The NYC-set comedy about the struggles of traditional Jewish values in a modern dating world currently playing at the Toronto Centre for the Arts Studio Theatre has the sort of mild likability of a CBS sitcom- it’s funny sometimes, it’s charming most of the time and it’s not going on any best-of lists anytime soon, but it will please lots of people and offend almost none. Amy Holson-Schwartz’s Can I Really Date a Guy Who Wears a Yarmulke? tells the story of Jewish-raised, totally secular Eleanor as she falls in love with totally-not-secular “good Jewish boy” Aaron. Their “completely right for each other, but…” story is an idealized version of a common modern problem wherein all the smart, handsome, kind and single pediatricians are just a little too Jewish for all the smart, pretty, fun and single PhD candidates their friends introduce them to. The story is sweet and the ending predictable, resulting in a perfectly lovely evening of sitcommy theatre.
For the record, Mr. Perfect- Aaron, does not actually wear a yarmulke. I mean, he does, but not often, and only in the most unobtrusive way at convenient and strictly religion-related times (ie: you know, prayer and stuff). Aaron’s a modern guy living a modern life that happens to include some dietary restrictions (though not of the super intense variety) and the occasional Hebrew prayer- I’m not sure that should freak Eleanor out as much as it does, but, alas, the plot had to come from somewhere. There’s a single scene detour in which Aaron comes up with some cockamany about Eleanor being “empty” because she has no religion, which is, you know, pretty stupid, but no more stupid than her many attempts to break up with an overwhelmingly good guy because she doesn’t like religious folk (okay, it’s maybe a little worse, but they’re both judgey crazy people, this is my point).
Actually, thank god Aaron’s there to stand up for the Jewish religion, based on how the characters in the play treat the various missionaries who (very politely) come calling, religion as a whole takes an odd beating in a story that, theoretically, should be about accepting other peoples’ beliefs (the Mormons get mocked, the Jehovah’s Witnesses condescended to, the Jews for Jesus completely discredited and the Scientologists outright laughed at- come on, people, we need to mock everyone or no one, not just the people you think are less right than you). Eleanor kicks off the play with a rant about her recent trip to Israel and how she had the Holocaust shoved down her throat, and, yes, she should be maybe a little more respectful when talking about such a massive tragedy, but was it really necessary to completely undermine her every thought and feeling on the subject by having her break down in tears at the end of act one saying “I just don’t want to deal with it!”? Luckily, the play isn’t shy about calling both characters on their silliness- Eleanor for being too closed-minded to appreciate Aaron for being awesome, not just religious; Aaron for being hypocritical about traditional values (he picks and chooses what rules to adhere to yet blames Eleanor for rejecting them all). If the play itself was more open-minded about its treatment of other religions, I’d say it’s actually a nice portrayal of the ways in which we’re all utterly convinced we’re right, all the time. The story’s a little simplistic, but the ideas are good, for the most part.
The cast is a mixed bag with the always-great Jesse Nerenberg as the highlight, playing Aaron with intelligent charm. I also really liked Adrianna Prosser as Eleanor’s blast of a best friend Lila and as Aaron’s mesmerizingly calm pregnant younger sister Becky (interestingly, the picture of strict Judaism Eleanor is so afraid of). Ron Boyd is also very good as Eleanor’s laid-back dad and, specifically, as a delightful waiter with a mean streak early in act one. I wasn’t crazy about Reva Lawry’s various over-the-top characters, though her enthusiasm was infectious, and Scott Leaver is great in his tougher parts- Becky’s orthodox husband Micah and Eleanor’s overly confident, sleazy British ex Keiran- but left something to be desired in what should have come most naturally, the young and fun role of Aaron’s best friend/Lila’s fiancee Will. As for Jada Rifkin’s Eleanor, she’s believable as the secular smarty pants (though the Austen references are used with a little too heavy a hand) but comes off as angry for most of the play, a stark contrast to Nerenberg’s gentleness and a choice that undermines the moments when anger is the actual desired emotion.
The production as a whole is a true testament to the incredible difficulty of performing a piece that seems easy. People think Shakespeare is hard, and the verse is certainly no cakewalk, but poetic or stylized dialogue can actually be a relief for stage actors required to project their performances to the back row without looking silly. The lower concept the dialogue, the tougher it is to sound natural, specifically speaking as though those are words you’ve never said before. This was a pitfall for all the actors at some point on opening night, even for the best of the lot- Prosser (so good in Shakespeare) and Nerenberg (so good in general)-and gave the production a forced quality that held it back at times (and made some of the bad jokes land with a louder thud). Holson-Schwartz’s script lacks nuance, which is next to impossible for actors to overcome, especially without style to lean on.
Nitpicking aside, Can I Really Date a Guy Who Wears a Yarmulke? is a sweet little production- nothing showy or all that stunning, but nice and pleasing in a simple way for your day off in between more meaningful fare.