The Jerusalem Syndrome is the theater equivalent of that enthusiastic kid who keeps distracting you from that sight that you really want to see. This new musical, with music by Kyle Rosen and book and lyrics by Laurence Holzman and the late Felicia Needleman, starts from a genuinely fascinating concept, revolving around the mysterious eponymous psychological condition that has hit some visitors of the Holy City. The resulting show, making its off-Broadway premiere with the York Theatre Company, is too fluffy to really do justice to such an oddball premise —which is not to say the show doesn’t have its pleasures.
Because the malady appears to have no religious or cultural boundaries, Holzman and Needleman have populated its cast with characters from different backgrounds. Phyllis Feinberg (Farah Alvin), a literature professor back in New York City, is hoping this trip to Jerusalem will fire up her marriage to workaholic husband Alan (normally Jeffrey Schecter, but played by Scott Cote at the performance I attended). Charles Jackson (Alan H. Green), a furniture designer from Florida, is in town to check out a plot of land he has just inherited across from the Church of the Holy Sepulcher that he wants to turn into a gay resort; a confrontation with Father Bernard (John Jellison), who wants to purchase the land from him, suggests a deep-seated resentment toward Catholicism fueling his plans. And then there’s bumbling Eddie Schlosser (Chandler Sinks), a tour guide from Ohio who finds himself overwhelmed by his first assignment (Jellison, Karen Murphy, Jennifer Smith, and Lenny Wolpe play members of his tour group, in addition to other supporting characters).
Phyllis, Charles, and Eddie all become afflicted with the syndrome, thus becoming wards of Dr. Yair Ben Zion (Josh Lamon) and nurse Rena (Laura Woyasz) at a local hospital. One of its symptoms is the victims’ sudden belief that they are all biblical figures. Thus, Phyllis imagines herself to be Abraham’s wife Sarah — but instead of being drawn to Alan, whose disconnectedness from his surroundings renders him immune to the condition, she runs off with Mickey Rose (James D. Gish), a soap-opera star and fellow syndrome sufferer who believes he’s Abraham. Eddie thinks he’s Moses, eventually breaking fellow patients out of the hospital, including Lynn Horowitz (Dana Costello), a recently jilted woman who comes to believe she’s God. And speaking of God, Charles imagines himself to be none other than the Son of God Himself, Jesus Christ. (Danielle Lee James and Curtis Wiley round out the ensemble, the former playing a patient who believes she’s the Virgin Mary, the latter playing a patient who believes he’s Noah.)
The particular biblical figures these characters imagine themselves to be are hardly random. It is only after Phyllis/Sarah runs off with Mickey/Abraham that Alan realizes how much he’s been neglecting his wife. Only as Moses does Eddie find the confidence he has heretofore lacked as a tour guide. As for Charles, well…suffice it to say, The Jerusalem Syndrome doesn’t discount the possibility of miracles still occurring in the modern world. Not only does the way these biblical figures align with their delusional contemporary counterparts feel too neatly schematic, but most of the character arcs are pretty easy to predict within the show’s first five minutes. All the multi-stranded narrative complications can’t disguise just how shopworn the storylines themselves are — disappointing given the sheer outrageousness of its premise.
Still, there is fun to be had in The Jerusalem Syndrome, if mostly in its margins. The jokes of Holzman and Needleman’s book and lyrics range from Borscht Belt insults and groan-inducing puns to slapstick pratfalls and double entendres. Kyle Rosen’s score skillfully embodies a wide variety of styles, with Charles’s gospel-tinged autobiographical confessional “Daddy Loved Jesus” and the klezmer-influenced “The Power of Israel” coexisting alongside numbers like the patter song “Room Seventeen” and the romantic duet “‘Til You Came Into My Life” that espouse a more conventional musical-theater idiom. A game cast brings it all to life under Don Stephenson’s snappy direction. Green is the most consistently memorable of the ensemble, though Woyasz’s horny, soap-opera obsessed nurse isn’t too far behind in scene-stealing brio.
“At times it’s kind of scary, / but extraordinary, / the science of this particular insanity,” Dr. Ben Zion sings a couple of times during The Jerusalem Syndrome. But the musical Rosen, Holzman, and Needleman have concocted suggests they were more interested in using this “extraordinary insanity” as merely a hook for corny jokes and banal life-affirming uplift. As entertaining as the show is, one can’t also help but wonder if a documentary or fictional drama about the same condition would have made for a more profitable use of one’s time.