Theatre Ariel’s 2018-2019 season concludes with a play about wrestling with God.
Only this time, it’s God asking the questions in Oh, God, a play by the late Israeli playwright Anat Gov.
Theatre Ariel, a Jewish theater organization that holds salon-style play readings in private homes, will have four readings of Oh, God on May 4 at 8 p.m. in Wynnewood, May 5 at 7 p.m. in Wynnewood, May 11 at 8 p.m. in Bryn Mawr and May 12 at 7 p.m. in Penn Valley.
In Oh, God, a Tel Aviv psychologist named Ella, played by Alana Gerlach, is having a crisis of faith when God, played by Seth Reichgott, decides to pay her a visit for an emergency therapy session. Turns out, God is struggling with his own crisis as he questions humanity. The cast also includes DJ Gleason, who plays Ella’s autistic son Lior.
“This is very much God in the vain of, maybe not as comedic, but the Oh, God! movies and stuff like that where God is an actual person who has actual human traits, foibles, problems, but on a God scale,” said Reichgott, who grew up attending Beth David Reform Congregation in Gladwyne. “It’s a very funny idea that God is this guy who needs help figuring out what to do.”
The salons will include post-show discussions with psychiatrist Arnold Feldman on May 4 and with Har Zion Temple Rabbi Seth Haaz on May 5.
Oh, God works well as a piece to end the season, Founding Artistic Director Deborah Baer Mozes said, because it connects thematically to the season’s other plays.
“The plays have had a lot to do with issues of spirituality and issues of ethics and how does that play out in each of us,” she said. “This play actually speaks to a lot of other issues that have been raised in the other plays this season.”
The season opened in October with TRAYF, a play about two young Chabadniks who drive a “Mitzvah Tank.” Their friendship is tested when they meet a man who wants to explore his Jewish roots.
In December, Theatre Ariel presented the season’s second salon, The Man in the Sukkah, a Southern Gothic play about a family living on a former plantation who takes in a Jewish foster child.
The third salon was The Ethics of the Fathers AKA The Gangster and the Grandpa, a play about the writer Jesse Bernstein’s grandfather, who was friends with the “The Al Capone of New Jersey.”
“One of the things that I felt was important in TRAYF and also came up in The Man in the Sukkah is the question of where am I Jewishly and how do I express that and what does Judaism mean to me and how do I express that,” Mozes said. “We saw that in the different characters in TRAYF, as each was trying to define themselves Jewishly and or discover themselves Jewishly. Certainly that was the case for the protagonists for The Man in the Sukkah. She was trying to figure out Judaism in terms of who she was. In some ways, in Jesse’s play, some of the questions of ethics — how can you be a Jew and be a gangster? How do you put those two things together?”
Originally, Mozes said, she had intended to end the season with 10-minute plays from emerging writers about Jewish identity, but didn’t find enough plays that would work in time. She made the decision to push off those 10-minute plays until next season and show Oh, God instead.
“It was on the top of my list for things to do next year, next season because it’s a fascinating play,” Mozes said. “It’s perfect for a salon because it’s primarily two characters. It’s by an Israeli playwright, and I try to periodically produce works by Israeli playwrights.”
Though Gov was famous in Israel, her name is relatively unknown in the United States, so Mozes feels that she is introducing her to the audience.
Gov, who died in 2012 of cancer at the age of 59, was well-known both for her work for the stage and for TV. She wrote for the comedy series Ken, Ma? and the talk show Laila Gov. A number of her plays were performed at Tel Aviv’s Cameri Theatre.
The timing of the Oh, God salons — right around Yom Ha’atzmaut and Yom Yerushalayim — make it particularly significant that the play is by an Israeli playwright, Mozes said.
The play’s approach to religion is also more reflective of Israeli culture than American culture, she said.
“Things tend to be a little more black-and-white when it comes to Jewish spirituality and practice in Israel as opposed to here,” Mozes said.
Mozes is in the process of reading plays for next season’s salons. She doesn’t yet know if there will be themes that run throughout those salons, just as she didn’t know in advance of this past year’s season.
“I didn’t realize how strongly tied they would be or that they would be primarily almost all young emerging playwrights,” Mozes said.