Every ethnicity, nationality and religion prizes its heritage, but Jews put a special value on honoring a direct bond with their forebears stretching across 6,000 years.
That cornerstone of Passover also underlies James Sherman’s 1985 comic drama The God of Isaac, enjoying an enthusiastic and effective revival at Broward Stage Door. But the search for roots — regardless of our background — makes it easy for anyone in this nation of immigrants to relate to the show.
Sherman, better known for the wildly popular message farce Beau Jeste, follows genial hero, playwright/journalist Isaac Adams, as he evolves inexorably from a secular Jew-in-name-only into a committed searcher for his religious identity.
The catalyst for his sudden interest in “what is a Jew” in this tale, set in 1977 and 1978, is the real-life event when neo-Nazis sued to march through the Jewish enclave of Skokie, Ill., where the fictional Isaac lives.
With Isaac speaking to the audience as tour guide through his new “play,” we follow his travels as he encounters a wide variety of role models, almost all comical in their cartoonish outlines, but each also containing lessons: the angry Jewish Defense League activist, the Holocaust survivor who never forgets his tragedy, among other kinsmen devout and casual.
While Beau Jeste was broad comedy, Sherman adopts a more realistic if bemused approach here. Isaac offers wry lampoons of pop culture to rib Judaism such as the backseat scene in On The Waterfront in which the Brando character bemoans not pursuing his bar mitzvah: “I could have been a mensch instead of a goy, which is what I am.”
The ultimate lesson for Isaac is not especially shattering: Each person finds his own definition of being a Jew, and the object of life may be the questioning itself and the journey, not the arrival in the Promised Land.
Director Dan Kelley, best known for outright comedies, has found Sherman’s difficult meld of humor and poignancy. But his casting is especially solid. Patrick A. Wilkinson plays Isaac with a stand-up comic’s attitude, a kind of Seinfeld vibe, but it doesn’t quite hide Isaac’s growing anxiety as the search takes over his life, even driving a wedge in his marriage. He exudes an energy and amiability that win over the audience instantly and drive the play forward.
He’s well supported by Stage Door veteran Phyllis Spear as Isaac’s mother, who sits in the audience, kvetching and kibitzing through her son’s play. Filling out the roster as a wife, girlfriend, rabbi, activist and Huckleberry Finn are a collection of chameleons: Kelli Mohrbacher, Rebeca Diaz, Tom Bengston and Christian Vandepas.
The God of Isaac intentionally indulges almost every cliché and meme of modern American Judaism, but Stage Door’s mounting delivers a production that also manages to be thoughtful while entertaining.