One would think that a play about Passover—the quintessential storytelling feast, organized around a ritualized and extended narrative of the Exodus from Egypt—would have narrative strength and clarity. But Ali Viterbi’s “In Every Generation,” which debuts at Victory Gardens, never goes anywhere, instead getting bogged down in the dramaturgical equivalent of Red Sea mud.
Ambitious yet hazy, the drama unfolds over a non-sequential Passover series, beginning in 2019 Los Angeles, as three generations of a Sephardic Jewish clan come together for an exhausting, stressful, and argumentative celebration. It then jumps back sixty-five years, as the grandparents in the first scene, both Holocaust survivors, perform their first Seder in America. The story then jumps to the year 2050, to a dystopian future in which Jews are regularly beaten by anti-Semitic mobs. The final scene takes us back several millennia, to the first re-enactment of Passover in the Sinai desert, shortly after the Hebrews’ hasty departure from Egypt. As manna descends from heaven, grandparents tell the story of their people’s miraculous escape from their enemies, and their two granddaughters record the story on a smartphone they find in the sand, presumably hoping it will go viral.
It’s all very twee and postmodern, and some will no doubt appreciate playwright Viterbi’s portrayal of the Passover story as an archetypal sitcom-level family drama storyline, in which nothing changes over time. But this approach trivializes the story, treating everything from sibling rivalry to genocide with equal seriousness.
The main characters are teenage Yael (Esther Fishbein) and her adoptive Asian sister, Dev (Sarah Lo). For those familiar with the Seder and its fable of the “four sons,” the two daughters correspond to the offspring Wicked and Wise, respectively, who respond to the holiday’s story of flight and liberation with selfishness, on the one hand, and with respect, on the other hand. other. Caricatural “woke” Yael distances herself from her roots and loved ones, seeing everything in terms of white privilege. Dev, who embraces his identity, secretly applies to rabbinical school. It’s a controversial career choice in this family, in light of the scandalous fact that their rabbi father (who is never seen) was recently caught desecrating the pulpit of his synagogue with the sorority president.
Then there’s Nonno, their elderly grandfather (Paul Dillon), who is in the late stages of ALS and therefore looks like the fourth son in the story, who “doesn’t want to ask”. Carmen Roman plays Nonna, his wife, with an unchanging and ultimately grating combination of shyness and courage. Their self-pity daughter, who somehow blames Judaism for her husband’s unrabbinical conduct, is portrayed grimly by Eli Katz.
So who is the third child in the story of the Seder, the Simple Son, who innocently wonders, “What is all this? Would it be the audience, as we try to unravel the subject of the piece: the recurring nature of trauma? Family dysfunction? The need to remember, or conversely, the need to move forward? The need to stick together or on the contrary the need to find your own way? The piece seems to want to do it all, and the high volume level and endless histrionics can’t hide the blurring of the work’s theme and purpose.
Or its tasteless, for that matter. This reviewer is still recovering from the scene in 1950s Los Angeles involving a Seder turned striptease, which unfolds even as one character confronts his deep guilt for surviving the Auschwitz death camp.
Under Devon de Mayo’s direction, the action has a hyperactive quality, with every move and gesture amplified and underscored. Nuance, stillness and silence, ingredients that create the mood on stage, are treated as an eleventh plague, to be avoided at all costs. There’s no dynamic range here, and the two-and-a-quarter-hour piece (with intermission) seriously drags.
In a play with multiple annoying characters, the most unbearable is Yael, whose aura of moral superiority masks an almost total insensitivity to the feelings of others. Despite her chalkboard personality, she and her slightly more human sister seem to be reconciled by a final curtain, as they both deal with the reality of suffering and loss. The Passover Haggadah—the Seder script—has its own recommendation for dealing with the Yaels of the world: “Grit your teeth to them. It would make for a better ending. (Hugh Iglarsh)
Victory Gardens Theater, 2433 North Lincoln, (773) 871-3000, winnergardens.org, $29-$62. Until May 1.