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Timothy Hornor, Charity Parenzini, Jason Adkins
in Beau Jest
(Photo © Matthew Lawrence)
I mean this in the most affectionate sense: Taproot Theatre Company's production of Beau Jest is the perfect choice for a night out with your parents, particularly if they predate "time-outs" and the food pyramid. Director Karen Lund serves up a wildly appealing comic romp that leavens its broad physical comedy with gentle warmth. The energetic cast is in top form, and the evening zooms by in a whirlwind of frothy good fun.

The script, by James Sherman, is a tightly written piece of comic genius. It satirizes Jewish family dynamics, all the while paying gentle tribute to the importance of kinship. The setup: Nice Jewish girl Sarah Goldman (Charity Parenzini), unbeknownst to her parents, is dating the subtly named Chris Cringle (Jason Adkins). Chris is -- surprise! -- a gentile, and that won't fly with Mr. and Mrs. Goldman. In order to placate her meddling folks, Sarah has invented a fictional boyfriend, the impossibly perfect David Steinberg. Under mounting pressure to introduce the fictional David to the family, she dismisses Chris for the evening. In his place, she has hired Bob (Timothy Hornor) to impersonate the ideal boyfriend at a family Seder. There's just one problem: With her brother and parents due to arrive at any moment, Sarah learns that Bob is a gentile, too.

It's a delicious concept, ripe with comic potential, which the cast mines for all it's worth. The elder Goldmans (Kim Morris and Steve Manning) come out swinging, and the show is off and running at lightning speed. Peppering each other with zingy one-liners, indulging the audience with double-takes and broad asides, the cast doesn't miss a beat.

The two young leads are especially adept at switching dramatic gears. As Sarah, Parenzini sounds all the right notes. One moment, she's up to her eyeballs in the comic fray, windmilling her arms and bellowing in a broad Jewish accent; the next, she's all doe-eyed shyness as she begins to fall for the delightful stand-in boyfriend. Hornor shines in the role of Bob. Rubber-faced and wide-eyed at his absurd predicament, he soon has the audience (and the Goldmans) eating out of his goyishe hand. Hornor gleefully squeezes laughs out of throwaway lines and the tiniest bits of stage business. True, his character's supposed nervousness at impersonating a Jew is not much in evidence, but this is a tiny quibble with a wonderful performance; Hornor sets this production soaring to dazzling comic heights.

Kim Morris slightly underplays her role as the overbearing Jewish mother. Chubby, blonde and tastefully attired, she comes off as more of a suburban soccer mom than a force to be reckoned with. This nice lady is the source of Sarah's neuroses? Still, Morris slings her one-liners with gusto. Bob succeeds only too well in charming Sarah's parents -- and Sarah herself. He's such a hit that she invites him back (as David) for a hilarious family Passover. Meanwhile, the chemistry between Sarah and Bob slowly heats up. Lund lingers deliciously over their growing attraction, and the actors draw together with shy glances and an awkward little dance. Parenzini and Hornor prove their remarkable versatility here; the simple honesty of their kisses is a rewarding contrast to the frenetic family dinners.

By Act II, Bob is no longer content to play pretend boyfriend. Ready to step into Sarah's life for real, he urges her to come clean with her parents. This is demanding a lot of Sarah, who hasn't even found the courage to call things off with Chris. In the midst of the juicy comic mayhem, it's easy to forget that Sarah has a real problem on her hands: She's arranging her life solely to please her parents.

Big brother Joel (Todd Kulczyk), who just happens to be a therapist, is on hand to help Sarah sort things out -- and here's where the production stumbles. Kulczyk's cartoonish therapist is way over the top, just at the point when Sarah most needs a reality check. A vaguely sullen presence in Act I, Kulczyk now surges to life with a smarmy tone and wildly exaggerated "therapist" gestures -- legs crossed, index finger to lips, the works. He completely undermines the emotional weight of Sarah's quandary.

The production regains its footing with the return of the elder Goldmans and the inevitable confrontation with Sarah. Steve Manning, as the wounded father Abe, delivers a compelling portrait of a confounded patriarch. His near-heart attack announces the play's climax and ushers in a sober final scene -- but not too sober. This is a comedy, after all, and it's a given that the family will reunite around the dining table. Instead of kugel, the fare now comes in the form of palatable life lessons for all as the action draws to a satisfying, if somewhat pat, conclusion.

I imagine that the Goldmans' next Seder will be a lot more harmonious but much less funny. Beau Jest is a fleet-footed farce with a heart of gold.

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