Charlie Varon examines Jewish identity in the 21st century in Rabbi Sam
He has come, he says, to take American Jewry into the 21st century. Some members of the suburban synagogue that just hired Sam Isaac, charismatic tax attorney and single father turned rabble-rousing rabbi and spiritual visionary, are thrilled. Others, not so much. Between those two poles, and across 12 fully fledged characters, solo performer extraordinaire Charlie Varon takes us on a steadily dramatic, extremely witty, and thought-provoking ride through what he pictures as a transformative moment in Jewish identity. And transformation is what Rabbi Sam who calls the United States the most Jewish of countries and likes to draw on Lincoln as much as that other Abraham represents.
No doubt a little shaking up was needed at the synagogue where, as Sam reminds his audience, the young have been drifting away from the religion of their parents, and where for too long the others have gotten by on hollow nostalgia ("museum Judaism" he calls it, "with just a pinch of that shtetl kitsch"). But Rabbi Sam is as determined as he is brilliantly inspired, and with the board of directors split passionately down the middle about him, a showdown looks all but inevitable.
The crux of the matter becomes Sam's vaguely suspicious management of an anonymous donor's gift of $2 million, intended specifically to take Jews, and even willing gentiles in the community, on a trip to Jerusalem for a "jolt" of Judaism straight from the Holy Land that will supposedly, under Sam's tutelage, help take American Judaism out of the past and reinvent it for the future. Slowly, as this project meets resistance from certain crotchety but not unsympathetic quarters, Sam becomes a more ambiguous figure, his embrace of certain influential members of the community beginning to smack of manipulation, his supreme confidence giving off a whiff of megalomania.
Varon's multicharacter solo show the first in years from the famed creator of such theatrical gems as Rush Limbaugh in Night School, in ongoing partnership with collaborator and director David Ford is a performance tour de force, propelling a story both compellingly nuanced and suspenseful. At the same time, and despite its dozen diverse characters and muscular wrestling with the scope of Jewish identity at the beginning of a new century, there is something of a conspicuous absence at the heart of the play, especially given the centrality of Sam's Jerusalem venture, which is Judaism and America's inevitable entanglement in the ongoing and escautf8g catastrophe unfolding, disproportionately, for Palestinians and Jews in Israel-Palestine.
Even if it goes unstated in the play which may simply and understandably be trying to avoid opening a can of worms, thematically speaking it will probably strike at least some members of the audience that Jerusalem is technically an occupied city, not, therefore, open to all, but rather a principal site of contestation.
Again, it is not hard to imagine Varon and Ford wanting to skip the issue for wholly practical reasons, as an almost uncontainable distraction from the play's wider concerns. But can it really be avoided? The modern history of Israel and the Israel-Palestine conflict surely has, at the very least, implications for the play's theme: the nature of Jewish identity in the United States today, a conundrum that American Jewish individuals and groups consciously underscore, for example, by their vocal presence at the forefront of recent nationwide protests against the U.S.-backed Israeli military incursions into Gaza. Silence on this pressing context does not banish it from the consciousness of the audience. Rather, it risks becoming, however inadvertently, a misleading gesture of its own.
Through May 10
ThursSat, 8 p.m.; Sun, 7 p.m. (except April 19, show at 2 p.m.), $18
Marsh, 1062 Valencia, SF
800-838-3006, www.themarsh.org