At a time when so many curmudgeons complain that every story has already been told on the stage and screen, Birthright remains a surprisingly untapped subject. A group of horny, wealthy adolescents partying their way through an exotic foreign locale? WHERE’S MY TICKET?!
Even if artists prefer to go a more serious route, secular Jews visiting Israel provide a lens through which to explore the chasm between modern chosen ones and the questionably archaic traditions of the holy land. Playwright Nathaniel Sam Shapiro takes this approach in his Diaspora, a play that’s as confusing as Judaism strikes so many youths nowadays.
Its strongest moments plumb Birthright’s depths to contemplate the relationship between the old and new, attempting to depict the troubled plight of the first-world Jew reckoning with how far removed they feel religiously from their home land. Some Jews treat Birthright, a program intended to foster stronger connections to their faith, as nothing more than an excuse to party, which Shapiro sees as a microcosm of the conflicting ways that Jewishness manifests itself in the lives of those born into it but who may not be believers in the 21st century. He explores the complex impact that their cultural religion has on their personal identities.
Though such excavations sound promising on paper, their execution in the Red Moon Theatre Company’s production, directed by Saheem Ali at The Gym at Judson, leaves much to be desired. The problem of Shapiro’s writing throughout is his tendency to view the play as nothing more than a vehicle to simplistically communicate his thoughts on these matters to the audience, which are better expressed in the program notes. In fact, his words here offer more insight than the actual text of the play.
Though some of the characters are actually undergoing intriguing trials and tribulations of the self, everything they do and say on stage feels overly cater-made to impart specific messages from Shapiro’s mind to the audience’s ears. They each serve a clear purpose in his theatrical agenda, robbing them of the palpable humanity that makes for compelling drama.
To make matters worse, they’re all drawn with a BROOOAD stroke of eye-rollingly crude characterizations that stereotypically mock instead of trying to induce empathy. Shapiro seems uninterested in fully entering his characters’ complicated headspacse, instead staying firmly in his own perspective, which is where all the caricatures clearly stem from instead of being grounded in reality. Props to him for writing more female characters than male, but they come across like products of a man not bothered with probing past their unappealing exteriors (the cast does their best, but ultimately increase their roles’ lack of appeal).
But if Diaspora inspires even one artist to tackle Birthright, keeping the play’s few strong suits while disregarding its flawed rest, then the production would’ve been worth it.