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Craig Bierko, Molly Ringwald, and Jason Biggs
in Modern Orthodox
(Photo © Richard Mitchell)
Good actors -- bless 'em. And a grateful blessing to talented directors as well. These sentiments are prompted by Daniel Goldfarb's Modern Orthodox, in which Jason Biggs, Craig Bierko, Molly Ringwald, and Jenn Harris, under James Lapine's velvet-glove guidance, give performances of great good humor, polish, and appeal -- so much so that they move through an amusing but problematic script almost before spectators notice that what they're watching strains credulity to the point where credulity cries "uncle!"

Biggs plays Hershel Klein, a calculating yet likeable Jewish diamond dealer who does business in the black suit that's common to orthodox Jews working the 47th Street gem shops. (Actually, Hershel is an independent dealer and, according to the program, the suit is an Ermenegildo Zegna creation. Well, you can take the star out of Hollywood but you can't take Hollywood out of the star!) Hershel also wears a yarmulke with the New York Yankees logo on it -- a yarmulke that he's coerced into removing at a crucial moment just after the flimsy plot's get-go.

Perhaps thinking that a moving target is hard to hit, Biggs rarely allows Hershel to remain still; his hands are always flying and you can almost hear the sound of his mind clicking. Biggs's comic timing is consistently on the money, which is something of a surprise from this movie star, since such timing in film often has more to do with editing than thesping. Also, Biggs's last stage appearance was in the unsalvageable The Graduate. Yet here he is undaunted, making everything that he does work, including a few comic crying jags.

Likewise smooth as sailboats crossing a lake are Bierko as Ben Jacobson, a secular Jew who purchases an $18,000 engagement ring from Hershel, and Ringwald as Hannah Ziggelstein, the OB-GYN on whom Ben places the ring. Ben and Hannah have been together for six years, long enough to begin taking each other for granted. They have few real problems, even if Ben feels guilty about his lax attitude toward Judaism and is resentful of Orthodox Jews because he thinks they recognize that guilt. The main requirement of the couple is that they appear pleasantly romantic, as Bierko and Ringwald do without breaking into a sweat.

As for the hilarious Jenn Harris, she gives the kind of performance that causes people to ask, "Where's she been until now?" It turns out that she's been spending preparatory time with the Second City troupe, and this shows in her keen improvisational style. Harris plays Rachel Feinberger, an Orthodox Jewess with a liberal take on orthodoxy and, particularly, on certain proscribed sexual practices. Her tolerance for breaking religious law is expressed in one of Goldfarb's best lines. (The gag won't be repeated here but it involves a dictum about not spilling seed, and it had the women in the audience practically cheering.) Harris only has a couple of scenes in which to flaunt her quirkiness, and she doesn't waste a second in doing so.

And now to the balloon-bright story, which is also balloon-like insofar as it would burst into rubbery pieces were anyone to stick a pin in it. The "Baruch Ha'shem"-spouting Hershel sells Ben the nearly "D flawless, perfect stone" only after Ben has maneuvered Hershel into removing his yarmulke. As a result, Hershel decides that he's jinxed himself and the Belgian fiancée whom he's never met but to whom he's written letters. The shamed fellow shows up at Ben's and Hannah's apartment with his suitcase and the pistol that he habitually carries, just as the couple are getting engaged. (This is where credulity heads out the door.) He insinuates himself into their lives by explaining that his far-flung fiancée has burned herself to death after looking at a picture of him that he had sent her. Ben and Hannah -- who spend some time bickering over the fact that she didn't burst into tears when presented with the huge diamond ring -- decide that the only way to get rid of Hershel is to find him a date via computer. They locate the libidinous Rachel in record time, but there's a detour in which Hershel cajoles Hannah into giving him a kissing lesson.

The characters are so playable and their lines so funny that Modern Orthodox is likely to please ticket buyers despite its flimsy narrative, at least in this very well directed and very well acted production. Lapine and his players deflect attention from the yard-wide holes in the script, aided in their efforts by costume designer Dona Granata, lighting designer David Lander, sound designer Fitz Patton (much uncredited klezmer music is played), and especially set designer Derek McLane, who offers a garishly-colored rendition of the Manhattan skyline. Maybe the masking of barely substantial content with streamlined form is what's really at the heart of modern orthodoxy.

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