IF YOU GO
What: Romantic comedy about an Israeli woman lost in America with a misplaced DHL package
When: Oct. 27 - Nov. 20; Evening & matinée shows available
Where: Norris Community Center, 755 Eighth Ave. S., Naples
Cost: Tickets start at $35
Information: 866-811-4111 or gulfshoreplayhouse.org
On the Web: Sign up to receive more theater news from the Stage Door blog via email.
NAPLES — Gulfshore Playhouse said "shalom" to their new season Friday. Jason Odell Williams comedy "Handle with Care," about an Israeli girl stranded in America, opened to big laughs. You don't have to know your safta from your Shabbat to appreciate the colorful performances or grasp the humor.
In the show, Ayelet (pronounced I-Yell-It) becomes stranded in a Virginia hotel room on Christmas Eve after package service DHL loses her grandmother's body. The elderly woman died while the two were touring America. A hapless DHL clerk and his Jewish friend try to comfort her, although they speak almost no Hebrew - and Ayelet speaks almost no English.
This is only the second production for "Handle with Care." Williams wrote the show after his wife (and star) Charlotte Cohn expressed an interest in exploring themes where the characters had trouble communicating.
"Handle with Care" arrived in Naples a work in progress. It premiered at the Kitchen Theatre in Ithaca, New York under the title "At A Loss." Kristen Coury thought the title led audiences toward a dark drama - which "Handle with Care" is not (it is a laugh-out-loud comedy). Now, the title refers to both the "lost package" and the characters, all of whom need just a little love in their lives. Under Coury's sure direction, the professional cast delivers a performance that looks effortless.
Miscommunication scenes - Cohn (she plays Ayelet) can fire Hebrew as if from a machine gun - are both the high and low points of the night. Watching the characters fumble toward a mutual understand in disparate languages is comical. Yet, while you need not understand anything beyond "shalom" to enjoy the play, some scenes may give impatient audience members pause.
Sometimes, it is not quite so obvious to the audience what Ayelet might be saying - and the "me no understand you" gimmick - even written as well as it is - feels like a comedy sketch playing just a bit too long. You absolutely don't need to know (the show, especially with Cohn's gestures is hilariously funny) - but you want to know - and every sentence in Hebrew is a chance for the audience's mind to wander. Even a little more broken English would help.
Justin Swain's DHL clerk ostensibly delivers things - although his character loses the night's most important package - but he absolutely steals this show. Coury identified and ramped up the humor in this role - and Swain takes the bumbling Terrence from simple idiot to someone who can get laughs with every line, every gesture and every silly grin. The cornball Southern accent and yee-haw goofiness might feel a little out of step with the rest of the play, but the evening is better for the jolt.
Cohn, who actually speaks four languages, sings opera and was a real-life lieutenant in the Israeli army, is brilliant in a role that asks her to be some combination of bewitched, bothered or bewildered for most of the night. Here though, Coury pushes Cohn to communicate with face, hands and body; watch the actress's expressive face through the evening as it mirrors her emotions.
Michael Zlabinger plays his Josh (the would-be interpreter and eventual love interest) as low-key as they come; he and Cohn manage a nervous first-date chemistry that helps the play along. Beside the hyperactive Swain, the character seems dorky, nerdy and adorable - think Tom Hanks when he was making good romantic comedies. Geraldine Librandi makes her curmudgeonly Israeli grandmother look lovable enough that everyone would want one - despite the meddling.
Robert F. Wolin's hotel room set looks about like what you'd expect from the (not-so) happening burg of Goodview, Virginia - ancient wood paneled walls, a cheesy "Virginia is for Lovers" poster and more than a few mold spots (a nice touch). Jennifer Murray's wooly winter costumes have a few whimsical surprises - fuzzy hats, huge angular buttons and cute boots.
Kudos also to whoever planned the trick where Josh and Ayelet's improvised Christmas Eve dinner and awkward Shabbat ends with a blackout on two candles, twinkling side-by-side on a dark stage - tiny twin islands of light, floating together in vast ocean of blackness. It was one of night's most beautiful - and most surprising moments.
"Handle with Care" is utterly charming, fearlessly adorable and a tiny bit magical - in spite of the fact that the action is driven by a lost body (which the audience never sees). Don't stress about the language - just get lost in the aw, shucks allure. Laugh at Swain's brash style, grin at Cohn's attempts to beat the English language into submission and smile at Librandi's wise, weary granny.