Losing My Religion 

Miklat finds God -- and humor -- in Middle East

Bush-Iraq War I provides the backdrop of the play Miklat, which Joshua Ford sets in Jerusalem in 1991, when Saddam Hussein's scud missiles rained over the Holy Land.

If it's unusual to see an Atlanta company stage a play set in the Middle East, it's even more surprising to discover that play to be a comedy. Ford finds the humor in religious zeal and life during wartime, carefully combining laughter and thoughtful reflection. Jewish Theatre of the South's production proves that Miklat is a rich and relevant work, but not perfectly balanced.

Howard and Judy Kleinman (Jon Kohler and Patricia French) are over their heads the minute they set foot in Israel, two middle-class Americans trying to locate their son Marc (Steven Emanuelson), a college student spending a semester in Israel. Finding Marc turns out to be easy, as he arrives at their hotel room soon after their arrival. But he starts dropping bombshells of his own, claiming no longer to be named Marc but "Moishe," as he's joined an orthodox Yeshiva school. On top of that, he's entering an arranged marriage with a fellow student he barely knows -- and the ceremony is the very next day.

The American couple have a disastrous first meeting with Moishe's fiancee Sarah (Katharine Field), who combines the placidity of a stereotypical Canadian with the ardent faith of a new convert: "I was born in Toronto but I'm from Jerusalem, eh?" Shortly thereafter, Howard chances to meet Stav Golani (James Donadio), a short-fused Israeli war veteran with a serious grudge against the orthodox "black hats" who run Israel's religious affairs. Howard remarks how he'd like to throw his son in a laundry sack and get him out of Jerusalem, so Golani -- without Howard's knowledge -- begins planning that very thing.

"Miklat" is a Hebrew word for refuge or bomb shelter, and the play frequently touches on the little absurdities of war. When Howard and Judy try on their gas masks in their hotel rooms, they provide an incongruous image of middle-Americans abroad. Scenes are separated with dry radio broadcasts from the Voice of Israel, which points out such details as the fact that there's a fine for putting a gas mask on a pet.

The war material lends urgency to the play's tension between the secular and the sacred, which Ford treats with a generous sense of humor. Judy tries to tempt Moishe back to America with copies of Sports Illustrated, and a fellow Yeshiva student (Christopher DesRoches) makes off with the swimsuit issue. With no sex allowed before marriage, Moishe dreams of a scantily clad Sarah, and they recite the Song of Solomon while embracing. Afterward, Moishe and the other young man discuss the implications of romance and religion: "Will we not have sex after the Messiah comes?"

At times Miklat's wisecracking set-ups can sound too much like echoes of Woody Allen or Neil Simon, especially in Moishe's moments of discomfort with Sarah's casual attitude about her promiscuous, drug-dependent past. Kohler can push the blustery, Jackie Gleason-style tantrums rather hard when Howard gets angry, undermining the sincerity with which the character is drawn. Kohler has more effective moments when Howard quietly admits his own lack of religious conviction, and beneath his anger at his son's choices, he's impressed by the youth's commitment.

The play finds comedy in the incongruity of a son who's more conservative than his parents. When Moishe warns Judy that her hem is too high for orthodox approval, she comments, "I had this argument with my mother." Moishe's conversion sets off a midlife crisis in Judy, which comes and goes rather abruptly. Several times the play doubles back on itself, as roles or relationships make progress that disappears in subsequent scenes. Though director Ariel de Man sets a quick pace and keeps up with the shifts in tone, given the script's overabundance of ideas, she may have needed a surer hand on the material and her cast, which can both seem inconsistent.

With the steamy dream scene, occasionally salty dialogue and even samples of techno music, Miklat is a more provocative work than usually staged by Jewish Theatre of the South. But despite his edgy choices and at times scattershot executions, the playwright comes across primarily as a student of George Bernard Shaw, just not as verbose or as disciplined. Over the sounds of falling scuds, Miklat gives voice to many intriguing schools of thought.



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