When I first skimmed the press release for Handle With Care, a play currently running off-Broadway in the theater that used to house Old Jews Telling Jokes, I thought I had the whole thing figured out in advance: a non-Jewish playwright married an Israeli actress and wrote a show for her. Simple, I thought. It must be a comedy exploring the hilarity of intermarriage, like an Abie’s Irish Rose for the Pew Report generation. I couldn’t have been more wrong. For although playwright Jason Odell Williams has written a play about love bridging disparate lives, it’s about a burgeoning love affair between an Israeli Jew and an American Jew, finding each other in the most unlikely of circumstances: their “meet cute” occurs when a delivery man loses the box containing the remains of Ayelet’s recently deceased grandmother, which he was supposed to be bringing to the airport for return to Israel. Josh, Ayelet’s love interest, is the delivery man’s only Jewish friend, so naturally he gets the call to help translate the situation to the distressed Israeli who speaks very little English.
The result is a charming romantic comedy that would be right at home on JCC stages anywhere in the country. That the play was written by someone who’s not himself Jewish (although he is part of a Jewish family) is surprising, so I was glad to have the opportunity to speak with both Williams and his wife (and star of the show) Charlotte Cohn about that play, their marriage, and working with one’s spouse.
The pair met in graduate school at the New School (not to be confused with Jewschool), when The Actors Studio (as seen on TV) was still located there. “I thought he was stuck up,” Charlotte admitted. “I thought he was snooty. I didn’t like him much at all.”
“I’m not a people person,” Jason explained. “Even though I was there to study acting, I was already gravitating towards writing. Summer after first year, we did a play together, and we just hit it off. I thought she was awesome. We started dating that summer and got married right after graduation in the summer of 2001.”
Charlotte’s career took off right away with a role in Baz Luhrmann’s production of La Boheme on Broadway. Jason wrote a short film (featuring Charlotte) but continued to act. “In 2006 I did a play that was great, but I wasn’t getting enough out of it,” Jason said, “So the next year I turned to Charlotte, and said, ‘I want to write a play, really write a play now, a play for you. What kind of play do you want?’”
Charlotte answered, “I am fascinated by characters who are either misunderstood, or have trouble communicating, or can’t speak at all. I don’t like memorizing lines!”
So Handle With Care was born, built around the unlikely courtship of Ayelet, an Israeli tourist who speaks very little English, and Josh, an American Jew who barely learned enough Hebrew to mumble through his bar mitzvah.
“The joke is I have a lot to say in this play,” admitted Charlotte, although many of her scenes are played in Hebrew. (As a theatrical device, we only hear the Israeli characters speaking English in flashbacks when they are alone with each other.)
“She has the special skill of speaking Hebrew,” Jason said, “so I wanted to take advantage of that. It’s something not a lot of actors can do.”
Jason wrote the play in 2008, and the couple has been collaborating ever since. “It’s definitely hard for a husband and wife to work together,” he said. “You never stop talking about work.”
Charlotte laughed in agreement. “We keep making rules, and then we break them. But we do figure out how to work together.”
Their conversational style, like two jazz soloists trading lines in a shared solo, hints at their professional collaboration. Jason: “Collaboration isn’t the easiest thing in the world. To collaborate with anyone, you need to really like them and trust them and respect their taste. Charlotte’s really the only one that I trust that much.”
Charlotte: “It’s really hard in the business that we’re in, we work with creative people, artistic people, and people get hurt really easily. That’s why you see authors who always work with a specific director, brothers who work together. It helps me to be really direct – the Israeli in me – to say this part isn’t working, and he knows that what I want it to make the piece better and he doesn’t get hurt. We’ve found a great balance.”
The couple has a full plate of creative projects in the works, including a film adaptation of Handle With Care, and they have an eight-year-old daughter who herself is beginning to exhibit a theatrical flair. “She’s now, oddly, rehearsing a production of Fiddler on the Roof at the Y,” Charlotte said. “It’s really a result of what we are. Jason’s not Jewish and I am, so she’s doing a Jewish show at the YMCA. She loves it.”
