If you are searching for a play that sharply focuses on the Passover Seder, “We All Fall Down” is not your stage afikomen. Although Lila Rose Kaplan’s family dramedy finds the fictional Steins preparing for and finally beginning the iconic Jewish event, a singular dysfunction proves the rule at their Westchester County home. Veteran director Melia Bensussen and a talented Huntington Theatre Company cast may try to give Kaplan’s effort – now in its Hub premiere at the Calderwood Pavilion – real emotional intensity, but her somewhat affecting play suffers from an identity crisis all its own.
Where the Israelites were slaves to the Pharaoh (Ramses II), the Steins look to be prisoners to general assimilation as “We All Fall Down” begins. Judy Gallen’s stage-encompassing and well-detailed scenic design reveals a spacious but as yet unprepared pre-holiday home and a family with a relatively low bar for conducting their Seder. Daughter Ariel is practicing a yoga routine while her sister Sammi observes that they never have a Seder and repeatedly laments that her non-Jewish fiancé David – who is supposed to be bringing the centerpiece brisket – remains stuck in heavy traffic on Route 95. Father Saul, a retired teacher and author of a work on the American Revolution, has more to say about an intended summer trip to Alaska with wife Linda than about Passover. His older sister Nan – who has vivid memories of meeting Linda at a meeting of young Communists – does not exactly help when she mentions some people seeing the Seder as “an evening of Zionist propaganda.” Periodically leaves are removed from the long family dinner table as invited couples send their regrets.
With such disarray, why are the Steins having a family Seder after all? Linda ostensibly sees it as a chance for a needed family reunion (and even still-waiting Hanukkah gifts). Much later, Linda, an anxiety expert, reveals serious motivation for which the play gradually provides some foreshadowing. Linda does try to liven up their Seder with finger puppets representing the 10 plagues and including the colorful boas her daughters wore at school events. As for the text of the Haggadah, ironically, Esther – her non-Jewish graduate student assistant – appears to be the only participant who actually reads Hebrew fluently. Elle Borders as Esther rates kudos for a beautiful rendition of Mah Nishtanah (The Four Questions).
Quite frankly, theatergoers – Jewish or non-Jewish – who are more than familiar with the Seder and Passover themes are likely to question why Kaplan’s play resorts fairly early to complications like David’s delay or Linda’s best friend Beverly’s repeated description of Passover as a “Jewish Easter.” These are the kind of facile elements likely to show up in television sitcoms. Also, a late stretch involving Linda’s concern for memory-weak Saul has much more poignancy than much of what precedes it.
Still, cast members sometimes make up for problems in the play itself. Eleanor Reissa has all of Linda’s heart and vitality. Stephen Schnetzer convinces as struggling Saul – especially as he speaks about the nature of a Seder. Liba Vaynberg captures Sammi’s tenacity and Dana Stein, Ariel’s spirit. Phyllis Kay catches Nan’s vocal sharpness. Sarah Newhouse makes the most of the thin role of Beverly.
“We All Fall Down” speaks of a redemption that “is not yet complete.” Right now, that observation could describe Kaplan’s play as much as the Steins and their experience of Passover.
“We All Fall Down,” at the Huntington Theatre Company Wimberley Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, Boston, through Feb. 16. Contact 617-266-0800, 617-933-8600 or bostontheatrescene.com for tickets.