It’s a shame about Benjie Moscow, the schlub at the center of Theater J’s “The Moscows of Nantucket.” In his 30s and out of work — and where Benjie’s concerned, “work” seems to apply very loosely — the poor darling is forced to live off his incredibly indulgent parents in their idyllic beachfront summer home, drinking too much of their vodka and spewing what, to his mind, are extremely witty bons mots.
And therein lies the problem with this world premiere by Sam Forman, author of the far more accomplished Woody Allen homage “The Rise and Fall of Annie Hall,” which Theater J produced to enjoyable effect in 2009. Although “The Moscows of Nantucket” spreads a few intermittent dollops of joy — in the way of Forman’s amusing portrait of shpilkes in an agitated Jewish family — Benjie’s not a guy whose mundane ordeals qualify over even a fairly short haul as dramatically engaging.
Forman, unfortunately, pitches the perspective of the 90-minute comedy as a platform for Benjie, and unless you’re inclined to embrace a young man who continually mooches off relatives, lives in his bathrobe and gives off far less sympathetic vibes than he imagines, “The Moscows of Nantucket” will feel distinctly unmoored. “I guess maybe it’s time for me to grow up a little,” says Benjie, in the goofy guise of James Flanagan. Uh, ya think so?
The notion of how slackerdom is received in a success-driven Jewish household packs comic potential, even if its thematic development here remains unfulfilled; as Benjie notes early in the play — set on the Moscows’ Nantucket deck, rendered with gratifying realism by designer Robbie Hayes — a lot of his friends back in Brooklyn are similarly adrift. A question that one might ask is whether America’s entitled children have been led to believe they’re more gifted and deserving of applause than is actually the case.
Benjie’s a writer of erstwhile promise, having had a few pieces published 10 years earlier in the Atlantic. But nothing’s happened since, and now, psychic paralysis has set in. Waiting to find out if he’s been given an unpaid slot at a prestigious writer’s colony, he’s retreating to the self-pitying precipice of alcoholism and reclusiveness.
Forman is a talented writer himself, so he’s aware that in tracing the domestic fissures of Jewish America he’s treading where many satirists have ventured before. The play is certainly a valiant attempt at avoiding sitcom traps and portraying the Moscows with honesty; he’s created in Benjie’s parents a pair of recognizably hot-and-cold-running people trying their best to coexist with their grown children no matter how upsetting their choices. As the elder Moscows, Bob Rogerson and Susan Rome turn in endearingly prickly performances, and each in his or her own manner manages truthfully to convey the challenge of how one offers love from the sidelines.
Their characters are called upon by the playwright to navigate the turbulent chasm between their sons: Benjie, the smart-alecky ne’er-do-well, and older brother Michael (Michael Glenn), a hotshot television producer who’s visiting from Los Angeles with his paramour Virginia (Heather Haney), a starlet from the South with a toilet mouth. (One of the hardest-to-credit scenes has comely Virginia spelling out a vile four-letter word just as she’s being introduced to the mother.)
Glenn’s and Haney’s roles are too sketchily conceived for the actors to reveal the surprising layers Forman suggests might be there. The play itself, in director Shirley Serotsky’s treatment, struggles to establish a steady rhythm: Some of the lines radiate with authenticity, as when a nanny for Michael’s child, played by Amal Saade, declares to Benjie, “You’re such a sweet little drunk guy! You’re adorable!” Other times, though, the dialogue seems to get stuck in idle.
Flanagan is a terrific young actor who excels at playing characters you’re not so sure you want to get to know all that well. He was outstanding as a stoner-deliveryman in Studio Theatre’s “The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow,” and just as impressive as a creep pulling off a vicious Internet hoax in Forum Theatre’s “Dark Play or Stories for Boys.” Forman’s comedy isn’t as well suited to his strengths. But then again, as a force for vigorous theater, Benjie himself is a weakling.
by Sam Forman. Directed by Shirley Serotsky. Set, Robbie Hayes; lighting, Dan Covey; costumes, Deb Sivigny; sound, Elisheba Ittoop. About 90 minutes. Through June 12 at Aaron and Cecile Goldman Theater, DC Jewish Community Center, 1529 16th St. NW.
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