This joy at seeing the various influences of their life come together is palpable in the play as well. I asked Jason about the choice to make both of his leading characters Jewish, and he talked about how “write what you know” can only carry you so far. “I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of fate versus coincidence, destiny versus chaos,” he said. “I am also fascinated by religion of all kinds. I started with the character of Ayelet, and who’s she going to fall in love with? She’s not going to fall in love with Terrance, [the idiotic delivery man whose loss of Ayelet’s grandmother’s coffin sets off the play]. She’s going to fall in love with the kind of broken-hearted guy who knows a little bit of Hebrew. Why does he know a little bit? He’s half Jewish. None of the characters are like me but there’s a little bit of me in all of them.”
Charlotte disagrees. “Josh is like you,” she said to Jason, “in the sense that you’re a child of a Catholic and a Protestant, which is a combination of things even if it’s not Josh who’s half Catholic and half Jewish. He’s always been fascinated by the other. He married me, so that’s as far as you can go.” The show has had a long gestation period on the road to New York City, with previous incarnations in Ithaca, NY and Naples, FL. It started considerably darker, entitled At A Loss and starting with the grandmother’s death a suicide, but over time the play got leaner and lighter.
Is Israel the next stop for the show? Possibly. Charlotte mentioned that two of Israel’s most prominent theater companies have requested review copies of the script. “It will be a hoot,” she said. “What I’m trying to figure out is how to do it [and preserve the drama of communicating in two languages].”
I noticed that there were more than a few Hebrew speakers in the audience the night I saw the show, judging by who laughed at certain jokes in Hebrew. Jason wrote the play for a mixed audience, for an American audience, and assumed that no one who saw the play would understand the Hebrew sections.
As the Hebrew-speaking character, Charlotte said she appreciates the presence of Hebrew speakers in the audience. “For me as an actress in it, it’s extra fun–I get more laughs,” she said.
But this is a new experience. Ithaca and Naples aren’t known for their Israeli populations, but those productions were informative for Charlotte and Jason. “It proved to us that the play works no matter where you go,” Charlotte said. “For Jews, non-Jews, savvy theater goers, people who’ve never been to the theater before. It means so much to us that it has such a far reach.”
Another element of the play that reaches across demographics is its setting: it takes place on Christmas. “I never intentionally set out to write a Jewish Christmas play,” said Jason. “It made sense. It had to be snowing for these obstacles to be in their way, and wouldn’t it be great if it was Christmas Eve because America sets down, and Israelis don’t understand why the world shuts down.”
Charlotte has experienced that confusion herself. “When you live in Israel, Christmas doesn’t enter your consciousness, because nobody celebrates it. And when I came here, Yom Kippur was just another day, which was so weird to me. Jason took that and imagined these ladies coming to America and they’re running around and it’s Christmas and they didn’t know it would happen or plan for it.”
The play has struck a chord with audiences, and in particular with those from mixed-faith backgrounds. “We get thanked a lot,” Charlotte said, “Thank you to Jason, not me, for having a character who is half and half. Apparently, it doesn’t happen a lot or ever. I can’t even think of any plays that have a half-Jewish character. I go out to the lobby every night after the show, and that’s one of the main things people thank me for. They say there are so many of us out there, and there’s no representation of us in theater.”
When I ask Charlotte about her own Jewish identity, she gets philosophical: “I was a nice little Orthodox Jewish girl living in Jerusalem. I went as far away… I have a cabaret act ‘Simply Complicated: The Elegant Escapades of a Danish-Israeli Opera-Singing Tank Commander.’ I say the final frontier for religious Israelis is you don’t eat pork and you don’t marry a goy. I do both. I went as far away from my origins as I possibly could, but now we’re back at it. We do traditional stuff at home.” She has a healthy sense of humor, too. “It’s really clear that I’m condemned forever,” she said, “But I perform in Handle With Care, a play that promotes Judaism in a very positive way, so maybe I’ll get some points for that.”
Handle With Care is now playing at the Westside Theater through March 9. For tickets and information please visit handlewithcaretheplay.com.