"Miklat" is Joshua Ford's professional debut as a playwright, and a notable debut it is. A bittersweet family comedy receiving its world premiere at Theater J, the play focuses intensely on contemporary Jewish experience but also appeals to anyone who's maybe never understood his parents or his kids, or either. There's a rough spot here and there -- always to be expected with a new script -- but Nick Olcott's sure-footed direction keeps this smart and smooth production rolling pleasantly along.
Marc Kleinman (Eric Sutton), a graduate economics student from Chicago, goes to Jerusalem to study briefly, but while there he connects for the first time with his Jewish identity. Really connects. He adopts a Hebrew name, joins the ultra-Orthodox Hasidim, discards his jeans and ball cap for traditional black garb and agrees to an arranged marriage, per custom.
His parents, basically liberal, non-observant Jews, know none of this when they come to visit just as the Persian Gulf War begins. Moreover, the intended bride is a 19-year-old who can't remember how many drinks, drugs or lovers she's had in her short life. As soon as Mom and Dad find out everything, a comic battle of the soul is joined. They think he's a fanatic; he thinks they're a disgrace to the religion.
Yes, the inversion of generational differences and some of the clever one-liners have the air of a Jewish "Family Ties," but Ford, associate artistic director of Theater J, complicates the situation enough to engage deeper interest. For instance, through an Israeli man who misguidedly tries to help Marc's father get his son "back" from the Hasidim, you get an idea of the rancorous divisions between Jewish communities. Also, the father, who doesn't believe in God, regards his son's conversion as an implied accusation against his faithless life.
Ford serves up everything with a fast, funny and light touch and several poignant moments. What he doesn't give you, though, is any clear sense of why Marc has so adamantly rejected his past. His mother even pins him with the charge that people "just don't change" as suddenly and radically as he has. What gives? From what is Marc seeking miklat ("shelter" in Hebrew)? The play has no answer -- a shame, since it could give the story much greater resonance.
Whatever his ultimate motives, Marc, as played by Sutton, is a young man genuinely awed by what he reads in the Torah, which seems to give him confidence, but he's also a son who desperately wants his parents' approval. As his mother, Caren Anton is a caring and sensitive woman who is struggling to understand what's happening to her son. As Marc's father, Jack Kyrieleison seems stuck on anger, which he plays with solid comic timing, but the performance shows almost none of the confusion and hurt that the script says he's experiencing. Rahaleh Nassri makes Marc's betrothed a wonderfully guileless creature who believes that when it comes to her past, complete honesty -- usually at all the wrong moments -- is the best policy.
A hosanna is due Lou Stancari's stark, simple set -- a slightly elevated rectangular slab sort of suspended in space -- which Martha Mountain's warm, suggestive lighting helps transform into various locations. Tony Angelini's evocative and often sharply realistic sound design deserves one, too. The biggest, though, goes to Theater J for introducing a promising talent.
Miklat, by Joshua Ford. Directed by Nick Olcott. Costumes, Susan Chiang. With Michael Kramer, Grady Weatherford and Charlie Varon. Approximately 100 minutes. Through Feb. 3 at Theater J, at the D.C. Jewish Community Center,1529 16th St NW. Call 800-494-TIXS.