Watching Ian Cohen’s He Who Laughs, the inaugural production of JCC Theaterworks, directed by Reuven Russell at Yale’s Off-Broadway Theater, I found myself asking the question: can every myth be modernized? What are the costs and benefits of taking a Bible story and putting it in the present day? The story of Abraham and Isaac is one of the world’s great mythic tales. Called upon by God, whom he trusts, Abraham is told to sacrifice “the son he loves,” Isaac, as a burnt offering—the way one would offer a fatted calf or a lamb. A true test of faith for a patriarch, the story also bears great significance for the relation between generations—usually understood as “fathers to sons,” particularly when it was sons who fought in wars and thus were “sacrificed” for the common good. Times have changed and such changes might lead us to ask questions about such great foundational stories: are they gender specific or gender neutral? What is the role of women in such a story? As the basis for the true lineage of faith in Judaism, the story carries major connotations about the relation of the faithful to God, even about the very conception of God’s “character.”
Moved to the present day, of course, such a story immediately invites other considerations: a father who might kill his son because a voice only he hears commands it would be seen as delusional, possibly psychotic, and perhaps a religious fanatic to boot. And how would a teen of today react to his father’s mission? Would he make jokes, whine, fight, run?
The best thing about He Who Laughs is the interplay between father and son. Cohen manages—against, perhaps, our own working assumptions—to make the situation feel both contemporary, mythic, and fraught with the big questions that the story, in no matter what setting, invites. The title refers to the tradition that Isaac—Zach in the play—laughed at birth. Zach (Gore Abrams) is a fairly representative teen—a nerd who loves video games, Star Wars, making bad jokes, and is uncertain about girls. He also trusts his father, Al (Chuck Montgomery), and believes that when his father suddenly “got religion” it was for real. God speaks to Al and Zach is hoping to hear the call as well someday. As Al, Montgomery looks patriarchal and easily manifests the kind of seriousness of purpose that makes us want to trust him too.
The key dramatic situation—the father and son car ride to Ramapo in New Jersey to commit the deed—occupies most of Act One. The upshot—after all the possible interpretations of the command (none of which include “dad, you’re nuts”) are discussed—is that Zach sees it from the perspective of true faith. He’s willing to be sacrificed because that’s what God wants. This is achieved without homilies but rather through the give-and-take of dialogue.
The main dramatic situation of Act Two is the father and son happening upon a young runaway girl who has been beaten up and left upon the road by an irate pickup. This “Girl With the Backpack” (Kate Kenney) becomes a possible catalyst. Left alone with her while Al goes to the necessaries with his meds, Zach gets a glimpse of a free spirit’s life on the road. “Girl,” played with forthright charm, is crude, from Zach’s point of view, but she finds him cute and sweet and quickly tries to talk him out of death at his dad’s hands in favor of seeking fortune. The fact that the girl also hears voices lets us wonder whether she could be some version of that lamb trapped amidst the brambles that lets Isaac off the hook in the Bible story.
In the end, Cohen’s play dramatizes a key aspect left out of the story as I learned it. What if Isaac was ready to go and meet God? Wouldn’t being “spared” be something of a bummer? Attainment of supreme exaltation versus . . . . inheriting your dad’s trucking business in New York? Put like that, it might seem a facetious point, and it’s to Abram’s credit that he lets us feel Zach’s disappointment and skepticism about his father’s excuse for not going through with it. The play takes us from a shared acceptance of one will to a dispersal of such faith. The questioning of God, surprisingly, is not when one is going under the ax, but when, rather, the burden is lifted. Al is accused of “bad faith,” in a sense, and that’s sobering to all.
Cohen adds to his central drama an ill-advised role for Sheila—Al’s wife and Zach’s mother, played by Janie Tamarkin. From an intro scene in which one of Al’s co-workers, Sam (Matt Walker), tells her about Al’s extreme behavior, we move to another journey by car to try to stop Al from doing what Sheila suddenly realizes is Al’s goal (a car ride lacking any of the dramatic interest of the father/son ride and any of the useful temptations of the Girl With the Backpack). Sheila at some point runs off in desperation, convinced that Sam is Satan, which leads to a final intervention of sorts that I suppose is meant to give a little comic uplift but which seems tacked on—unless one feels that the story of Abraham and Isaac always needed to be a bit more heymisch with a heavenly bubbe figure.
The sets are spare—wooden outlines of a house and a car—but sufficient, though the car-door sound effects could be louder. Music is used well too to create atmosphere when needed.
An interesting and at times challenging debut of JCC Theaterworks, this workshop production of He Who Laughs provides, as intended, food for thought. Next up is The Last Seder by Jennifer Meisel, March 6-10, with auditions scheduled for January 5th and 6th at the JCC, 360 Amity Road, Woodbridge; for more info: firstname.lastname@example.org.
He Who Laughs By Ian Cohen Directed by Reuven Russell Workshop production
Stage Manager: Julius L. Stone, Jr.; Dramaturg: Yoni Oppenheim; Lighting Designer: Justin Bennett; Set Consultant: Brian Dudkiewicz; Technical Designer: Kate Newman; Sound Board Operator: Zachary Grabko
December 14-16, 2013 Off-Broadway Theater at Yale