British playwright Stephen Laughton plumbs the relentless drip of ancient animosities into contemporary lives in his searing two-character drama, One Jewish Boy. Be prepared for an absorbing night of theater! You will be plunged head-first into the story of a couple poisoned by cultural forces destined to challenge their relationship.
Jesse (Danny Gavigan) is a young Jewish man from the posh London suburb of Highgate. His partner, Alex (Alanna Saunders), is a mixed-race woman from the vastly more diverse neighborhood of Peckham. While her life has been inflected by the casual racism endemic in white-dominated societies, his has been slashed to bits by a single violent attack of antisemitism that left him temporarily hospitalized, and perhaps permanently traumatized. Seared as they both are, however, it is difficult for Jesse and Alex to fully understand the other’s trauma.
The pair, well-directed by Johanna Gruenhut, conduct their lives in a sleek, transparent white box cleverly designed by Debra Kim Sivigny. With excellent support from Jesse W. Belsky (lighting design) and Danielle Preston (costume design), the box becomes the dreamy site of their first encounter, their wedding, their self-imposed prison, and ultimately their dissolution. The sparse set, stark lighting, and simple costumes function together as a visual haiku, with minimal gestures generating a maximal effect.
Our first encounter with the couple is devastating. Alex serves Jesse with divorce papers, signaling the ruin of their once-vibrant relationship. The next hour and 40 minutes whipsaw us back in time to their flirty, joyous first meeting, pausing at key moments in the couple’s history of marriage, moves, and parenthood to vividly illustrate how their immense attraction is countered by their inadequate responses to each other’s red lines. Jesse violently pulls a very pregnant Alex across the street to avoid a dark-complexioned man he perceives as a threat, never thinking of the insult that presents to his own wife. When she insists that he apologize for his knee-jerk reaction, Jesse simply can’t comprehend her angst. Alex, on the other hand, refuses to consider having their baby son circumcised, violating one of Judaism’s most sacred rites. Even a liberal Jew like Jesse is shocked into near speechlessness.
Laughton’s script is sharp and penetrating and at times quite funny. Much of the impact, however, was blunted on opening night by muddled acoustics (particularly in the first half) that left those in the front of the theater erupting in laughter while the back of the house remained silent. We backbenchers simply couldn’t hear. A second problem is the depiction of the attack on Jesse as a series of strobe lights, menacing sounds, and projected epithets repeated several times throughout the play. While there is no doubt what these effects symbolize, they are too vague to deliver the gut punch we need to fully empathize with him.
Despite these technical difficulties, the players themselves are a pleasure to watch. Gavigan’s Jesse ranges from hypermasculine to scared, isolated, and finally crushed. Saunders’ kitten-like Alex grows in stature throughout. As Jesse shrinks into what he believes is inherited trauma, Alex matures as a mother and a woman. She knows she must separate from her husband or be sucked into the black hole that his life is becoming. We never doubt their immense attraction and their abiding love, however, which makes their separation even more bitter.
For those of us used to encountering antisemitism and racial bias mostly as grim statistics that escalate year after year, Laughton’s play provides much-needed insight into how these pernicious forces affect those who endure them. In a particularly painful example of life imitating art, the play’s 2018 London premiere prompted despicable acts of antisemitism, and Laughton himself was threatened on social media. What sadder proof do we need of One Jewish Boy’s relevance to our divided world?
Running time: One hour and 45 minutes without an intermission
One Jewish Boy plays through July 2, 2023, at Theater J at the Aaron & Cecile Goldman Theater in the Edlavitch DC Jewish Community Center, 1529 16th Street NW, Washington, DC. Purchase tickets ($45–$85, with member and military discounts available) online or by calling the ticket office at 202-777-3210.
The program for One Jewish Boy is online here
COVID Safety: All patrons in the Goldman Theater are required to wear masks covering their nose and mouth. Only performers and guests invited onstage may be unmasked. Masks are optional but encouraged in the Q Street and 16th Street lobbies, hallways, and other public spaces. For more information, visit Theater J’s COVID Safety Guidelines.