More political thesis than play, “A Strange and Separate People” is a cri de coeur from Jon Marans (whose coeur delivered a similar cri in “The Temperamentals” last season) for “a new breed” of religious gay men to stand up and declare themselves within the Jewish Orthodox community. A lot of wishful thinking has gone into this thoughtfully articulated and decently acted play about an observant Upper West Side married couple whose consciousness is raised by a young gay doctor recently awakened to his own religious beliefs. But this ardent proselytizing is stronger on conviction than drama.
The lead-up to these impassioned polemics is clumsily engineered in the text and awkwardly staged by helmer Jeff Calhoun, whose musical theater background might not have prepared him for the physical constraints of a black box theater with lousy sightlines and no room to breathe — let alone preach.
Take it on faith, rather than from the formal dramaturgy, that Stuart (Noah Weisberg) has good reason to be sitting in the glatt kosher kitchen of a housewife named Phyllis (Tricia Paoluccio). Apply some of that faith, too, to the play’s claim that this stressed-out woman somehow manages to run Phyllis’s Orthodox Catering while caring for a severely autistic child and attending to the domestic needs of her old-school husband, Jay (Jonathan Hammond), a clinical psychologist specializing in “same-sex attraction disorder” and a devout Orthodox Jew who serves as cantor at the local temple.
Once past the awkwardness of all this introductory exposition, Jay and Stuart — now revealed as having an existing, and most unorthodox relationship — sit down with Phyllis to share in “the quiet beauty” of the Sabbath meal.
There is, indeed, quiet beauty in this scene, and the thesps play it well. Weisberg finds the religious sincerity in Stuart’s busy-body directions on how to sing the blessing of the bread, Hammond discovers real feeling behind Jay’s macho bluster, and Paoluccio is especially good at working her way through feisty Phyllis’s dawning awareness that something is going on between these two men that is definitely not kosher.
But there are rough dramatic trails ahead, once Stuart declares his intentions of making the couple complicit in his plans to shock their Orthodox congregation into acknowledging — and accommodating — the existence of the Shavian New Gay Orthodox Man he represents.
There’s passion, to be sure, in the florid arguments between the out-there Stuart and the closeted Jay. (Accepting her significantly diminished role in this new configuration, Phyllis meekly passes the plates around and keeps her head down.)
But passionate argument is not the same thing as dramatically constructed action, and both the thesps and their director rely almost exclusively on escalating the pitch of their voices instead of examining the playwright’s polemical speeches for something more human — and universally moving — to convert the skeptics in the room.