Carol Lawrence, the Tony nominee who has been absent from live theater for far too long, is a welcome sight Off Broadway at the Westside Theatre in Handle With Care by Emmy Award-nominated Jason Odell Williams, and directed by Karen Carpenter. Always vibrant and stunning, Lawrence in this role has found the perfect vehicle to remind us of her feeling acting talent and ability to tug at our emotions with poignancy and empathy.
Handle With Care on a basic level is a brisk, romantic comedy that may try the patience of the unromantic cynic and the nonbeliever in fate and destiny. Those whose faith leads them to believe there is something beyond luck, happenstance and chaos will feel comfortable watching the characters spin out their individual webs until they find one another and support each other as friends, lovers and family. And those who have found their heart’s desire in a soul mate or life purpose will greatly appreciate this play. For within its realm there are the possibilities of second chances at love and life, and a train of missed opportunities coming to pick you up and give you a ride to your satisfying destination. Sometimes.
The play begins with two characters in a motel room on Christmas Eve. Ayelet (Charlotte Cohn, who you believe is an Israeli because her spit-fire Hebrew is impeccable) is a tourist from Israel visiting Goodview, Virginia. Terrence (played convincingly with a “simpleton’s” humor by Sheffield Chastain) is a well-meaning Southerner, a driver for shipping company DHX. We discover their identities after Josh (an adorable and winning Jonathan Sale) shows up to ride shotgun on the madcap situation which Terrence has bungled for himself and Ayelet.
The playwright has created circumstances which, conveyed by this talented cast, are outrageous and astutely designed for laughs and audience engagement. The storyline is an unusual one. Bumbling airhead Terrence tells friend Josh he has messed up once again, but in the craziest of ways. He has “misplaced” the deceased body of Ayelet’s Israeli grandmother when he was heading to the airport. (The scene is beautifully paced and well acted by Chastain and Sale.) The body was to be shipped back to Israel within the 24-hour time period for burial, following Jewish custom. Adding to the difficulty of the situation, Ayelet speaks very little English and Terrence, who speaks only American English with a pronounced Southern accent (Chastain’s is hysterical), cannot communicate with Ayelet to tell her what has happened, not that he particularly wants to. Terrence is looking to Josh, his Jewish friend, to help him with translations and ideas about what to do to recover a “lost” dead body without bringing in the police or his employer, because he knows his incompetence will lose him this job he desperately needs.
In keeping with his dingbat character, Terrence’s idea that Josh should speak Hebrew is off the tracks. Josh knows only a few words. Beyond frustrated, Ayelet is annoyed and her interchange with Josh is abrupt and goes nowhere. After Terrence leaves to make a phone call, they try to communicate again with gestures and hijinks that are funny, and finally a few more words come back to Josh. Ayelet gets her Israeli-English translation book and they progress, making connections deeper than they initially realize. Carpenter’s direction and Cohn’s and Sale’s talents brilliantly show the development of these characters and their relationship. Josh softens (we later understand why he readily empathizes), seeing that Ayelet is clearly distraught about her grandmother’s loss and completely confused about what has happened. We also understand that she is comforted to hear “Shalom” and know that Josh is Jewish. The comedy is unleashed by these fine actors and we are carried by the events: wondering just how far Terrence will go before he tells the real truth of what happened, and discovering if Josh will be able to find some means of communication beyond hand gestures and the polyglot of English sprinkled sparsely with Hebrew he crammed over a weekend to prepare for his bar mitzvah years ago.
As we attempt to guess the body’s whereabouts, wondering how Carol Lawrence’s Edna will arrive on the scene, the play moves in flashback to the previous day, December 23rd. During the flashback, the playwright begins to let us in on the what and why of the plot and themes. Vibrant Edna (Carol Lawrence is vital and amazing) and her granddaughter discuss the events leading up to their arrival in sleepy Goodview, Virginia, far from New York City and the other exciting American tourist cities that Ayelet thought she was going to visit. Ayelet complains that they’ve spent only a little time in Washington, D.C. and have exhausted valuable travel time hopping to small towns, staying overnight in dingy motels and eating in crappy nearby food joints seeing nothing. Why? Edna jokes that this is the best way to learn what a country is like: Avoid the tourist areas and see how Americans really live. Clearly, Ayelet and her grandmother have a loving relationship and we are gratified that Ayelet has accompanied Edna on this “exciting” adventure in an endeavor to release their emotional hurts and “move on” from Ayelet’s failed relationship and Edna’s loss of her husband.
During the flashback to the day before Edna’s death, the playwright hints at the mysteries inherent in relationships and the secrets family members keep from one another, via Ayelet’s and Edna’s discussion of how they arrived at Goodview. Then another switch occurs and a clue is revealed. While Ayelet is in the bathroom, Edna with enthusiasm and joy takes out a few letters from her handbag and holds them to her heart, closing her eyes. Jumping up from the bed, jacket on, she yells to Ayelet that she will return with “take out” and rushes practically skipping out the door in joy. We are left wondering what will happen. Will Edna make it back? Does she die getting the “take out?” And what are those letters she clasped to her bosom? Carpenter’s insightful direction and acutely paced timing and the actors’ believable performances have whisked us to the end of the first act wanting the answers and waiting for more.
In the second act Williams, through Carpenter’s direction haltingly and poignantly executed by this wonderful cast, reveals the truth. Williams fills in the back story for each of the characters and cleverly moves events from December 23rd back to December 24th. During a second flashback to the 23rd, we discover how Edna has been living another life in her imagination (though fueled by reality), which has brought her to Goodview. We discover the other characters’ inner realities that they’ve kept from family and friends. Williams also discloses truths that have remained hidden from the characters themselves, despite their continual quest for life direction and meaning. But sometimes, in order to move forward, the playwright suggests, you have to reach a huge roadblock where nothing, absolutely nothing makes sense and everything is going wrong. At that point, then, events may transpire that make all the difference in the world. It is then that the second chances may blossom, second chances that individuals have been longing for unbeknownst even to themselves.
To help with the closure of events after the playwright reveals each characters’ secrets and resolves where their destinies lie, there is also an interlude of remembrance. It is December 24th and Edna has died. For a moment, after all the questions have been answered for each of the characters, Ayelet remembers how her grandmother in Israel joyously suggested the trip to America. Now, looking back at how events have transpired in Goodview, Virginia, Ayelet understands that her life makes perfect sense. In the flashback of Ayelet’s remembrance, Edna comes back to life. Carol Lawrence is radiant and at the top of her powers in this brief but poignant scene which Charlotte Cohn has beautifully helped to set up.
Ayelet, Terrance, Josh and Edna meet destiny at this seedy motel room in out-of-the-way, droll and banal Goodview (ironic title). But it is how these characters face the crucial turning points in their lives that makes the play interesting and more profound than what might initially be referred to as “romantic comedy.” The playwright’s themes and Carpenter’s attention to them – lost love, family secrets, secrets we hide from ourselves and friends, dealing with the hurt of ended relationships and searching for a life of meaning and substance to avoid regrets – become vital touchstones in this production. These are issues that we should “handle with care” and remain flexible about, always looking for opportunities to correct or reverse. Williams has written about themes which are human and fundamental in an intelligent, cross-genre play. The ensemble performances and Carpenter’s superb direction establish this as a exceptionally satisfying and memorable production.
Handle With Care is currently at the Westside Theatre on 407 West 43rd Street, NYC.