejoicing.

By: Jan. 21, 2024
Review: SUKKOT at Skylight Theatre
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From Matthew Leavitt’s new play SUKKOT, we learn the following:

  • The Jewish harvest holiday that gives the play its title, is obscure, hard to pronounce and alien enough (particularly to non-Jews) that nobody knows what to make of it.
  • The ritual of shaking the lulav within said holiday is confusing to the point of being dangerous.
  • Long-standing resentment is a hard albatross to shake. however…
  • Family, no matter how much they will screw you up and dash your dreams, are there for you when the toing gets guff.
  • Andy Robinson will make a very formidable King Lear one day should anybody have the good sense to give him the production.

Now most of these not very revelatory revelations (excepting the Lear bit) are hard to miss because they tend to repeat themselves within the 100 or so minute loop that is Leavitt’s play. Produced by The 6th Act in its first post-pandemic production and staged at the Skylight Theatre, SUKKOT reassembles several of the performers from the company’s last staging, THE 5$ SHAKESPEARE COMPANY, including its director Joel Zwick. Nestled uneasily in a space between comedy and misery, SUKKOT makes shoddy use of a good cast to serve up a banquet of familial angst and misery. As I watched the Sullivan clan make a dog’s breakfast out of God’s commandment to rejoice (another of the play’s repetitive bits of information), I harkened back to the recent PRT staging of Samuel D. Hunter’s A PERMANENT IMAGE, which also reunited a squabbling dysfunctional family around a death and a holiday. Hunter’s Idahoans were a bit more toxic than the Sullivans of SUKKOT, but not by so very much.

In addition to directing many a sitcom episode and several collaborations with Hershey Felder, director Joel Zwick spun gold out of the romantic comedy MY BIG FAT GREEK WEDDING. SUKKOT, for all its occasional dollops of humor, is a different animal and doesn’t feel particularly in this director’s wheelhouse.

SUKKOT actually begins not with its jagged edges but with a portrait of destitution, We meet Patrick Sullivan as he is talking on the phone pouring out his broken heart to a rabbi in preparation for the unveiling of his wife’s tombstone.  The late Mrs. Sullivan succumbed to breast cancer one year ago and Patrick is still trying to fill the “hole in my soul.” The rabbi mentions that the unveiling will overlap with the festival of Sukkot, a holiday in which God commands observers to rejoice. Patrick is Irish Catholic, but his wife was Jewish. He's never heard of this, but finds this Sukkot/forced rejoicing business intriguing. So with his children set to assemble for the unveiling, Patrick erects a ceremonial hut in the backyard, takes up the various rituals and announces that the family will spend their time together eating and sleeping al fresco, observing holiday rituals and rejoicing as a family. That’s right…when life sucks, build a succah. When you are given lemons, turn them into celebratory etrogs. Scenic designer Mark Mendelson’s succah is handsome and elegant, down to the Christmas lights which Patrick insists on including to make it even more festive.

Predictably, Patrick’s family - his two daughters and the adult son who lives with him - think dad has gone nuts. Of course they have their own individual baggage and are all controlling, self-involved, self-pitying, crippled by inertia or some combination thereof.

All of which might be an easier minefield to navigate were the play funnier than it is and/or its characters more appealing. It isn’t and they’re not. Asher (played by Jonathan Slavin), who left his career in academia, broke up with his boyfriend and moved back home with his parents to be his mom’s primary caregiver during her decline. Now that she’s gone, he’s not ready to move out, reengage with the world, find a new job and remains hugely resentful of having shouldered the caregiving burden largely alone.

Daughter Mairead (Liza Seneca), has her hands full parenting two young children. A type A down to her bone marrow, she’ll use the visit to go through her mother’s things, encourage her sister to get tested to determine risk factors for the same cancer that killed her mother and maybe get her siblings to discuss next steps for dad if he starts to deteriorate.

Daughter Eden (Natalie Lander) is a would-be entrepreneur who pays her bills by dressing up as a Disney princess for kids’ birthday parties. She dreams of getting rich launching dating apps and hits up her siblings for start-up money.  Pretty much the polar opposite of Mairead, Eden arrives on the back of a motorcycle having hitched a ride with a guy named Tank and wants no part of any discussions involving the future – her own or her father’s. Eden’s relationship with her mother was the most fraught. Lingering resentment over past injustices aside, the Sullivan siblings are nonetheless tight enough to amicably share a joint and hopefully get through this ordeal of a weekend without killing each other.

The kids are not, however, congenial company, either for Patrick or for the audience. The playwright has written them for mass schtickiness and Lander, Slavin and Seneca lean hard into their individual unsavoriness.  Slavin’s Asher is justifiably bitter over, but the character’s self-martyring gets warring. Mairead is shouldering a heavy burden of her own, and Seneca believably offers a glimpse of a woman who sees herself as a problem solver facing a series of circumstances that she can’t fix. Lander brings what charisma she can muster to Eden, the play’s most underwritten role.

Given most of the best lines and as the character whose every move propels the play forward, Robinson does most of SUKKOT’s heavy lifting. Whether plunged in grief, guilt-stricken, at sea over trying to navigate a Youtube video or expressing general exasperation (“Just rejoice, for Christ’s sake,” he berates his son. “Just f-ing rejoice!”) Robinson knows this character and makes him entertaining to hang with. Because Patrick is a retired English professor (thereby eclipsing his less accomplished son), SUKKOT has him quoting bits of Shakespeare including Lear’s rage against the storm. Not that Robinson should ever need to audition to play the mad King, but let's hope this is a preview.

Just wondering, here, but we have a play in which an observant Irish Catholic man has maintained a long-term loving relationship with an equally if not more observant Jewish woman. Their children are Asher, Mairead and Eden. Leavitt doesn’t seem particularly interested in how the two disparate faiths have blended within the Sullivan household. except  when there is the potential for a joke or to revel in guilt. Perhaps a prequel could feature the Sullivans trying to figure out Lag BaOmer, a holiday that symbolizes the resilience of the Jewish spirit. Considering what they will later face in SUKKOT, this family could use some strength.

SUKKOT plays through Feb. 4 at 1816 1/2 N. Vermont, Los Feliz. 

Photo of Jonathan Slavin and Andy Robinson by Jackson Davis




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