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Modern Orthodox: Thou Shalt Not Think Too Hard

Daniel Goldfarb's Modern Orthodox has all the ingredients needed to make it one of the big Broadway hit comedies of 1965. I don't mean that as a snide remark. Producers used to drool over plays like this; small cast, unit set, contemporary New York story, lots of good jokes and plenty of Jewish characters to keep those Upper West Side and suburban theatregoers chortling with the shock of recognition. ("That guy in the second act, he's just like your Uncle Morris" "That girl was so pretty, like your cousin Rachel. Why isn't she married yet?") In the 1960's playwrights like Neil Simon, Woody Allen, Murray Schisgal and Herb Gardner helped make rich men out of midtown parking garage owners.

Modern Orthodox may have its flaws and uneasy moments, but it's also got a terrific cast, a slickly directed production and, above all else, two hours of funny stuff. If the idea of one-liners and farcical situations concerning the culture conflict between an Orthodox Jewish diamond dealer and a pair of Upper West Side Reform Jews is your idea of great comedy, then have I got a show for you! Even my shiksa guest was laughing so much I thought she'd plotz.

The important thing to remember is, don't think too much about the plot. It'll just get in the way. Here, let me show you...

The opening scene introduces us to the two male characters who, if you insist on thinking about it, are both pretty unlikeable guys. But they have funny lines and Craig Bierko and Jason Biggs both give appealing performances. Bierko is a financial consultant ("Companies pay the company I work for hundreds of thousands of dollars to tell them that they're overspending and that they have to lay people off.") with a bit of a mean streak. He uses the "k" word to describe fellow Jews and seems to enjoy humiliating others. At times he appears so self-centered and cruel I was half expecting to hear a chorus of "Tugboat" in the distance.

Bierko is looking to buy an engagement ring for his live-in girlfriend of six years, Molly Ringwald, and will settle for no less than the nicest rock he can find for the cheapest price he can negotiate. Enter Jason Biggs, a snobby, hyper-kinetic Orthodox Jew with a briefcase full of diamonds. (And no, he's not just happy to see Craig Bierko -- that really is a gun in his pocket.) Biggs uses a lot of Yiddish words, which on the one hand is kinda funny (Yiddish words are always good for a few laughs) but on the other hand is his way of flaunting his real Jewishness to this "high holiday Jew". (Or as he calls them, gentiles.) He also wears a Yankees yarmulke, a touch I found a bit phony because as we all know every Jewish family in New York became loyal to the National League once Sandy Koufax started pitching for the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Anyway, after negotiating a deal, Bierko says he'll only buy the ring if Biggs will remove his yarmulka, a real no-no in his religion. At first he refuses, but when a customer is walking away from a sale, desperate measures must be taken. He breaks a sacred rule of his faith to make a buck, and in this moment of mutual ugliness it looks like Modern Orthodox might have some depth to it after all.

But don't worry about it. The next thing we see is the bright and peppy Molly Ringwald slumped on her couch eating a bag of candy. ("Licorice, malt balls, caramel apple jelly bellies, Reese's Pieces, M & M's, Swedish Fish, white chocolate gummy bears...") I'm just getting used to the idea that I'm supposed to think of Molly Ringwald as being Jewish when we find out she's also a doctor. A doctor who cries every time she delivers a baby. She's just finished a shift where she's cried eighteen times when Bierko comes home to propose. He tells her he's made dinner reservations at Ouest, which I guess is the author's way of showing us they're real Upper West Siders, but then who shows up at the door but Jason Biggs.

Okay, now here's where the story gets really unbelievable, but that's okay because the jokes just keep getting funnier. It seems that Biggs has been arranged to marry a girl in Belgium, whom he's never met. But now he's received word that after seeing a photo of her husband-to-be for the first time, she's committed suicide. Well, sorta suicide. See, she got the pic on a Saturday so she had to get the shabbes goy to... Oh, just go see the play. They explain it better.

So for reasons that only exist in romantic comedy, Biggs becomes Bierko and Ringwald's house guest until he can straighten his life out a little. But he soon becomes so annoying (For mercy's sake I will refrain from references to The Odd Couple or The Man Who Came to Dinner) that those hip UWSers resort to the only possible solution to get him out of their apartment. They fill out a profile for him on a Jewish Internet dating site.

You know... last season the idea of a major plot point centered around having a character join a Jewish Internet dating site might have seemed a bit... oh... contrived? This season it's become an old chestnut.

But the magic of Jewish Internet dating is lucky for us, because about twenty minutes before the final blackout we get introduced to Bigg's date in the person of Jenn Harris. With only two scenes to work with, she gives the kind of hilarious performance that makes audiences leaf through their Playbills wondering "Who is this funny girl? Have I seen her before?"

Playing New York's most sexually-obsessed female virgin, Harris is tired of men leering at her at Jewish singles events like The Matzah Ball and wants to get married so she can finally have sex. Her titillating conversation is delivered with a fluffy deadpan, often drawing applause and uproarious laughter. The role was written as a show-stopper and Harris delivers the goods.

Director James Lapine has the cast moving at a vaudevillian pace, not giving the audience a chance to linger over nonsensical character motivations or barely justified moments of poignancy. The characters themselves may not be the sort you'd care to enjoy a dinner at Ouest with, but the actors are a blast. You can almost time out three laughs a minute with a real doozy every three minutes. Set designer Derek McLane gives us an overcrowded, multi-colored Manhattan skyline background. Attractive to look at, but also symbolic of the variety of cultures that must learn to live in this city while being squeezed together shoulder to shoulder. Perhaps that was Goldfarb's real point in writing Modern Orthodox. I was too busy having a great time laughing at the jokes to notice.

Photo by Richard Mitchell (l-r) Craig Bierko, Molly Ringwald, Jason Biggs

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