Playwright Jason Odell Williams kicks around the cosmic football of fate in “Handle With Care,” now playing in an uneven production at Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company.
Williams’ own experience inspired him to write about an unlikely pair meeting in an unlikely place and falling in love. Is the universe random and chaotic, or ruled by a guiding hand?
The story has undeniable charm — expressed in the central character of a young Israeli woman on an ill-fated trip to America. But Williams’ ideas aren’t hefty enough and he fills the play with too much chaff.
At the play’s outset, Ayelet (Miriam Schwartz) is upbraiding Terrence, a doltish DHL driver (Dustin Bronson), for “misplacing” Ayelet’s dead grandmother. Soon, Josh (Ryan Lindberg) arrives to help. Terrence had called his friend because Josh is Jewish so he might be able to interpret Ayelet’s Hebrew into English. He can’t.
In flashbacks, we see Ayelet and her grandmother Edna (Linda Kelsey) check into a cramped motel (designed by Carl Schoenborn), argue about the aim of this seemingly aimless trip into backwater Virginia and eventually share some secrets that reveal the point of the play.
Schwartz has a lovely vulnerability as Ayelet. She shyly struggles through the language barrier in scenes with Josh and Terrence (after she calms down) and overall demonstrates a winning innocence. At one point, she explains, haltingly, the importance of Shabbat and reveals a deeper dimension to her character. We hope the best for her.
Director Hayley Finn and actor Dustin Bronson aren’t quite as fortunate with Terrence, who seems dumb as a post yet able to string together purpose and meaning from disparate strands of his life. Bronson and Finn surrender too easily to the stereotype that Williams has written, and throw subtlety out the window.
Lindberg and Kelsey have fairly straightfoward paths to follow, although each is given emotional moments. Kelsey expresses the confused frailty of Edna’s hope for this trip in a nice scene shared with Schwartz. Lindberg has a more thankless task, as Josh fends off Terrence and also masks his own feelings in scenes with Schwartz.
Williams’ script has a clunky improbability to it. Lindberg’s Josh goes on and on in certain scenes (speaking in English), while we know that Ayelet can’t understand him. The play keeps changing its own rules and internal logic, and it really is not until we’re 45 minutes into a 75-minute play that the dramatic hook starts to reveal itself.
It is Schwartz, a young newcomer, who redeems the work and perhaps this is because of Williams’ love for his own wife. That’s a very sweet thought, amid the clutter of the rest of the play.