“Handle With Care,” the second salon of Theatre Ariel’s 2019-2020 season, was the first play that Jason Odell Williams and his wife Charlotte Cohn wrote together.
In it, an Israeli woman named Ayelet and her grandmother travel to the U.S., but on Christmas Eve in Virginia, Ayelet’s grandmother dies. The delivery guy loses the coffin and, as Ayelet speaks little English, he brings his Jewish friend Josh to help translate, but Josh doesn’t actually speak Hebrew.
Theatre Ariel does “salon-style” theater, or readings in private homes, of plays with Jewish content and themes.
The readings of “Handle With Care” will take place on Dec. 7 at 8 p.m. in Bala Cynwyd, on Dec. 8 at 7 p.m. in Wynnewood, on Dec. 14 at 8 p.m. in Bryn Mawr and on Dec. 15 at 2 p.m. in Gladwyne. There will also be a reading for Tribe 12 in West Philadelphia on Dec. 12 at 6:30 p.m. Tickets are available on theatreariel.org, or tribe12.org for the Tribe 12 performance.
The idea for “Handle With Care” came about several years ago, when playwright Williams asked Cohn — who has a background in acting, producing and directing — what character she would play if she had her choice.
“And I said, ‘I’d like to be a person who cannot speak or is misunderstood and has problems communicating,’” said Cohn, who grew up in Israel and moved to the United States after her time in the Israel Defense Forces. “Right? That’s kind of what I said.”
“Your idea was that you would not have a lot of lines or a lot of words,” Williams added as Cohn laughed. “Charlotte is a gifted actress, but she’s also maybe one of the better actresses just sort of physically and (with) facial expressions.”
Williams figured the role of an Israeli character would be interesting for her to play, as the part could showcase her Hebrew as well. Cohn wound up writing the Hebrew dialogue for the play, which is in both English and Hebrew.
“The entirety of my acting career has been in English in America, and so I’ve never had to memorize Hebrew, and it was amazing how easy that was,” said Cohn, who said she hasn’t performed as Ayelet since 2014. “I mean, also I wrote it, but … the Hebrew was really easy, and to this day, I can sort of launch into it.”
In Theatre Ariel’s performances, the part of Ayelet will be played by Marissa Barnathan. She is joined by Luke Bradt, who plays Terrence the delivery guy; Ross Beschler, who plays Josh; and Susan Moses, who plays Ayelet’s grandmother Edna.
Because of the Hebrew in the play, Theatre Ariel decided to partner with the Israeli American Council to promote the readings to the local Israeli community. One member of the Israeli community is even serving as a Hebrew coach for the play, said Deborah Baer Mozes, the Theatre Ariel artistic director.
People who don’t understand Hebrew will have no trouble understanding the play, but those who do understand Hebrew may laugh first, she said.
“I had a lot more serious plays on the shortlist, but I just feel right now that there’s so much tension in the universe that I found myself being drawn to the works — that have meat to them, because it’s important that everything we do, I feel, needs to be a jumping off point to a really good conversation … but I was also feeling a need to find work that grappled with important issues with a lot of humor,” she said. “I feel like we’re in somewhat humorless times.”
She learned of the play from Ralph Meranto, the associate director of CenterStage Theatre at the Louis S. Wolk Jewish Community Center of Greater Rochester in New York.
“I wanted something uplifting for the Chanukah/Christmas time period, for the holiday time period, the December slot,” Mozes said. “I read a couple of plays, and I kept coming back to ‘Handle With Care.’ I just found it to be a heartwarming and delightful piece of theater, but also I really liked the fact that it was a bilingual play.”
Theatre Ariel has done Israeli plays in English before, but this is the first time the theater has done a play in both English and Hebrew, she said.
In another uncommon move for Theatre Ariel, “Handle With Care” is a romantic comedy.
“This play is about, in some ways, the beshert in our lives, the meant-to-be, that’s found in moments we’re not expecting,” Mozes said. “If anything, I’m hoping it will allow audiences to enjoy the unexpected and expect the unexpected.”