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Two strangers find their way in ‘A Guide for the Homesick’

Journal Correspondent

Samuel H. Levine and McKinley Belcher III in the Huntington Theatre Company’s production of “A Guide for the Homesick.” Photo by T. Charles Erickson

NOVEMBER 2, 2017 – Samuel H. Levine is proud of the connection between tikkun olam (repairing the world) and his latest work. The 22-year-old Brooklyn-based Jewish actor is playing Jeremy, a Jewish nurse-aide who has been working in Uganda, in the Huntington Theatre Company’s production of “A Guide for the Homesick,” now in its world premiere at the Boston Center for the Arts’ Calderwood Pavilion through Nov. 4.

”Whether we know it or not as Jews, the idea of helping and finding your place in the world is subconsciously a Jewish idea,” said Levine, talking to the Journal about the new Ken Urban drama.

In “A Guide for the Homesick,” playwright Urban early on establishes Jeremy’s own day-to-day helping as a back story. This emotionally conflicted Harvard graduate – awaiting a flight back home to the States in 2011 by way of Amsterdam – pours his heart out to Teddy, an African-American stranger whom he has met and quickly bonded with in a bar.

Teddy invites Jeremy to share his hotel room. Jeremy agonizes over the value of his work for a Ugandan doctor apparently colluding with the country’s homophobic leaders. He especially worries about the fate of Nicholas, a vulnerable gay Ugandan, whom he has counseled about HIV.

For his part, Teddy fears that he may be responsible for the disappearance of his best friend Ed, whose fiancée repeatedly calls looking for him. Could Ed have run off because of hotel room advances, he wonders, or is the future groom’s manic depression the explanation?

At first glance, the hotel room setting and the emotional exchanges between Jeremy and Teddy may seem like the beginning of a melodramatic one-night stand, but do not be fooled. Urban’s sharp writing makes the characters’ evolving friendship –even the fact that Jeremy comes from Newton and Teddy happens to hail from Roxbury – fully believable. Eventually, the disarming main setting serves as a kind of catalyst for their realization that home is truly in one’s heart and mind as much as at any location.

While Jeremy initially claims he is straight, the intimacy that ensues is never a surprise. What makes this new play especially remarkable is the respective appearances of Nicholas and Ed in surreal scene switches smoothly achieved with Russell H. Champa’s poetic lighting and William Boles’ cleverly changing scenic design.

Most of all, under Colman Domingo’s seamless direction, Levine and fellow cast member McKinley Belcher III persuasively move between roles: Levine from Jeremy to Ed and Belcher from Teddy to Nicholas.

Levine fully evokes Jeremy’s early diffident demeanor as well as his later confidence and self-acceptance. He also does well capturing Ed’s manic speaking, especially in a vivid stretch about a whale.

By contrast, Belcher has all of Teddy’s seeming assurance as well as his own uncertainty about the future of his friendship with Ed. He is equally convincing as strikingly unassuming Nicholas. Ultimately, “The Guide for the Homesick” becomes an arrestingly dramatic prescription for all kinds of loneliness.

For Levine, home has been strongly rooted in his Jewish identity as well as on stage. He fondly remembers attending Hebrew School in Milwaukee and his bar mitzvah in Brooklyn after his family returned there when he was 10.

The graduate of the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts particularly enjoyed the challenge of playing the MC in a production of “Cabaret.” Study at the California Institute of the Arts followed. Film buffs will spot him as Jewish fraternity member Kessler in the strong Philip Roth novel screen adaptation of “Indignation.”

In “A Guide for the Homesick,” Levine sees the tikkun olam implications of his Jewish role as pivotal.

“This play is opening my eyes to the importance of it,” he said. “Playing Jeremy makes me proud as a member of the Jewish community.”

For ticket information, visit huntingtontheatre.org or call 617-266-0800.

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