Theatre Ariel Begins New Season With Play About Passover

The actors perform “We All Fall Down” at Theatre Ariel’s season opener at Har Zion Temple in Penn Valley on Oct. 22. (Photo by Aaron Oster)

Theatre Ariel opened its 32nd season at Har Zion Temple in Penn Valley on Oct. 22. Even though it was a Saturday night when the Philadelphia Phillies were playing in the National League Championship Series, more than 40 people showed up for the show.

It was a nice turnout for the first performance of Jesse Bernstein’s tenure as artistic director. Bernstein replaced Deborah Baer Mozes, the Jewish theater’s founding artistic director, after she retired over the summer. And, like usual, the actors stood on the stage, read from their scripts and made the play, “We All Fall Down” by Lila Rose Kaplan, come to life without costumes, music or special effects. It was just their characters and words in a well-lit room.

Theatre Ariel’s salon style is like the theater version of an acoustic concert. It strips away the bells and whistles so the audience can focus on the essentials: the characters, the themes and the story. During its 2022-’23 season premiere, the salon theater made yet another story come to life.

But in laying this story bare, the Main Line organization also showed us how much better it could have been.

Theatre Ariel’s 32nd season is about legacy, as Bernstein discussed with the Jewish Exponent in August.

“What do we inherit? What do we leave behind?” explained an email from the theater promoting the season.

“We All Fall Down” has a premise that fits with this theme. A Jewish family that has not done “anything even remotely religious for decades,” as a post on Theatre Ariel’s website explains, gets together for a Passover seder.

So, it’s a Jewish family that understands that it’s Jewish but that also never practices religion. That’s a relatable premise in 2022/5783.

Yet as soon as the play starts, you quickly realize that this is not a story about real Jews who are trying to reconnect with their religion. It’s a story about Jewish and millennial
caricatures who barely have a Jewish identity.

There’s the old white dad Saul, whose opinions are outdated but who still says a little too much; there’s the therapist mom Linda, who cannot stop criticizing her daughters’ life choices; there’s the older daughter Sammi, who lives across the country in California and runs an alternative school that gives no grades; and there’s the younger daughter Ariel, who wants to move to Bali and become a yoga instructor.

The father looks back fondly on seders at his nana’s house. But the mother was a communist who did not believe in religion, so the family never practiced. Rose Kaplan makes this much clear. What she doesn’t make clear is how this family even maintains a Jewish identity.

Saul has his childhood experiences, to be sure. Linda, on the other hand, has no formative Jewish memories to speak of, and her daughters, thanks to her, do not have any either.

The family has never sat for a seder before; they’ve never stepped foot inside of a synagogue; they’ve never celebrated a bar or bat mitzvah; they do not even reference the type of extended Jewish community that even the most secular Jews often find themselves in.

Theatre Ariel opened its 2022-’23 season on Oct. 22. (Photo by Aaron Oster)

Being Jewish is little more than some faint and distant footnote from their family tree. When would it have even occurred to them? Yet somehow, without any shared experiences, they all seem to possess a deep understanding of their Jewish identity.

This is a family of intellectuals. I can see why their Jewish history might be more extreme than that of the average family. But their Jewish history is pretty much nonexistent, making the entire premise seem unrealistic.

These are hardly the play’s only flaws, either. It is 90 minutes, but it could be 40. It has three extra characters who use way too much stage time to carry out their respective shticks.

There’s Saul’s sister Nan, an old communist and comrade of Linda’s whose only note is to ask why in the world is this family sitting for Passover. There’s Ester, Linda’s assistant who keeps begging her to take a call from Ellen DeGeneres about Linda’s popular new book. And there’s Beverly, a conservative former neighbor of the family who is as stupid as you would expect a conservative character in a play about communists to be.

If you’re going to write a play about caricatures, you better at least make them funny. Maybe they spend much of the show making you laugh before revealing some surprising depth as the story goes on. This is often what makes for a good comedy.

“We All Fall Down” is not even supposed to be a comedy, but that’s probably the best it could have done. JE


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