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The God of Isaac

Victory Gardens Theater

By Adam Langer

The program for this revival of James Sherman's 1985 comedy offers a glossary of "non-English" words and phrases for the Semitically challenged. Among these are such predictable entries as goyish, mazel tov, and shalom. But having seen The God of Isaac, about a young assimilated Jew coming to grips with his Judaism, I'd like to offer a few Yiddish terms Sherman neglected. These come by way of the late Jewish scholar Leo Rosten and my West Rogers Park parents, who doubtless would have fled Victory Gardens by intermission, labeling Sherman's play chozzerai (see glossary).

Chozzerai: Swill, offal. See also dreck.

Feh: Exclamation expressing displeasure, e.g. "Did you see The God of Isaac at Victory Gardens?" "Feh!"

Genug: Enough already! Appropriate to mumble to oneself as Isaac, the lead character, once again asks a facile philosophical question.

Kuni Leml: A nerd or Milquetoast, e.g. "The lead character in that play--have you ever seen such a kuni leml?"

Shmy: To piddle away time, e.g. "This play could have been whittled down to a 60-minute sitcom. Can't the author stop shmying?"

Tuchus auf'n tisch: Literally, "ass on the table." More accurate meaning: blatant and obvious, e.g. "What did you think of the characterization of the family?" "Oy, it was tuchus auf'n tisch."

Wer weisst: Philosophical question: "Who knows?" Usually accompanied by throwing hands and eyes skyward, e.g. "How do you account for this play's success?" "Wer weisst!"

Toward the end of the play, Sherman's alter ego Isaac Adams discovers in his quest for spiritual and religious enlightenment that each of us must find our own relationship to God and that Jews must find their own relationship to Judaism. I suppose that writing a facile play on the topic is as valid a method as any. Nevertheless, exploring questions of identity and religion in a sitcom work inhabited by Jewish stereotypes and cartoon goyim does not make for a scintillating or enlightening evening of theater.

In other plays Sherman has also tackled difficult issues by making them cute. Beau Jest was a cute comedy about satisfying parental expectations, Jest a Second! a cute coming-out play. And in The God of Isaac Nirvana is a pretty cute place where Jewish men are lovable sages and Jewish women divide their time between being maternal and shopping at Old Orchard. To be fair, Sherman has a knack for the snappy one-liner, and there are spurts of inspiration in every one of his plays. He knows how to trigger laughter from the JCC tour-bus crowd with carefully placed Yiddishisms. And he knows how to wrap things up neatly, sending everyone home with a warm smile and a bittersweet tear. But frequently Sherman's characters are so hackneyed and their struggles so blatantly laid out that watching The God of Isaac, for example, could give audience members a serious case of the shpilkes ("ants in one's pants") or make them think they've wandered into a Jewish minstrel show.

In this none-too-subtle comedy Skokie-born journalist Isaac has left his nice Jewish girlfriend and married a shiksa. He lives the easy, assimilated life until the Nazi Party makes plans to march on his hometown, sending the affable schlemiel scrambling to understand his religion. To paraphrase Pete Townshend's "The Seeker," he asks an old tailor, he asks the rabbi, he asks his mother and father, but they can't help him either.

The play is divided into Isaac's second-rate Albert Brooks-ian solipsistic monologues, which are frequently interrupted by objections from his overbearing smother--er, mother; scenes in which he discusses issues of faith with characters ranging from the tailor, rabbi, and parents to a chest-thumping Jewish Defense League organizer and a pair of Hasidim; and genuinely witty fantasy sequences in which Isaac grafts his own struggles with Judaism onto characters from classic Hollywood movies like My Fair Lady and On the Waterfront. There's also a fair amount of domestic squabbling as Isaac's identity crisis brings him into conflict with his dense fashion-model wife, who can't understand why a Jew would get so worked up about a Nazi march ("Haven't you had enough of this Nazi stuff? I know I have").

The God of Isaac would be easier to take if Sherman had created multi-dimensional characters and conflicts instead of this flat Sunday-school lecture. His characterizations of Isaac's old girlfriend Chaya and his wife Shelley are JAP-versus-goy cliches that would be offensive if they weren't unbelievably trite. Shelley's a sexpot and a closet anti-Semite who likes mayonnaise on her Oscar Mayer salami-and-Wonder bread sandwich, while game-show-watching sweetie pie Chaya comes to learn that happiness and Judaism are about more than money and shopping. Isaac's mom embodies every tired Jewish-mother stereotype in the book ("My own children don't listen to me. Why should all people?"), and his dad is boiled down to a kind "man of simple pleasures." As Isaac observes with his typical lack of understanding, "All he did was work."

The frequently cringe-inducing dialogue amounts to little more than a series of aphorisms ("You must never forget where you came from or you'll never remember where you're going," and "It's important to remember"). When Isaac presents his mom with yet another existential crisis that's come out of his Torah reading, she asks, "When are you gonna stop reading and start living?"

Under the direction of Dennis Zacek, Victory Gardens delivers an adequate but far from inspired production that revels in Sherman's stereotypes: the conflicts in the script are staged as flatly and blatantly as they're written. Kraig Swartz is likable enough as the nice Jewish boy Isaac, but virtually every other actor seems to raise his or her voice about an octave while attempting a Jewish accent.

Had the issues in Sherman's play not been far more intelligently, humorously, and profoundly addressed by scads of Jewish writers from Woody Allen to Philip Roth to Elaine May, maybe there would have been a place for this shallow, saccharine commercial comedy that makes the quest for Jewish identity palatable to a mainstream audience. But Sherman's dumbed-down, bumper-sticker approach to complex philosophical and religious issues is at best oversimplified and at worst insulting to the audience. Oy.

In my review of Goodman Theatre's All the Rage (May 16), a line was changed to suggest that the cynical and hedonistic character of Annabel was comparable in personality to Daisy in Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. The implication that Fitzgerald's character is a cynical hedonist could not have been further from what F. Scott or I intended.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): The God of Isaac photo by Phil Kohlmetz.

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