Set in the Chicago suburbs in the fall of 1963, this easily relatable, deeply felt but overlong new play depicts a Jewish family struggling with personal dramas that reflect larger social changes and the evolving meaning of religious ritual in American life. Passionate performances take this Goodman Theater production a long way — dysfunctional family dramas are a Chicago specialty — but even though playwright Alan Gross works hard to create textured relationships, “High Holidays” still needs work to transcend its nagging dramatic immobility.
The play is ultimately a traditional kitchen-sink family drama, although it starts off in the backyard, where 12-year-old Billy Roman (terrific young actor Max Zuppa) imagines himself a football star and spins clever rants acknowledging the oddness of his town’s Native American name — Iroquois, Ill. (a clear stand-in for Gross’ own hometown of Skokie) — where no Native Americans seem to live.
The idyllic, nostalgic quality of the scene is interrupted by Billy’s mother Essie (Rengin Altay), whose irritations with her son — both the noise he’s making and the fact he isn’t busy preparing for his bar mitzvah –start with an innocent throwing of slippers but escalate into the wielding of a knife. There’s real emotional hurtfulness in her insults but no real physical danger — the threats are issued with love, and mostly for laughs.
When Essie’s older son Robbie (Ian Paul Custer) returns from college for Rosh Hashanah, she’ll expertly use the same knife to strip him naked in the kitchen so she can toss his ratty T-shirt and underwear in the garbage and his pants in the laundry.
The idea is to avoid fully sentimentalizing family life circa “The Wonder Years”; the depiction of love here is tinged with cruelty, and vice versa, but the off-balance tone is more disorienting than intriguing. It eventually settles into a sentimental form of anti-sentimentality; even the Oedipal suggestions between Essie and Robbie have a hint of darkness but a sheen of innocence.
Robbie announces he has dropped out of school to move West to become a folk singer in the vein of his newfound hero, and the first act ends with father Nate — an effectively blustery Keith Kupferer as a dad losing control of his family, and fearing the judgments of his own offstage but much-feared father — bellowing, “Who the hell is Bob Dylan?”
The times, you see, they are a changin’.
It all feels a bit derivative. Tony Kushner set “Caroline or Change” at exactly the same time and also explored Jewish identity amid social upheaval, and Billy has more than a hint of Eugene Jerome from “Brighton Beach Memoirs.” Even the poking of fun at the era’s questionable parenting has become one of the pleasures of AMC’s “Mad Men.”But that’s all eminently forgivable. Despite the fact that the aesthetic feels a bit plastic at times — including overly frequent inclusions of Yiddish phrases — Gross writes from a very personal place, and he does re-create a specific era and concoct a collection of imperfect characters audiences will unquestionably recognize.
But “High Holidays” doesn’t develop — Gross gets repetitive, and the relationships don’t deepen sufficiently, nor do the stakes rise enough, to justify a running time of more than 2½ hours. Director Steven Robman brings refinement, covering over some of the play’s rougher edges, although maybe more than intended. In this production, a gloss of nostalgia wins out over edgier naturalism.