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The premise of Daniel Goldfarb's Modern Orthodox is as outlandish as a sitcom plot: passing acquaintance makes himself a sudden fixture in our heroes' lives, much to their consternation. Yet beneath the heightened plot there is additional promise for growth, in the concept of people whose take on their shared religion makes them almost contentiously opposed before they start learning from each other. In the current production at Jewish Ensemble Theatre, director Aaron Moore looks beyond situation to character for the basis of his humor, and the result is a collection of comic performances so fine, they excuse whatever minor discord the perspective raises against the script.

The play begins with a disjointed first meeting between Ben Jacobson (Scott Crownover) and Hershel Klein (Aral Gribble). The latter's business is diamonds; the former is ready to pop the question to his girlfriend of six years, Hannah Ziggelstein (Christina L. Flynn). To group both men under the descriptor "Jewish" is to lump Kraft Singles and sushi together as "food" — their relationship with Judaism could not be more different. Although costume designer Cal Schwartz accents his yarmulke with a brazen Yankees logo, orthodox Hershel takes his faith and culture quite seriously, peppering his speech with Hebrew phrases and insisting on the seat that points toward Jerusalem; in contrast, non-practicing Ben disparages his nose and practically sneers at his devout acquaintance. But it's one fleeting moment, in which Ben callously humiliates Hershel, that serves as the catalyst for the plot: the luckless, loveless salesman suffers a catastrophe, blames it on the forced breach of faith, and explodes into Ben and Hannah's luxe shared apartment (courtesy of set designer Sarah Tanner) to insist that Ben right this wrong. After one patronizing lecture about kosher law and a few more callous and over-the-top comic scenes, Ben and Hannah are ready to do whatever it takes to end the indefinite visit.

The second act finds Hershel still on the couch days later, observing Shabbat — Donald Fox's marvelous lighting design and its dusky, ambient feel sets the proper mood for a quieter scene in which work-exhausted doctor Hannah reluctantly engages female-inferiority subscriber Hershel; together, Flynn and Gribble easily maneuver their blossoming camaraderie and still fit laughs into a charming interaction. In an odd reversal, progressive and heretofore connected Ben and Hannah appear more prone to stumbling as they plumb the depths of a relationship unhindered by societal guidelines or the rules of their shared religion. The last of the show's curious developments comes in the form of Kat Grilli, whose turn as the enthusiastic Rachel shows her to be a brilliantly manipulative button-pusher, but still eminently likable. The juxtaposition of two simultaneous, contrasting scenes isn't intrinsically illuminating, but all four performers' work is solid and their timing impeccable, maintaining the energy necessary to sustain the weaker script elements of the two-hour production.

Moore aims to flesh out these comic characters and make them relatable and real, which succeeds from a performance standpoint but doesn't entirely harmonize with the text. Although Ben and Hannah readily agree in hushed tones about how utterly odious they find their guest, Gribble's take on Hershel is more pushy and bumbling than it is toxic, his inner teddy bear always within the viewer's grasp. The approach also raises subsequent questions about Crownover's less-than-justified hostility and smooths out the story arcs so that rather than change, characters merely veer from their rightful course.

Regardless, no analytical downer can stop this Modern Orthodox from being delightfully funny and slickly handled by a rock-solid ensemble. It's an odd way to crack the veneer of a contemporary religiously disaffected couple, but this agreeable production touches on questions of Jewish identity and custom without hijacking the story Goldfarb wants to tell. Moreover, the show's every highly polished moment knows how to supplement the eager laughter of a glib punchline with eminently practiced, minute gestures and capable character work. In the end, plot takes a back seat to performance, but with this cast, it's entirely the right decision.


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