Hal Linden is an actor with tremendous audience rapport. When he delivers a line defining Jews as three things, “circumcision, a love of deli and a bar mitzvah,” his warm persona fills in the blanks and illuminates the hopes, dreams and emotional yearnings of a lifetime. “Lessons” is about an elderly man being tutored for a belated bar mitzvah, but the true lesson delivered is how a gifted, Tony-winning actor can transform marginal material into something considerably more.
Linden portrays shoe manufacturer Ben, widowed after a nearly 50-year marriage, who asks Ruth (Mare Winningham), a former rabbi, to teach him Hebrew. Cold and unresponsive, she balks at preparing him for a bar mitzvah, resisting all efforts at friendship or human contact.
The eventual lessons intermingle with low-key comedy and dramatic foreshadowing that need more tension.
While spectators wait for the revelation, too long delayed, that would explain Ruth’s biting, bitter behavior, Linden’s Ben has a lovely moment (beautifully directed by Adam Davidson) singing “I’m putting on my top hat” and reliving his long-discarded dream of dancing on Broadway. His amazed reaction when he learns of Ruth’s encyclopedic baseball knowledge also is a tribute to performer and director.
A basic problem with “Lessons” is that Ben’s yen for a bar mitzvah, in order to become more than “a watered-down Jew,” isn’t presented in large enough terms. His reasons for craving it seem theoretically valid, rather than the result of powerful, overwhelming drive.
Another difficulty is casting. Winningham, an excellent, Emmy-winning actress who scored strongly onstage in “Side Man,” never matches up convincingly with Linden. Her icy reserve doesn’t hint at charm beneath the surface, and when they begin to bond, we rarely feel the depth or intensity of the connection.
Winningham manages notable moments on her own, particularly in a scene describing the terrorism-related death of her daughter in Israel. Her vivid recollections — “There was glass and blood everywhere” and “part of her arm had been blown away … there were holes in her chest” — powerfully evoke current headlines. When she rails against a ruthless God that would permit this tragedy, Winningham conveys piercing pain.
J. Kent Inasy’s lighting is especially affecting when Ruth listens in darkness to an urgent phone message from Ben, and Cynthia Herteg’s drab costumes convey the mindset of a woman who has given up. These elements, along with Laurence Bennett’s minimalist apartment set, lend the tale a bleakly realistic tone.
“Lessons” falters after Ruth learns to face and conquer her demons. Instead of providing resolution by letting her characters work out conflicts emotionally, author Graf falls back on illness cliches. This feels like a copout and forces Linden offstage just when events most require his presence.
Linden is such a robust life force that his sickness registers as contrived and arbitrary.
The further miscalculation of adding a coda involving Ruth and Ben’s Asian granddaughter Amanda (Monica Tsai) lacks resonance, since Amanda’s fate and feelings mean nothing to the audience.
Graf’s plot decisions are logical enough, but some stories, more than others, cry for specific resolutions. This one, from beginning to end, enlists the audience in a desire to enjoy Ben’s bar mitzvah triumph, and by denying spectators that victory, the letdown is so severe that it dampens the final impact of the play.