Seen enough scrooges to last a lifetime? All Nutcrackered out? Those looking for something sweet and different from the traditional holiday entertainment options may want to check out Handle with Care, the latest offering from City Lights Theater Company.
The bilingual romantic comedy by Jason Odell Williams (with Hebrew portions written by his wife, Charlotte Cohn) is billed as the “perfect Jewish Christmas story,” although it’s only loosely a holiday tale.
The action takes place on a snowy Christmas Eve in an unremarkable motel room in Goodview, Virginia. Ayelet (Roneet Aliza Rahamim), a tourist from Israel, has recently lost her grandmother (played in flashbacks by Roberta J. Morris). She has “lost” her figuratively—in that she has just died hours earlier—and literally, in that her body has been, er, misplaced by the dim-witted deliveryman Terrance (Jeremy Ryan), hired to help transport it back to Israel for burial within 24 hours, as per traditional Jewish custom. Ayelet doesn’t speak much English and Terrance speaks no Hebrew, so he calls on his old childhood pal Josh (City Lights regular Max Tachis), who, with his half-Jewish background, Terrance hopes, can at least communicate a few words with the distraught woman.
At first Josh is reluctant to get involved, fearing Terrance is trying to rope him into a blind-date situation. He’s been alone since the tragic death of his wife 20 months earlier. Once he realizes the situation, though, he feels a connection to Ayelet and the grief-stricken pair begins to slowly let their guard down and form a bond. Meanwhile, through flashbacks, we see Ayelet and her grandma Edna in the same hotel room the day before. (The actors speak in English in these scenes but it is understood that the characters are actually speaking in their native Hebrew.) Edna has been dragging Ayelet, damaged from a bad relationship and haunted by recurring dreams, on a tour of dull Virginia towns and motels, to see the “real America,” but her true motivations are eventually revealed. I’ll try not to spoil any plot twists, except to say that there are some nice ones.
In addition to the play’s writers being a married couple, the charming lead actors Rahamim and Tachis are real-life lovebirds, which sweetens the production. They have some lovely scenes together using a mix of broken English and Hebrew, discussing everything from pop culture to the importance of Shabbat. I can’t vouch for Rahamim’s Hebrew skills or accent but it sounded convincing to me, as she switches effortlessly from Hebrew to Israeli-accented English, to American-accented English. Though many of her lines are in Hebrew, the audience, much like Josh, doesn’t need to know the language to follow along. Overcoming the language barrier through human connection, though, is part of the show’s theme.
I found the characters of Edna and Terrance to be somewhat less endearing than the principals. Edna is a stereotypical “quirky,” busybody of a woman—always knowing better—while goofy Terrance is a bit too over the top in his guileless yokel routine. Still, Tachis and Ryan do have good chemistry, and share some funny moments playing off each other’s reactions. Terrance calls Josh “broseph.”
Ron Gasparinetti has done a great job of recreating the look of a bland hotel that could be anywhere in middle America. Lighting and effects cues remind us of the blizzard raging outside each time a character opens the door, adding subtly to the winter atmosphere.
Other than some mentions of the date, along with It’s a Wonderful Life and Josh’s family’s “HanuMas” celebrations (plus some Christmas Carols included in the pre-show playlist), the show is not overbearing with its holiday spirit, although Edna and Terrance act as angels of sorts, working to bring about a miracle for their lonely loved ones. Whether you celebrate Hanukkah, Christmas, both, or neither, Handle With Care is a cup of good cheer, warming up the season like peppermint cocoa on a cold night.
Handle With Care
Thru Dec 20, $17-$32
City Lights Theater Company, San Jose