NAPLES — Gulfshore Playhouse opened its season with the world premier of “Handle With Care” by Jason Odell Williams. Starring Odell’s real-life spouse Christine Cohn, the play tells the story of a small group of people who by chance find themselves in the same motel room in Goodview, Va., on Christmas Eve.
Ayelet is a young Israeli woman traveling to America with her grandmother Edna. Edna has a secret agenda for the trip — she is searching for the man she fell in love with in Israel many years before, from whom she was separated by the prejudices of her family. Discovering that the man has died, Edna herself has quietly expired, and the box containing her remains has been lost by the shipping company. Terrence is the hapless delivery man who left the keys in his van allowing the box to get lost. Josh is Terrence’s only Jewish friend, brought to the motel in the hopes that he can understand the Hebrew in which Ayelet is ranting. The performances, as expected at GulfShore, are solid, especially Ms. Cohn, for whom the role was written.
The play and the production are uneven, with many charming moments and some clever tricks. Christine rattles on in Hebrew in a comical way. Josh’s attempts to communicate with her are predictably funny. When Edna and Christine are together alone, they speak Hebrew — though the actors are speaking English. The plot naturally gives opportunity for many amusing moments.
On the other hand, there are elements that challenge credulity: doesn’t everyone in Israel speak English these days? Is it really believable that within hours of her grandmother’s death Ayelet would be so calm? What exactly does setting the action on Christmas Eve do for the story? It seems a contrived element to introduce an undeveloped theme. And, not to give away the plot, the connection between Josh, Ayelet and Edna is a stretch.
Odell attempts to mesh the broad comedy and seriousness, at times successfully, at other times not as well. The serious issues — Josh’s sorrow about losing his wife 18 months earlier, Edna’s burden in carrying love and regret with her for so long, Edna’s death — seem undermined by the frivolity of the key plot device and the tone of many of the comic scenes. One shot at New Jersey seems (to this Jersey boy) to be cheap and, more importantly, irrelevant.
When the play is humming, one forgets all this. Some of the scenes with Josh and Ayelet and sweet and touching. One roots for them to find happiness. Edna’s description of her early relationship with the long lost American rings true, as does her disclosure that that old love affair was the reason her husband always hated Americans. In that moment, one feels for the woman who has lived a life that was, in some important way, unfulfilled.
However, the pluses outweigh the minuses and it is all in all a pleasant evening in the theater. Williams is clearly very talented, and one wishes he could have the opportunity for out-of-town tryouts or previews to polish the work. Writing a play is tough — a playwright never knows until he sees it performed what works and what doesn’t. Thanks to Gulfshore Playhouse for supporting this playwright and having the guts to bring a new play to our little town.