The tensest moment in “Shul,” playwright Sheldon Wolf’s new drama that premiered over the weekend at Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company in St. Paul, comes just before intermission. That’s when a potential buyer for a dilapidated synagogue with an aging congregation shows up at the Jewish place of worship. He’s excited and ebullient, but that’s not what the people gathered in the temple immediately notice about John.
The first impression, and one that stops everyone in their tracks, is that John (played by Jôher Coleman, a master of accents and alumnus of the sitcom “Head of the Class”), is wearing a turban. He looks like he could be an imam. Hmm. Should the congregation really go through with selling the building now?
Appearances are not always what they seem in “Shul,” which is less a dramatic work than a humor-laced disquisition on stereotypes and expectations on the one hand, and tradition and legacy on the other. This particular “shul” — Yiddish for “school” or gathering place — has been a site of many memories. If the congregation votes to sell it, does that mean it’s losing its legacy? Or does the culture truly reside within the people, scattered as they are to the wind?
It’s a question confronted not only by churches, temples and synagogues but also by declining small towns and neighborhoods that people have abandoned to chase better opportunities.
“Shul” marks the directorial debut of Robert Dorfman, who has done fine work as an actor at the Guthrie, the Children’s Theatre and elsewhere in the Twin Cities after a New York career that included “The Normal Heart” and “The Lion King.”
Dorfman has a proficient and experienced cast, although he doesn’t do much with them. They loiter around Michael Hoover’s thematic set and talk. But it’s not his fault, really. The script, like the production, is full of charm but lacks animating tension.
Dorfman’s seasoned ensemble includes Raye Birk, who plays old-timer Nate while Nathaniel Fuller delivers congregation member Golden with a patrician air (and a nice suit, thanks to costume designer Rebecca J. Bernstein).
The cast is rounded out by actors Nancy Marvy as neat-freak Miriam, Charles Numrich as half-crazed but wise Ezra, Avi Aharoni as concerned congregation president Abe, Paul Schoenack as wisecracking joke-teller Friedman and Dexieng Yang as an earnest would-be real estate agent Heidi.
“Shul” is a big deal not just for playwright Wolf, a long-toiling writer who also had a career in museum communications. It’s also a big deal for the producing company, now on the cusp of its 25th year. MJTC scheduled the opening for the last day of Passover. It was supposed to be about remembrance. Instead, the high holy day was marred by the violent assault on a California synagogue.
At the outset of Saturday’s performance, theater founder Barbara Brooks dedicated the show to the victims and families in Poway, Calif. This “Shul” is instructive, resonant and, sadly, all too timely.