Adapted by Jake Lipman, Based on the novel by Elinor Lipman
Directed by Kimberly Faith Hickman
Produced by Tongue in Cheek Theater
Off Off Broadway, Play
Runs through 10.24.15
Theatre 54, 244 West 54th Street
by Shani R. Friedman on 10.18.15
Jill Melanie Wirth, Jake Lipman, Andrew Dawson, Andrew Spieker and Jennifer Dorr White in The Inn at Lake Devine. Photo by Maeghan Donohue.
BOTTOM LINE: Anti-Semitism, interfaith marriage, The Catskills, and religious tolerance are explored in this '60s and '70s-set romantic dramedy.
Jake Lipman, Tongue in Cheek’s artistic director and producer, came to the novel The Inn at Lake Devine 15 years ago when she and her mother heard the author at a reading. Her mother believed that Eleanor Lipman was a distant relative, which helped spur Jake to reach out more than a decade later. The Lipmans turned out to be unrelated, but in her director’s note, Lipman credits her mother’s chutzpah with bringing them all together. It’s a move Natalie Marx, Lipman’s chutzpah-loving protagonist, would certainly get behind.
It’s the spring of ’64. The Marx family are middle class Jews from Newton, Mass who eat pork and don’t really go to temple, but celebrate some of the holidays. Audrey Marx (Jill Melanie Wirth) has just received a response to her inquiry about lodging at The Inn. The reply: “The Inn at Lake Devine is a family-owned resort…Our guests who feel most comfortable here…are Gentiles.” Audrey explains, “It’s not personal. We’re Jews. They don’t take Jews.” Natalie’s genial father Eddie (Michael Breese Barbour) good-naturedly suggests they write back, saying they could go as “The Gentiles.” Audrey, angrier than she initially appeared, says he would have to drag her. Oldest daughter Pamela (Barbra Wengerd) is more interested in the murderer her Civics class is studying. Natalie (Lipman), named for a teenage aunt who died in the Holocaust, asks if they’re Nazis and is incensed, sneaking out later to crank call the proprietor, an imperious Ingrid Berry (Jennifer Dorr White). The well-crafted scene early on establishes the relationships between the loving parents, the children/siblings and the distinct personalities of each member of the house.
So begins Natalie’s fascination/obsession with the Inn and the Berry family. The Marxes check out the place on a rainy summer afternoon, encountering Ingrid. Upon hearing where they’re from she mutters “MassaJewsettes.” Natalie engineers her chance to be a guest the following summer when she gets her sweet but simple bunkmate Robin Fife (Marie Maloney) to invite her to join the family on their vacation at the Inn. The Fifes are a kind and somewhat dorky Christian family, the type who sing together from The Sound of Music and countdown the approach to the Inn from the last road. When the Fifes learn of Natalie’s feelings about Ingrid, Robin’s concerned father Donald (Kurt Bardele) pulls her aside to show her he gets it even though of course he doesn’t really. He tells her they voted for their state’s Jewish senator, that he works with many Jewish teachers and even shows off some Hebrew he’s picked up from his Jewish camp counselor. Natalie is irritated by his well meaning clueslessness. Showing signs that he’s also cut from a different cloth is Ingrid’s better half, Karl (Andrew Dawson), who befriends Natalie, sharing that he’s always eager for good company and conversation.
A decade passes and all three families are brought together by Robin’s Christmas wedding to Nelson (Carson Lee), the oldest Berry. Tragedy strikes over the holiday but amid the sadness Natalie discovers she has chemistry with Nelson’s quick to banter and easygoing brother Kris (Andrew Spieker). She sees, as he takes pains to make her comfortable among the decorations and carolers, that he has a mind of his own, far removed from his mother’s behavior. They attempt to start something but both families try to put a stop to it. The Marx’s dislike the whole family and think Natalie should too. Her parents are also more sensitive after Pamela's recent marriage to a Catholic. A near-death experience for the young lovebirds prompts the older generation to reevaluate, making a happy ending possible.
It’s a large cast (15 performers) and a uniformly strong one, but with a few stand-outs. Wirth and Breese Barbour are very believable as Jewish parents struggling with their worries and prejudices in a changing landscape. Dawson conveys a warmth and gentleness, while Dorr White is effective as the villain with a few glimpses of the human beneath. It’s a part though that could have used more nuance and I would have liked to see a confrontation with Ingrid at some point. Spieker is very winning, getting many of the laughs. Melissa Wolfklain adds spark and energy as Linette Feldman, who runs her family's resort in the Catskills and gets mixed up with the romantic doings. Tony Wolf and Jessica Giannone take on multiple small roles and have great comedic timing as well as song and dance skills. Lipman brings a playfulness and feistiness to the heart of the show.
Director Kimberly Faith Hickman has a steady hand over her bountiful cast and many scene changes as the show covers a lot of ground, traversing from Massachusetts to Vermont to the Catskills and back, and over multiple time periods. But the first half of the play is quite long and could stand some cuts to speed it up so that it moves as well as the better paced second half. With few costumes and little more than some benches and chairs for props, the show's flow is aided by Philip Rothman’s sound design and Richard Chamblin III’s lighting.
With religion always a hot button topic, it’s refreshing to see a show tackle the topic with humor and poignancy without being overly earnest.
(The Inn at Lake Devine is at Shetler Studios's Theatre 54, 244 West 54th Street through October 24, 2015. Performances are Tuesdays through Saturdays at 7:30. Tickets are $18 and available at smarttix.com or by calling 866-868-4444.)