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By Bill Hirschman
While the dramedy Undo occurs very much in the present, time flows back and forth and eddies in whirlpools as members of an extended family reevaluate regrets and secrets.
The premise – an imaginary Jewish divorce ceremony that rewinds a couple’s wedding day step by step — sounds so much like a sitcom episode that you keep expecting it to slide into shallow farce at any second. But it doesn’t.
Holly Arsenault’s melancholy, compassionate script is shot through with mordant gallows humor, but Parade Productions’ edition faithfully keeps excavating the marrow of marital and familial relationships.
The carefully paced production does linger too long and a pointless fourth-to-last scene clumsily delays the denouement at the worst time, possibly to increase the suspense.
But director Kim St. Leon and a cast committed to the pathos of the play and the flawed nature of each character find precisely the right tone of reflection and contemplation about the consequences of choices by the human heart.
The play focuses on Rachel Mendelssohn Pfeiffer (Gladys Ramirez), an almost classic Jewish American princess, and her husband Joe Pfeiffer (Ben Sandomir) as they play out in reverse their wedding day three years ago in every detail in the same place with the same guests. The rite insisted upon by her mother Joan (Margot Moreland) and Joe is to allow “the community to sanctify” their dissolution in a ceremony approved by God. Joan wants every single detail to be the same, berating Rachel for not wearing the same underpants.
But recreating the event will be a challenge because time has moved on. Joe’s mother died a few days earlier, adding a serious pall, especially with the presence of Joe’s mourning father (Michael Gioia). The best man Ari (Todd Bruno) dumped his girlfriend at the time, Melita (Ann Marie Olson), but she dutifully shows up to the Undo-ing. Rachel’s older sister Hannah (Jennipher Murphy) has at age 30 discovered her sexuality and brought her new girlfriend Siobahn (Jeanine Gangloff). Younger sister Naomi (Mariah Telesca) at age 14 has virtually outgrown the bridesmaid dress whose hem now falls just barely below propriety. Adding spice is the appearance of Adine Woloksy (Candace Caplin), Joan’s sister who moved to France decades ago over some unspoken history with Abe.
A lot of secrets tumble out about adultery, pregnancy, loyalty, betrayal, forgiveness and various shades of what constitutes true love, much of it laced with considerable profanity and fueled by copious amounts of alcohol.
The key conflict is that while Rachel wants to end the marriage, Joe does not; he’s plotting with Ari how to talk her out of it before they reach the very end of this multi-stage two-hour ceremony. Rachel doesn’t care much about the ceremony, she’s only complying with her mother’s wishes and for Joe who is also devout.
The proceedings are almost cruel (perhaps to make the couple reconsider) from tossing the remaining dessicated flowers on the bride to putting recently defrosted wedding slices in each other’s mouth. More painful are moments like Hannah’s reiterated wedding toast, which celebrates that Rachel the obsessive perfectionist had finally found a perfect man in an imperfect world.
The play is suffused with compassion for sincere people trying to establish honest, sustaining relationships. In one exchange, Joe’s father says his late mother would have been proud of him.
JOE. What are you talking about? I’m a failure.
ABE. Everybody’s a failure, Joe. That’s life. Your choice is, fail with honor, or don’t.
And later, Joan, in a drunken rapprochement with her sister, says, “Because people do dumb shit. And then they feel bad about it. And that’s the world.”
Indeed, Abe says to Rachael, “I love my children. And I loved my wife as well as I could. We accepted one another. But there is another life running alongside the life I’ve lived. Sometimes it’s so clear to me, it’s like I could just turn the wheel and merge into it, like changing lanes on the highway.”
A seemingly pointless scene near the end in which drunken Melita and Siobahn goes on far too long and arrives just as we are about to learn what Rachel’s decision is. It could easily be cut by the playwright without the harming piece, actually improving it.
A non sequitur is the presence throughout of an eight-year-old boy (Carsten Kjaerulff) who sits silently doing something, not taking notice or interacting with the proceedings. At the end of the play, you might be able to make an educated guess who the kid is (it’s never explained), but if that’s the answer, his presence throughout makes little sense. If you read the script, you’ll find that he has spent the play piecing back together a shattered glass cup and in the last moment holds it up to us. We don’t see this because we can’t see him from the waist down and he is dimly lit.
Arsenault courageously creates, with artistic integrity if not to dramaturgical advantage, a protagonist who is not especially likable. Rachel genuinely hates the pain all of this is causing Joe and her family, not to mention her own considerable angst. But she is also self-centered and willing to lie to ease her passage to what she wants. It’s never clearly communicated why her love for Joe has evaporated – another crucial problem with the script and the production – but it is clear that feeling as she does, a divorce may be the smartest option.
Joe says he wants to fix it. He tells Ari, “A man keeps his commitments. How can face myself if I let this happen.” But Rachel says, “It’s not broken. It’s dead.”
The cast is uniformly solid throughout although Moreland is, as always, an inspired comedienne and dramatic actress. Ramirez (who was so good in GableStage’s The Motherf***er With The Hat) really deserves credit for inhabiting this whiny self-involved creature while still eliciting some sympathy for a woman trying to unravel a serious emotional mistake.
Sandomir produces a handsome, endearing and almost impossibly loyal husband, baffled as we are as to why his wife wants to leave. Gioia convincingly creates a gentle wise sage chastened not just by the recent loss of his wife but by how this ceremony underscores choices he has made that he regrets.
Caplin, who is executive producer for the company, definitely delivers the best performance we’ve seen from her. Her acerbic witty Adine, who seemingly constructed a blessed life, is saturated in regret without a shred of self-pity.
This the best-executed production to date of the three-year-old company that only produces two shows a year.
Undo runs through March 1 from Parade Productions, performing at the Mizner Park Cultural Arts Center, second floor, 201 Plaza Real (the former Cartoon Museum), Boca Raton. Performances are 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday. Running time 2 hours including one intermission. Tickets are $35-40. Call (866) 811-4111 or visit www.paradeproductions.org.