What one generation absorbs as abject suffering, the next may experience as utter bewilderment. For befuddled is how Andy Glickstein stumbles through his out-loud-neurotic, Jewish American life in Theater J’s “Andy and the Shadows,” Ari Roth’s warmly probing comedy about the impact of unanswered questions on a child of Holocaust survivors.
That Roth, longtime artistic director of Theater J, manages to mine the confusion of an anguishing legacy for knowing laughs is one of the higher achievements of this embraceable play, whose peripatetic structure is a mirror on Andy’s jittery inability to make peace with himself. The winning embodiment of questing Andy is mastered here by Alexander Strain, who as the evening’s tireless anchor gives one of the strongest performances of his Washington career.
Playing Andy’s mother, Raya, who’s resonantly maternal and a teensy bit scary, Jennifer Mendenhall, too, offers the type of textured portrayal that fully inhabits the Goldman Theater stage at the D.C. Jewish Community Center. In fact, Andy’s nuclear family, completed by Stephen Patrick Martin, Colleen Delany and Kimberly Gilbert — plus Veronica del Cerro as Sarah, his patient (up to a point) fiancee — exists under Daniella Topol’s deft direction in a convincing whirlpool of alienation and affection.
There’s a lot of “business” in “Andy and the Shadows,” and consciously so: It’s a play consisting of piles of puzzle pieces that, like the Glicksteins themselves, don’t always fit together easily. “It is a sad house, it has always been a sad house, and I have a room in it,” Andy declares. The source of the sadness is stored somewhere, like a keepsake hidden in the attic, and Andy is the family member, the middle child, who’s been given — or has assigned to himself — the burden of looking for it. “It’s a wounded family,” Raya tells Andy, “and you are its healer.”
The wounds of this Chicago household trace back in Roth’s semi-autobiographical play to immigrant and wartime experiences of father Nate (Martin) and more intensely, Mendenhall’s Raya. As in the homes of many Holocaust survivors, the Glicksteins stow the horrors of the past away. Daughters Amy (Delany) and Tammy (Gilbert) have found their way of dealing with the uncertainty of their legacy by doing good in faraway places, Amy in the Middle East, and Tammy in Thailand.
Andy, the healer, is a storyteller and, more to the point, a filmmaker. In awe of his mother and at the same time aware of some missing, vital information in Raya’s tale of survival in Europe, he’s nagged by the absence of ennobling heft in his own life. Tending to over-dramatics, Andy convinces himself he has yet to discover some cosmic essence of the tragic, what he labels “my duende,” that will give his existence meaning, his films coherence — and poor Sarah room to breathe.
Some forbearance is required in the task of synchronizing with Roth’s rhythms, which combine the confessional tone of Arthur Miller’s “After the Fall” and the wry reflections of Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall.” The restless jumpiness of “Andy and the Shadows” is not always comfortably achieved. The play bounces back and forth in time, ricocheting off childhood vignettes and digressing for a long and, perhaps, too purposefully ironic scene in which Andy remakes the schmaltzy 1966 film “Cast a Giant Shadow,” about a Jewish American hero of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War.
But in the intentional disorder of “Andy and the Shadows” you will find payoffs, in the affecting portrait of the Glickstein family and in the persistent manner that, with respect and love, Andy coaxes out of Raya the facts of her childhood, long kept from him and his sisters. It’s difficult to imagine an actress better equipped than Mendenhall to bring out the yin-yang of Raya’s downy-stony personality. She and Strain create an admirable illusion of parent-child intimacy, the complex kind in which emotions are strong — and yet certain lines cannot be crossed.
The story of Andy’s relationship with his quieter father, who putters in the cellar, waiting for his son to notice him, is a smaller but no less touching facet of the play. Martin’s understated account of Nate is a rewarding counterpoint to the more operatic emotions surrounding Andy and Raya. As the women in Andy’s life, del Cerro, Delany and Gilbert are guided by Topol to appealing portrayals elevated by their fealty to truth.
The busy, hopscotch format of “Andy and the Shadows” does at times cause unnecessary confusion: the surfeit of devices — dreams, memories, soliloquies — fractures the narrative to the point that it may begin to lose some of the audience. The efficient Topol, however, sees to it that the evening always plugs back into its most reliable circuit: the wiring that binds the Glicksteins. The flexibly angular, architectural set by Luciana Stecconi and the sharp lighting by Colin K. Bills aid in defining variegated corners of Andy’s mind, and Ivania Stack’s costumes are, as always, assembled with care and taste.
“Andy and the Shadows” is presented by Theater J as the second in an ongoing series of plays by Washington playwrights — the first was Renee Calarco’s “The Religion Thing” and next up will be Jacqueline Lawton’s “The Hampton Years.” And it’s a step toward the establishment of a firmer toehold for locally nourished theatermakers. As Roth’s comedy unlocks Andy’s insecurities, Theater J just as commendably makes the keys to the playhouse more accessible to the city’s writers.
by Ari Roth. Directed by Daniella Topol. Set, Luciana Stecconi; lighting, Colin K. Bills; costumes, Ivania Stack; sound, Eric Shimelonis; dramaturg, Peter Birkenhead; fight director, Paul Gallagher. With Michael Claybourne, Davis Hasty. About 2 hours 35 minutes. Through May 5 at D.C. Jewish Community Center, 1529 16th St. NW. www.theaterj.org or 800-494-8497.