There are no certainties in the theater, of course, but 27-year-old Adam Pettle looks to have a winner with “Zadie’s Shoes,” a highly promising new play about gambling addiction.
The pivotal character, a young Jewish man called Benjamin, comes from a family of high-rollers. In fact, we’re told, his grandfather arrived in Canada barefoot, having lost his shoes in a poker game just before leaving Poland.
Benjamin — portrayed in an energetic, charismatic performance by the playwright’s brother Jordan Pettle — is a nice guy and truly loves his girlfriend Ruth, who is suffering from cancer. He’s almost everything he should be — compassionate and blessed with a keen sense of humor — but he’s also willing to risk Ruth’s life on the outcome of a horse race.
Ruth (a strong Kelli Fox) has given up on conventional treatment and is set to leave for Mexico to try coffee enemas, but Benjamin has blown just about all their money. Wandering into his local synagogue, he meets Eli, a gambling “prophet” who hands out good advice and a hot tip for an upcoming race. Will Benjamin confess all to Ruth, or will he risk everything to recoup their losses?
What unfolds is a meditation on luck and on the need for faith. Symmetrical subplots involving Ruth’s two sisters and flashbacks to Benjamin’s childhood attempt to elaborate on the theme, with mixed success. The rocky relationship between Beth and boyfriend is underwritten and pallid, for example.
But sister Lily has a boyfriend named Bear, a foul-mouthed, aggressive, puzzled lout who is gamely battling the triple threat of drink, drugs and gambling. Randy Hughson shambles on stage and steals everyone’s hearts with a richly comic, all-too-human performance.
Jackie Maxwell’s direction helps smooth out some of the unevenness in structure and dialogue, while Sue Lepage has created a series of separate playing areas, with a large racetrack bleachers in the background.
To his credit, the playwright isn’t afraid to mix humor and emotion, to tiptoe along the knife edge between comedy and tragedy. “Zadie’s Shoes” is tense, daring, funny, thoughtful and touching. It’s the playwright’s first full length play; both he and it have a bright future.