Kitchen Theatre’s world premiere of At a Loss mixes corpses, Christmas and communications breakdowns
By James MacKillop
For a play that includes an onstage death and the bungled loss of a corpse, Jason Odell Williams’ At a Loss, now at Ithaca’s Kitchen Theatre Company, delivers a bundle of laughs. That does not make it a black comedy, however. The humor is mostly generated by miscommunication at many levels.
In the opening scene a hapless DHL delivery man, Terrence (Michael Dalto), has dragged an old friend, Josh (Michael Kaplan), on a snowy Christmas Eve to a shabby Super 8 motel to talk to a tall, incomprehensible, dark-haired woman (Charlotte Cohn). “What is this, a setup?” barks Josh, pounding Terrence’s head. So within 30 seconds we know that amiable Josh lacks female companionship and resents attempts to find him a sweetie. Wait until he sees what playwright Williams has in mind for him.
Terrence, in his resplendent bright yellow and red polyester uniform, is really in a pickle. He can’t communicate with the woman because she speaks Hebrew with only a word or two of English, and he can’t explain to her that the casket containing her dead grandmother was just stolen along with his van. He can’t tell the company because the van was stolen when he left the keys in the ignition at a gas pump.
So Terrence calls his childhood friend Josh as the only person who might know some “Jewish” to interpret. This is rural Virginia, the town of Goodview, near Roanoke, where Jews are rare. Half-Catholic and no longer observant on his Jewish side, Josh was a dud at long-ago Hebrew school and knows only some prayers and a taboo phallic boast. That brings a smile to the woman’s face, and we’re off.
The next scene moves the action to the day before when the grandmother, Edna (Norma Fire), was still alive but ailing. We understand that they both converse in Hebrew. By convention, both grandmother and granddaughter, named Ayelet, now speak American stage English, although when Edna calls the front desk she speaks in a heavily accented, nonidiomatic English, just enough to get by.
We get great dollops of exposition with some choicer bits saved for the second act. Edna thinks Ayelet should broaden her perspective by touring rural America in a rented Suzuki, cutting costs by staying in discount motels, authentically designed by Brendan Komala. Ayelet is understandably resentful of being stuck in the boondocks (along the lower reaches of Route 81, Central New York audiences should note) and yearns to see the bright lights of big cities.
Josh, we know, is unattached, and Ayelet, we can see, would not be traveling with her grandmother if she had a significant male entanglement, so boy has already met girl. No reason to rush things, though. There are two acts and an intermission, and playwright Williams has invented many more means for fun, calling on unique skills of this company and hard to duplicate elsewhere.
The always innovative Kitchen Theatre accurately describes At a Loss as a “world premiere,” but that’s only part of the story. Playwright Williams and leading lady Charlotte Cohn, both graduates of New York City’s Actors Studio, are husband and wife and have been working on scenes for At a Loss for at least three years. The hand of director Rachel Lampert is everywhere visible, but many of the most arresting effects come from Cohn’s own private reserve.
For starters, the Danish-born Cohn was raised in Israel, so fluent Hebrew requires no preparation. More importantly, Cohn shows a galloping affinity for non-verbal communication, matched by actor Michael Kaplan, an experienced professional and now a resident at Cornell University. What a treat for an actor to have words fail them, calling upon their powers of mime, improvisation and, when need be, charades. The most notable precedent for what Williams wants the players to do is the muchstudied love scene in Brian Friel’s Translations (1980), in which the English officer Yolland breaks through to the beautiful peasant girl Máire, who speaks only Gaelic.
What At a Loss calls for is more ambitious, sustained and funnier. Most of this, of course, dies when transcribed to the page, but at their best Cohn’s Ayelet and Kaplan’s Josh must invent ways of explaining aspects of themselves that can’t easily become hand signals.
Among the best is Josh’s depiction of his Catholic half being “fallen away” (the operative idiom). What they find is that, culturally, rural Virginia and Israel are not so far apart. When It’s a Wonderful Life keeps popping up on television, and Josh mimics George Bailey’s cry, “Merry Christmas, Savings and Loan,” Ayelet recognizes the voice of Jimmy Stewart. Excellent as these sections are, it seems that Ayelet’s English vocabulary too conveniently expands without her having to submit to tedious lessons.
At the beginning of the second act Edna gets back to the rest of her exposition, explaining that the duo’s tour of Virginian back roads is anything but aimless. Williams’ sense of timing and a reviewer’s tattered sense of ethics prevent us from getting into the details, but a Google search will not suffice. She has to drive around on her own, taking Ayelet with her.
If Jason Odell Williams really wrote At a Loss as a love letter for his spouse, then he wins the Shah Jahan (the guy who built the Taj Mahal) Prize for 2011. An unconventional beauty, Cohn looks to be taller than Jane Lynch with a take-charge persona. She was once a tank commander in the Israeli Defense Forces. Even when she can’t speak to Terrence or Josh, she looks more forbidding than helpless. She’s also lithe as a ballerina. Williams’ note on the lobby card reminds us that “Ayelet” means “gazelle of the sky.” Reversing the conventional angle, tensions decrease as Ayelet and Josh gain more of each other’s confidence, as she throws the first kiss of gratitude.
Given this family affair at the center of At a Loss, the other players are never at a loss, each getting their goodly share of laughs. Kaplan’s capacity to speak English gives him a temporary verbal advantage. Michael Dalto’s feckless Terrence often finds humor at his own expense but sharpens the character’s timing to veer him away from cliché. Norma Fire, a Kitchen Theatre favorite (Bed No Breakfast, Comfort Food) specializes in world-weary resignation. See the mileage she gets from an otherwise facile putdown of New Jersey.
Joey Moro’s lighting is truth-inviting bright. Lisa Boquist’s costumes underscore Ayelet’s exoticism and Terrence’s glow-inthe-dark polyester. Lesley Greene’s sound design has come up with klezmer versions of the Nutcracker Suite and Christmas carols (can it be Oy to the World?) This world premiere already has a life after Ithaca. At a Loss has been booked for a November opening in the Gulfshore Playhouse in Naples, Fla.
This production runs through July 31.
See Times Table for information.