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Theatre in Review: The Gett (Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre)

Liba Vaynberg. Photo: Bronwen Sharp

According to the script of The Gett, it unfolds "either six thousand years ago or six days ago." In either time frame, it is distractingly vague, an antiromantic comedy about a heroine who, it seems, mostly wants to be left alone; by the finale, one is only too willing to grant her wish. It's a perplexing piece, the work of a writer, Liba Vaynberg, who has a lovely way with words combined with a thorough disregard for the niceties of dramatic construction. Among other things, it withholds crucial information about the characters and omits scenes that would constitute dramatic action. It is puzzling in more ways than one.

Ida, Vaynberg's protagonist, has her meet-cute moment with a young man named Baal when they are stuck in an elevator. (Exactly why Baal is named after a pagan idol is something to consider.) His unnerving sense of calm in this situation -- harping on the possibility of claustrophobia -- drives her into a near panic state. By way of making conversation, he informs her of his poor technique as a magician, his skill at watering plants, his botched circumcision, and his high sperm count. She responds by taking out some dental floss and cleaning her teeth.

Already, Vaynberg is striking a note of old-fashioned absurdist comedy that today seems quaint; combined with dialogue that references Gene Wilder, Henry Kissinger, the G spot, and The Sound of Music, The Gett may be best enjoyed by the senior citizens among us. Anyway, after this unpromising beginning, Ida and Baal marry, as he predicts. One scene later, however, Ida is consulting a divorce lawyer and, once again, she is experiencing coping issues. "What do we do about stuff like the mattress?" she queries her attorney. "You either sell it and split it or one of you pays the other for it," he replies. "What about a cat?" she adds. "Did you two have a cat?" he inquires. "No," she concedes. He describes her as "a very easy client," but I have my doubts about that.

The rest of the play follows Ida through a couple of nonstarter relationships, haunted, for reasons that are unclear, by the memory of Baal. In any case, she becomes an expert at pushing others away. When a suitor presents her with flowers, she compares them to genitalia, then snacks on a rose. A relationship with a perfectly nice guy ends over a tiresome dispute about having a Christmas tree for the holidays. Even Ida seems baffled by such off-putting behavior, silently wondering of her lover, "Why are you doing this to me? Why are you loving me so much?" The latter is an excellent question.

Indeed, The Gett is overburdened with mysteries, largely because Vaynberg leaves out major chunks of her story. Her decision to skip over the marriage of Ida and Baal leaves us ignorant of their relationship. (Of course, after that bizarre first encounter, why did she marry him?) Really, who is Ida? Does she have friends? Interests? Aspirations? Political beliefs? As written, she is a bundle of anxieties and deflections, a prickly loner who regards everyone else with suspicion. Her habit of speaking entirely in wry apercus is another form of defense mechanism: "I'm a poet who works at the library, so everything thinks I'm vaguely noble, but nobody understands what I actually do. Which is talk to senior citizens and my editors who are very pleased with my first volume and terrifyingly curious about the next. As am I. Because I can't stop thinking about the fact that Gene Wilder is dead. And now everything I write is about Oompa Loompas. My shrink forgot my birthday this year, and my mother left me a voicemail this morning that started with: 'So. What's the plan'."

The action, such as it is, allegedly tracks Ida's path to self-actualization; arguably, Baal is so named because in Ida's world marriage is a kind of false idol. But by the time Baal shows up again, this time requesting that they obtain a gett -- a religious document of divorce -- it's difficult to see that she has made much progress. Indeed, in a production without Daniella Topol's assured direction and a charismatic cast, The Gett might be difficult to sit through; instead, it is a faintly baffling get-together with some lovely performers.

Whatever Vaynberg's deficiencies as a playwright, she is a commanding presence onstage, radiating an undeniable charm even when Ida is indulging in her kookiest behavior. Baal isn't really a character -- he's an idea of a certain kind of man, presented without shading or nuance -- but Ben Edelman is such a forceful presence that it's easy to grasp Ida's obsession with him. Ida's screwball mother has an inordinate number of monologues ("I'm not saying you're personally responsible to have six million children...But they make the pandas mate now, you know?"), but Jennifer Westfeldt handles them with the professionalism of a seasoned standup comic. Luis Vega delivers a mini tour-de-force as various boyfriends and representatives of the older generation.

The production design, especially Misha Kachman's scenery and Johanna Pan's costumes, is pretty basic, but Paul Whitaker's lighting reconfigures the stage space efficiently and sound designer Megumi Katayama delivers all sorts of effects, including a jazz arrangement of "My Favorite Things," elevator music, the voice of an emergency phone operator, telephone hold music, and the strains of "White Christmas."

One takes away from The Gett is the sneaking feeling that Vaynberg hasn't found the right medium for her talents. She may be a solid comic essayist or even, like Ida, a poet. Perhaps her skills could be put to good use in a solo performance piece. But The Gett is not a play. Tellingly, it ends up where it began, in that elevator; in other words, it really has nowhere to go. --David Barbour

(29 November 2022)

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