‘Handle with Care’
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‘Handle with Care’

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Sheffield Chastain, Charlotte Cohen, and Jonathan Sale star in the romantic comedy ‘Handle with Care.’ Photos courtesy Doug Denoff

Fluent Hebrew speakers who long to hear the language on stage should enjoy Charlotte Cohn’s rapid-fire delivery in “Handle with Care,” the new comedy at Westside Theatre/Downstairs on 43rd Street, but they will have to put up with a plot so corny and contrived that they may gasp at the chutzpah of it all. Written by Jason Odell Williams and directed by Karen Carpenter, “Handle with Care” tells the unconvincing story of two brokenhearted Jews – one American, one Israeli – who miraculously find each other in a dumpy motel in rural Virginia on Christmas Eve. Williams’ script alternates between the nights of December 23rd and December 24th to advance the action, as well as toggling between Hebrew-and-English and English-that’s-supposed-to-be-Hebrew. Cohn, who in real life is the playwright’s wife, gamely tries to keep her languages straight, but she often loses control of her accents. Who could blame her?

Broadway luminary Carol Lawrence – the original Maria in “West Side Story” and star of many other Broadway shows – plays Edna, a determined Israeli grandmother traveling with her reluctant granddaughter Ayelet (Cohn) on a mysterious trip through the low spots of the East Coast. Explaining why they are carefully avoiding any sites of tourist interest, Edna insists that’s the best way to learn about a country – stick to back roads and crappy diners and you’ll absorb the essence of the place. As soon as they hit a motel, Safta vanishes for a while, saying she’s going out for something to eat. Lawrence is a thorough pro, giving her character as much spunk and charm as she can, and she and Cohn have a nice rapport.

When the play opens, however, Edna is a corpse, who unfortunately has been stolen, along with the delivery truck she was stowed in. The truck’s driver, Terrence (Sheffield Chastain), has desperately called his one brainy Jewish friend, Josh, to help him out of this fix. After all, it’s Christmas Eve, so who else would be available? As played by Jonathan Sale, Josh brings a modicum of comic timing and naturalness to the play.

Ayelet cannot speak English, so expresses her dismay at her grandmother’s “disappearance” in Hebrew, and Terrence is convinced that Josh will be able to understand her. Although Josh tries to explain that his knowledge of Hebrew is limited to what he memorized for his bar mitzvah, that means nothing to Terrance, and not much to Ayelet either, of course. The first challenge to our credulity is that any young Israeli would be unable to speak or understand enough English to get along in such a situation, and the eventual explanation is too preposterous to mention.

Cohn and Sale are an attractive pair, and they work hard to create some chemistry, but they are struggling against an accumulation of clichés that becomes insurmountable. Josh is in mourning for a wife who died suddenly, and Ayelet is depressed because she is sure that she will never find the right guy. Terrance is the simpleton who believes in Providence, while Josh is the academic skeptic. How were these two ever childhood friends, especially since Terrance’s Southern accent is as thick as peanut butter and Josh sounds like a news anchor?

“Handle with Care” has been playing at regional theaters and opened at the Westside on December 15. Its predictable storyline may be satisfying to some, but it’s better if you want to practice your Hebrew.

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