Review: ‘Modern Orthodox’

Picture the bizarre lobby scene if crowds of traditionally garbed Hasidim should suddenly start pouring into the sleek corridors of the Dodgers' new theater complex. That scene no doubt will be playing out nightly once word gets around in Orthodox Jewish communities that Daniel Goldfarb has written an adorable romantic comedy about love and sex and faith and friendship among young Jews living in modern times.

Picture the bizarre lobby scene if crowds of traditionally garbed Hasidim should suddenly start pouring into the sleek corridors of the Dodgers’ new high-tech theater complex. That culturally jolting scene no doubt will be playing out nightly (except Shabbas) once word gets around in Orthodox Jewish communities that Daniel Goldfarb has written an adorable romantic comedy — with honest to G-d belly laughs — about love and sex and faith and friendship among young Jews living in modern times.

Goldfarb (“Adam Baum and the Jew Movie”) can thank director James Lapine for hustling up a sparkling cast and treating his offbeat comedy to a high-gloss professional polish. But the wit of his piece is entirely genuine and rooted in honest affection for the young characters trying to be cool and still keep the faith in a secular materialist society. (Well, OK, so he’s a little behind the times on the secularism, but the theater is notoriously slow about picking up on national trends.)

Jason Biggs (“The Graduate”) is to die for as a brash young Hasid named Hershel Klein, a New York diamond merchant who is fully observant of orthodox religious tradition but doesn’t let it cramp his style, which runs to high-top sneakers and a Yankees yarmulke.

In an open-hearted performance free of affectation or condescension, Biggs lets Hershel be Hershel, which means someone who speaks his mind with the conviction of his youth — but sweetly makes allowances for people he likes.

Hershel likes Ben Jacobson (Craig Bierko), a Wall Street financial consultant who gets a blast of Hershel’s mercurial personality when he buys a pricey diamond ring from the young dealer for his live-in girlfriend.

Bierko (“The Music Man”) has a real lock on this character, conveying with cool humor the distaste of the rich, successful, buttoned-down, secular New York Jew for an Old World guy like Hershel.

The bumpy evolution of their unlikely friendship — which entails both hysterically funny insults and thoughtful conversations about modern-day observances of the Jewish faith — is really the heart of the play.

But, yes, there are ladies present, and their presence insures this is indeed a romantic comedy as well as a play about faith and friendship. Molly Ringwald is downright radiant as Ben’s girlfriend, Hannah Ziggelstein, a no-nonsense OB-GYN who is even more removed from Orthodox Judaism than Ben but bares her generous heart to Hershel in a way that does them both good. Besides shaking up Ben’s insufferable complacency, Hannah’s rash act of kindness also opens the plot to the other woman — a woman for Hershel.

Her name is Rachel Feinberger, and Ben and Hannah find her through Jewdate.com in a scene every bit as desperately funny as it sounds.

To be sure, the couple’s original purpose in finding a nice girl for Hershel is to get him out of their apartment and off their hands.

But once the enchanting Rachel shows up, in the funny and feisty person of Jenn Harris, everyone (and perhaps especially the costume designer) rushes to embrace this unorthodox flower of Orthodox femininity. Between the two of them, Hershel and Rachel would confound anyone’s prejudices — which seems to be Goldfarb’s gentle and well-taken point.

Modern Orthodox

Dodger Stages; 499 seats; $66 top

Production

An Ars Nova and Kara Medoff presentation, in association with the Underwood Theater and Jewcy, of a play in one act by Daniel Goldfarb. Directed by James Lapine.

Creative

Sets, Derek McLane; costumes, Dona Granata; lighting, David Lander; sound, Fitz Patton; production stage manager, Jane Grey. Reviewed Dec. 1, 2004. Opened Dec. 6. Running time: 1 HOUR, 40 MIN.

Cast

Ben Jacobson - Craig Bierko Hershel Klein - Jason Biggs Hannah Ziggelstein - Molly Ringwald Rachel Feinberger - Jenn Harris
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