Would that the authors of “431 of My Closest Friends” had higher aspirations. Aiming low, they succeed in generating laughter with low-rent ethnic jokes while their play noses around the edges of serious issues (the difficulty of maintaining integrity, for example, and the meaner aspects of Jews guilt-tripping one another). Every time they seem about to put some meat on the tired old bones they’re tossing, they pull up short, opting for the glib take.
At the center of the moral morass is Myra Gutkin, who has arranged for a grand party (inviting the 431 closest friends of the title) to celebrate her son’s bris. Myra originally planned a small family gathering, but she is easily seduced into having the big affair, succumbing to the idea that she’s doing it for the pride of the Jewish people. Says a conniving caterer, “If sacred events aren’t shared by all, they are lived by none.”
The impending festivities are threatened when the child is inadvertently circumcised in the hospital the day he is born, without the prayers and benedictions that surround the “sacred event.” So Myra’s got a conflict: The invited hundreds have secured babysitters, and made appointments to have hair and nails done. How can she disappoint by canceling the now unnecessary ceremony?
Myra seeks her rabbi’s advice, so now the rabbi’s got a conflict. With the wisdom of Solomon he decides, honoring God, not to take part in the for-show ceremony himself, but to satisfy Myra’s social needs he recommends a squeamish young mohel who won’t mind skipping the surgery.
If these or any other characters in the play had more than a fraction of depth, if any part had real humans and not just cliches and if for more than a single moment any of them expressed an actual thought instead of speaking canned dialogue, the concept could have made for an engaging, original and challenging evening of theater. Instead, it is slightly less magical than eavesdropping at your grandmother’s canasta game.
Two of the authors, Miriam Kouzel Billington and David Presby, perform all roles. She plays Myra and he plays everyone else. Billington performs the role as well as it can be done, while clearly suggesting she could do more if called upon. Presby does some parts better than others, although most of his women tend to sound like female impersonators and his husband-as-nebbish is just too much of a caricature.
Third author Peter Goldman serves as the director, moving his co-authors neatly through the very attractive and practical set by Michael Bottari and Ronald Case. The same pair contributed the appropriately tasteless costumes.