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The Internet swears that The God of Isaac is a comedy; I say that's not the whole truth. Instead, what the Jewish Ensemble Theatre and director Christopher Bremer serve up for two hours is a deceptively light approach to serious questions of faith and culture. It's funny, but don't be fooled — comedy alone can't make you feel nearly this much.

The play has a layered meta structure: Isaac Adams (Michael Brian Ogden) has written a play, about himself, and this is it, and he's in it, and he plays himself. (It works better on stage than it does in print.) Keep in mind that Isaac Adams is a character, and that the play was actually written by James Sherman, and that everything that plays out is scripted, because the production does a fine job of trying to make the viewer forget. Front and center on designer Sarah Tanner's city apartment/front stoop for nearly the entire show, Ogden spends much of his time talking directly to the audience in a narrative role, adding story details and anecdotes and providing commentary about his own feelings, but he also takes part in scenes with characters identified only as "Actor" and "Actress." The predominant sense is that Isaac is, by contrast, real, that this is a private expedition playing out in front of a paying crowd — so much so, in fact, that one almost forgets to credit Ogden for wholly disappearing into the role. His command of the audience and differentiation of scripted moments from supposedly off-the-cuff dialogue (remember, still just as scripted) makes it easy to accept that he is playwright/actor Isaac, digesting these issues in real time as well as in the world of the show. And he does it all while battling the ultimate heckler: his Jewish mother.

Mrs. Adams is played by Henrietta Hermelin-Weinberg, a supposed audience member who drops in little asides and doses of guilt that start bleeding into the action on the stage. In the play's five-year timeline, spanning 1977–1982, three things happen concurrently: Isaac enters into an ill-fated marriage with a non-Jew; a neo-Nazi group plans, threatens, and sues for the right to rally in Isaac's hometown of Skokie, Illinois; and religiously ambivalent Isaac looks for answers about what it means to be Jewish and how it defines him. From her seat in the audience, helpfully lit by designer Donald Fox, Mrs. Adams takes in the events of the play for the first time, and she doesn't hesitate to make her opinions known. It's a marvelous device that shakes up a fairly navel-gazing structure and provides plenty of opportunities for hilarious one-liners, and Hermlin-Weinberg and Ogden have a practiced cadence that still feels fresh.

Of the ensemble of "Actor"s and "Actress"es, Dana Dancho has the largest single role in her portrayal of Shelly the shiksa (Isaac's words). Although at first her only characterization appears to be draping herself across her husband, her callous treatment and growing disgust at Isaac's soul searching (from the man who had honestly told her he wasn't at all religious) and culturally Jewish preferences make it clear their marriage cannot last; even so, she is not an out-and-out villain, but at worst willfully ignorant. Sherman carefully demonstrates to the audience how Isaac can feel conspicuously Jewish in Shelly's presence when he rejects her mayo and Oscar Mayer salami, yet at the same time like an impostor in the presence of his rabbi; this duality is handled thoroughly and well over the course of the play, leading to a heartfelt climactic scene.

The other Actress primarily plays Chaya, Isaac's Jewish ex-girlfriend, who corresponds regularly with him via letters about her own new marriage and faith. (Normally played by Kathryn Ruth Mayer, the performance I saw featured understudy Leeanna Rubin, whose chatty, lonely Chaya was sweetly endearing.) As the other characters are rarely needed for more than one scene, each ensemble member plays several parts: Arthur J. Beer is especially memorable as Isaac's tailor, a Holocaust survivor whose humor doesn't quite mask how much the topic troubles him. Isaac also calls on several pop-culture mainstays as story devices, tweaking them with Jewish references, thus allowing Drew Parker to try on his best Huck Finn and Tom Joad and designers Mary Copenhagen and Jim Davis (costumes and sound, respectively) to indulge in some fun homages.

What may sound like a busy, frenetic piece of theater is made fluid by Bremer's smart direction and Ogden's control at the helm. Identifying The God of Isaac takes time, and many humorous interludes, but the lead's coming to terms with his personal religious identity is both thought-provoking and resoundingly satisfying. Come for the comedy, but be ready for the journey.


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