Nominal lesson of Wendy Graf’s “Lessons” is the transformative power of Jewish culture and ritual on the questioning soul. But the production at the Strasberg Institute’s Marilyn Monroe Theater offers an even more potent lesson in the transformative power of old pros let loose on thin material. Alchemy of helmer Gordon Davidson and star Hal Linden turns a relatively eventless work into something sweet and satisfying.
Reworked since a 2005 staging at the same venue by Davidson’s son Adam, play is one of those intergenerational two-handers (“Tuesdays With Morrie,” “Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks,” etc.) beloved of regional theaters for low production cost and high aud appeal (they hope). Graf generally avoids the genre’s phony confrontational tropes in favor of a slowly evolving relationship between two recognizably everyday examples of the walking wounded.
Linden’s gained some avoirdupois since his “Barney Miller” salad days but retains a lightness perfect for “grizzled alte kocker” Ben, a recently widowed shoe manufacturer and self-described “watered-down Jew” metaphorically lost in a desert of retirement and lack of purpose. Escape route emerges when a larky desire to learn some Hebrew becomes an obsession with preparing for his never-held bar mitzvah, though he’s initially luckless in his choice of teacher, the chain-smoking, divorced ex-rabbi Ruth (Larissa Laskin).
Ben sits ill with the prickly Ruth, whose wilderness is a remote island condo only reachable by ferry from Seattle. (Designer Daniel L. Wheeler marshals just the right mixture of stark economy and cardboard boxes to convey her rootlessness.) It’s instantly signaled that their interactions will hinge on his persistence in tearing down her defenses, a task suited to Linden’s unique combination of bemusement and steely integrity.
In the course of Ben’s thrusts and Ruth’s parries, Graf proffers much insight into Judaism, and not just trivia (such as why “aleph” is a silent letter) but fundamental principles of a spiritual life that will interest Jew and Gentile alike. Still, the dramaturgy feels flimsy, as Ben and Ruth’s give-and-take predictably leads to the revelation of the big secrets that characters in two-handers inevitably possess, followed by the restoration of both protagonists’ dignity and sense of self-worth.
Davidson maintains an essentially conversational quality (and brisk cue pickup) throughout. Though the brief scenes lack shape and solid curtain lines, shifts occur swiftly and fluidly, abetted by J. Kent Inasy’s expressively mottled lighting effects and Michael Roth’s sensitive music. Production achieves a distinct sense of time’s passage, so difficult in a two-hander.
Helmer’s only misstep is his handling, in play’s first half, of the energetic but unfocused Laskin, whose high irritability level leaves her nowhere to go. Once her catharsis is reached and play involves itself with Ben’s crises, she becomes likable and persuasive, but her early contemptuous anger seems too strong for even the cheerful Ben to endure beyond their first meeting.