Review by Ethan Kanfer
With its multiple characters and crisscrossing narratives, the structure of Jennifer Maisel’s portrait of a modern Jewish family resembles a vintage Robert Altman movie. Despite a few lulls, Maisel’s cinematic approach (in a word, “Noshville”) largely succeeds in its effort to find harmony between the contrasting values of progress and tradition.
Young artist/teacher Michelle, (Gaby Hoffmann) is fed up with questions from relatives about why she doesn’t have a man in her life. Her desperation is such that she walks up to a total stranger in Penn Station and beseeches him to accompany her to her family’s upcoming Passover Seder. Kent (Ryan Barry) is happy to oblige. His life is at a crossroads, and Michelle, though a little neurotic, is appealing and pretty. At first it appears that the plot will hinge on whether this relationship-of-convenience will blossom into a real romance. But as the Seder approaches, many other characters and conflicts are introduced.
Feisty matriarch Lily, (Kathryn Kates), cares for her Alzheimer’s-afflicted husband Marvin, (Greg Mullavey). Though Marvin still has moments of lucidity, it’s clear that he will soon have to be moved to a home. Lily plans to sell the house, and her daughters are instructed to take whatever items they want. Bossy Claire, (Abigail Rose Solomon) shows up with a U-Haul. She and her boyfriend Jon, ( Eric T. Miller), have plans for some of the family’s antiques. This is news to pregnant Julia (Sarah Winkler) and her same-sex partner Jane (Melisa Brainer-Sanders), who have their own ideas about who gets first dibs. Prodigal daughter Angel (Natalie Kuhn), returns from vagabonding and rekindles her relationship with Luke (Andy Lucien). An additional subplot involves neighboring widower Harold (John Michalski), whose efforts to comfort Lily have blossomed into an affair.
The evening gets off to a rocky start as the audience is required to digest several helpings of new information in rapid succession. Once the play gets going, the crowded Price house becomes a very entertaining and sometimes tense place to visit. Director Jessica Bauman keeps the action flowing smoothly. She is aided by Graham Kindred’s intricate lighting and Gabriel Hainer Evansohn’s imaginative set design. As the beleaguered mom, Kates provides a solid foil for Mullavey, whose startlingly realistic transitions in and out of dementia energize the show with tension and lyricism. The older couple anchors the large and diverse ensemble, all of whom are committed to the material and well cast in their respective parts.
In its present draft, the script is a bit too democratic for its own good. Each character is compassionately rendered and gets plenty of stage time, sometimes to the detriment of the play’s forward momentum. Maisel would do well to consider choosing a main character and pruning some of the pages devoted to the less dynamic members of her panoply of personalities. Even so, its fine performances and timely message of inclusion make THE LAST SEDER a family gathering well worth attending.
"THE LAST SEDER" continues through January 13 at Theater Three, 311 West 43rd Street, 3rd Floor, Manhattan; http://www.RosalindProductions.com/nowplaying.htm