Theater J, the resident professional theater at the Washington, D.C. Jewish Community Center, has tackled ripped-from-the-headlines plays before, dealing with the Bernard Madoff scandal, Israeli and Palestinian relations, silent prejudice and race and an excoriating take-down of the Bush administration, among them.
None, perhaps, hits as close to home, though, as Renee Calarco’s “G-d’s Honest Truth” – yes, the dash is intentional, and the playwright explains its reason in the 100-minute intermissionless evening. The world premiere, developed expressly for Theater J’s Locally Grown project, which supports the creation of new plays from writers living in the District, Maryland and Northern Virginia, draws on an unbelievable tale that unfolded in Wheaton, Md., and affected synagogue members, rabbis and cantors around the Beltway, duped by a rabbi who called himself the “Jewish Indiana Jones.”
Calarco was intrigued by a 2010 story in The Washington Post Magazine concerning a rabbi who ran a dusty, nondescript Jewish bookshop on Georgia Avenue in Wheaton by day and purportedly traveled across Eastern Europe rescuing and restoring so-called “Holocaust Torahs,” sacred scrolls that had been confiscated from Jews and hidden in the unlikeliest places. The rabbi in question, Menachem Youlis, a sofer or scribe, claimed to acquire, repair and then sell Torahs rescued from the Holocaust.
Calarco dives deeply into Jewish practices, contemporary American Judaism with all of its frailties and outlandish customs. With a light hand she treads moral questions of truth telling and power in the religious and secular Jewish worlds. But the playwright also gently and underhandedly wrestles with a broad and unimpeachable issue that has played an overarching role in shaping late 20th -century American Judaism.
“G-d’s Honest Truth” takes a deep dive into an area that preoccupies some Jews, communally and individually: Holocaust worship. Not to belittle the Holocaust, but for some Jews, Calarco suggests, overaggrandizement of the Shoah has become the norm, perhaps to the detriment of moving Judaism forward on other creative and challenging paths. Calarco, by drawing inspiration from the Youlus incident, but noting the play was “inspired and not an accurate account,” for which he ultimately received a sentence of 51 months for fraud, brings these issues into the light.
Surprising, and sometimes off-putting, in “G-d’s Honest Truth” is the lighthearted, flippant tone the play takes with some very elemental and essential 21st – century matters. Director Jenny McConnell Frederick, a founder of Rorschach Theatre who directed the visceral production of “God of Vengeance” for Theater J in its early years on 16th Street, has taken a glib approach, milking the laughs and emphasizing the most outrageousflaws of American Jewish congregational life, with all the insularity of an insider. The play is surprisingly, and for this viewer, even uncomfortably funny – and perhaps overly didactic in its Wikipedia-like exposition on Torah.
Frederick, in her opening gambit, has the small cast — just seven actors, some playing multiple roles – bomb the audience with welcomes, breaking through that imaginary actor-audience divide, which throughout, especially the central character does to manipulate the audience to her favor. We soon discover empathy, pity, what if I could be so easily duped feelings for this wealthy, welldressed Potomac woman, who part fierce Jewish mother, part dilettante.
Thus we meet Roberta – Bobbi for short – and Larry, a very comfortable middle-aged couple with a son, Josh, who is about to marry after too long, at least according to his mom, an engagement. Naomi Jacobson’s Bobbi is the play’s turnkey, taken in by charismatic Rabbi Dov and his swashbuckling tales of mysterious maps, abandoned cemeteries, and blood-stained Torahs buried with human remains in the countryside of Poland and other East European nations. Jacobson has played many a Jewish mother, on Theater J’s stage and beyond. She offers food, so, nu, you should eat. She nudges, gossips and kvells in all the right places. As her husband, Larry, John Lescault, just seen in the theater’s“Life Sucks,” plays the one with the business acumen. But he has that inept sitcom-dad demeanor – plenty of shrugging, mugging and slight eye rolls to show his ineffectual side when dealing with family or emotion.
Also returning from “Life Sucks,” Sasha Olinick relishes his role here as charismatic rabbi – even down to the Indiana Jones cowboy hat he sports. Like a snakeoil salesman, Olinick is able to muster up the right turn of phrase with rabbinic authority and empathy along with a nod to a higher power. Could he sell a fraud Holocaust Torah to a top businessman? That’s the crux of Calarco’s intrigue and, in his own, soft-spoken way, Olinick might have the goods to convince.
Audrey Bertaux plays the young women’s roles, including the soon-to-be daughter-in-law, while Rena Cherry Brown, seen recently in Tony Kushner’s “The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide…,” serves as the older confidante, and competitor, to Bobbi. The cast is rounded out with Michael Kramer and Eric Messner. And the entire production is framed by Robbie Hayes’s set: shelves filled with bric-a-brac and an attic’s worth of discards. Projection designer G. Ryan Smith contributes some compelling and some comical video backdrops that illuminate the action of the play.
Truth, so very often, can be stranger than fiction. “G-d’s Honest Truth” is “inspired by a true story” though the program pointedly notes it is “a work of fiction … not intended to accurately portray any real people or events.” But like most theater – and most art – it reaches for, if doesn’t quite attain, higher truths. Were Rabbi Dov’s fantastical tales of Torah rescue purposeful lies or were they fabrications made to re-invent himself and use his power for what he might have believed was a greater good – providing American Jews with a palpable attachment to the fading memories of the Holocaust? Or did he somehow believe his stories? Someday soon, the last Holocaust eyewitnesses and survivors will be gone, leaving behind other ephemeral viscera – a diary, a bit of a deteriorating yellow star, decaying Torah scrolls, and recorded accounts of the survivors. Was Rabbi Dov a charlatan or was he doing work that he might call “for the greater good”?
In Calarco’s fictionalized world, the jury is still out.
“G-d’s Honest Truth,” through April 19, Theater J, Washington, D.C.-JCC, 1529 16th St., NW. A series of talkbacks and discussions will accompany the run.
Tickets for the play start at $35 at theaterj.org or -800-494-8497.