Behind the Gates Theatre Review - World Premiere of Wendy Graf's Latest Play Cannot Conceal Flaws

Susan (Keliher Walsh) and Jerry (James Eckhouse) try to get through to Bethany (Annika Marks)

(West Hollywood, CA) May 16, 2010 – Almost 2 years ago, award winning playwright Wendy Graf fulfilled a lifelong dream to visit a country that has heavily influenced her work: Israel. Graf stated that during her two week sojourn through this profound country, she was “overwhelmed and moved to tears, to rage, to pride, to wonder, to despair, to hope.” Powerful words for a powerful country. And the result of these contradictory feelings resulted in the creation of her latest play, BEHIND THE GATES, which delves into family, cultural traditions, and a person’s desire to create and nurture a spiritual foundation that combines these two together. Sadly, despite the riveting performances of Annika Marks and Keliher Walsh, Graf’s clichéd dialogue and one-note characterization fail to explore the multi-faceted world of an Orthodox Jewish culture.

(From L to R)Jerry (James Eckhouse),Susan (Keliher Walsh),and Stone (Tom Beyer) listen to private investigator Ami (Steven Robert Wollenberg)

The drama follows the life of 17-year old Bethany ( Annika Marks), a drug-using teen whose brimming rage is only matched by her own self-hatred. She disappears into an ultra Orthodox haredi society after she is invited to a Shabbat dinner by Rabbi Meir ( Oren Rehany) during a summer trip to Israel. After losing communication with their daughter, who now calls herself Bakol, her parents Susan ( Keliher Walsh) and Jerry ( James Eckhouse) try to locate her with the help of an Israeli private investigator ( Steven Robert Wollenberg). And as they conduct their search, both Jerry and Susan journey into Mea Shearim, which is one of the oldest neighborhoods in west Jerusalem and is practically the heart of this Orthodox Jewish culture. But their search also becomes a journey into self-discovery for the upper-class Jewish American couple, as well as for their prodigal daughter who experiences both the pleasures and the pains of certain traditions that are practiced by the haredi culture.

The play is broken into two parts, one for each facet of the haredim. The first act was originally produced as a one-act play called Bethany/Bakol, which was a winner in the Denise Ragan Wiesenmeyer One Act Play Festival. And the opening monologue by Bethany initially sets a dynamic tone for the play, courtesy of an incredible performance by Annika Marks, who gave a touching performance in the Fountain Theatre’s production of The Accomplices, which dealt with President Franklyn Roosevelt’s negligence and irresponsibility regarding his delayed response to the Holocaust during World War Two. Marks first appears as the anger-filled, profane Bethany, whose own damaged soul has as many scars as the physical ones on her wrists. She uses the audience first as her therapist, where she describes her hatred regarding her parents, her school, her own life. But as the monologue progresses, the audience then becomes her confessor as she describes her experiences with the Rabbi, his family, and the Jewish culture. Her heart melts because in the haredi she finds the foundation of love and tradition that she has never felt before. Marks expertly transforms---through her wardrobe, make-up, her speech, and emotionally---into a young woman named Bakol who experiences a sense of peace, however short-lived it is. Graf’s writing in this monologue really strikes to the heart with its realism of inner pain and torment, and Marks wonderfully demonstrates her multi-layered talent and her craft during those thirty minutes, as well as the end of the play when she returns to her mother.

Bethany (Annika Marks) becomes Bakol

However, when she disappears from the stage, the play falls into a stream of clichéd dialogue and stereotypical characterization, especially from the male roles. But Graf does flesh out her female characters, and Keliher Walsh and Robyn Roth shine with their roles. Walsh’s Susan is a determined firebrand whose strength and tenacity bring a sense of realism that this play desperately needs. And Roth’s portrayal of Shirona, an Iraqi mother whose bravery and courage is interlaced with a soft-spoken dignity, is simply heartbreaking. Both actresses hold their own with the dialogue that strays into melodrama. But every single male character is practically demonized in Gates. Eckhouse’s Jerry is a typical ugly white American who places more importance on his career than his daughter. And when he gives Susan the ultimatum that this event is going to lead to their divorce if she doesn’t give up as well, the scene is straight out of a soap opera. Tom Beyer is totally miscast as the American embassy representative Stone, who looks more like a hippie academic than an apathetic, pen-pushing bureaucrat. And as the only supposedly “sympathetic” male character of the play, Wollenberg does an effective job as the street-wise private investigator Ami. However, when he gives jokes at the most inappropriate times and attempts to promote his business at the end of the play to the family, this sense of opportunism falls into stereotype. Even if people like Ami do perform these actions in real life, it doesn’t translate well to theatre.

Rabbi (Oren Rehany)observes a suffering Susan (Keliher Walsh)

But the most shocking performance is by Israeli born actor  Oren Rehany. In the May issue of Los Angeles Blueprint, Graf indicates that it is essential that Rabbi Meir---who serves as the catalyst to this entire drama---should not be played as a villain. However, during the major confrontation between Susan and Meir, Rehany portrays the rabbi as a cold and calculating zealot, without any sense of dimensionality whatsoever. And when Meir tearfully uses the Holocaust as a shield to justify the actions of their traditions, Graf ultimately fails in objectively showing the many contradictory sides of the haredim. In order for an antagonist to fascinate the audience or reader, he/she must have certain amounts of layering and dimensionality, and these characteristics are not present within Meir, both in Rehany’s performance and through Graf’s writing.

All the actors in the play are extremely talented and Graf’s background as a playwright is impressive; make no mistake about that. But Graf’s play needs considerable revision. And if she does go back to the drawing board with this story, the many unexplored, objective facets of haredim can finally be revealed from “behind the gates.”

Behind the Gates OPENS May 16th – June. 28th, 2010
Fri. & Sat. 8PM and Sun 3PM

Marilyn Monroe Theatre

Lee Strasberg Creative Center

7936 Santa Monica Blvd.

West Hollywood, CA 90046

For Reservations call 323-960-5772

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