What is assimilation? That’s the question asked in Jenny Rachel Weiner’s world-premiere The Chameleon, the first production under Theater J’s new artistic director, Hayley Finn. Initially a family play, The Chameleon ultimately addresses the nature of Jewish identity and the all-too-relevant presence of neo-Nazis in America.
The loving, demonstrative Golden-Kruger family lives in Roslyn, Long Island. It is Christmas Eve, and everyone is eating Chinese food and celebrating the casting of daughter Riz (Dina Thomas), formerly a struggling actress, as the lead in a major film, a new superhero franchise, The Chameleon. Comfortably middle-class, they live in the house built by grandfather Ira, a Holocaust survivor.
Two distinctive performances, by Nancy Robinette (Bubbe) and Eric Hissom (Mitch), provide special insight into the Golden-Krugers and their world.
Mitch, the father, is in his early 60s, an adoring parent who expresses his dramatic talents in community theater (“Please come see me [as The Doctor] in A Streetcar Named Desire, Friday night at 7!”) Hissom’s Eric is ever the charmer, whether dragging out photo albums, toasting Riz, his favorite daughter, or explaining that comic book authors Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, who created Superman, were actually Jewish.
Bubbe, the grandmother, is a Holocaust survivor like her late husband. Now, though a warm and mischievous presence, she has dementia and speaks only in Yiddish. Robinette’s incandescent determination as Bubbe reminds us of the necessity of celebration even in the midst of loss.
The Chameleon features the adult children’s prospective partners, who work hard to make a good impression. Both are non-Jewish. Riz’s husband Joaquin (Ryan Sellers), also an actor, declares it “an honor” to fetch a pashmina for mother and chronic over-sharer Val (Sarah Corey).
Here is Joaquin, trying his best:
JOAQUIN (to himself): You’re doing great, Joaq. You’re killing it, man! Everybody loves you and thinks you’re amazing!
(He sees a case of Manischewitz in the closet. He picks up a bottle and inspects it.)
(trying to pronounce it) Man-ee-chew-itz?
(He takes a sip.)
(He takes another sip.)
It’s still gross.
(He takes another sip.)
Eh, it’ll do.
Sellers’ high-energy performance is full of comic invention.
Stephanie’s partner Maya, well-played by Arielle Moore, is the Student Chair of Bioethics and Humanities at her college. A vegan and an advocate for human rights, she praises her girlfriend as “a pretty amazing human.” Sibling rivalry between Dina Thomas’ Riz and idealistic younger sister Stephanie (Emma Wallach) bubbles up under the surface throughout.
Phillip (Rj Pavel), Riz’s high-strung agent, enters in a state of near nervous breakdown. Kirkland James, the movie’s famous director, is suspected of being a neo-Nazi.
Pavel’s edge-of-hysteria tenacity and Hollywood aspirations bring the Golden-Krugers a glimpse of the reality of their daughter’s sudden success.
Scholar Maya reminds them of the Silver Shirts, a Nazi-inspired group that infiltrated the movie business in the 1930s. Riz breaks under the pressure and tweets about various unprintable things she would do to get a lead role. Mother Val mistakenly presses “send.”
We gradually realize that Riz has been filtering the events of her life as through a comic book. More transitions will come. A terrifying neo-Nazi attack forms part of the action. The Chameleon, the Jewish superhero, embodies Riz’s desire to stop trying to please others and take pride in what she believes in.
The set design, by Andrew R. Cohen, is unusually striking, from Riz’s childhood bedroom to the destruction wreaked on the home by the attack. The costumes (Danielle Preston), eye-catching and carefully chosen, have some especially amusing touches—Joaquin wears a Christmas sweater. Ryan Seelig’s lighting design deserves kudos as well.
There are many characters, and though the script’s humor is appealing, only Riz’s personality is really explored in depth. The shifts in tone are sometimes disconcerting. Still, Director Ellie Hayman’s light touch draws fine work from her actors. And love, in the face of disaster, is always welcome.
Running Time: 90 minutes with no intermission.
The Chameleon plays October 16 through November 5, 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 ($50–$70, with member and military discounts available) online or by calling the ticket office at 202-777-3210.
The program for The Chameleon is online here.
COVID Safety: Masks are required for Thursday evening and Saturday matinee performances. For more information, visit Theater J’s COVID Safety Guidelines.
By Jenny Rachel Weiner
Directed by Ellie Hayman
CAST (in alphabetical order)
Val: Sarah Corey
Mitch: Eric Hissom
Maya: Arielle Moore
Phillip: Rj Pavel
Bubbe: Nancy Robinette
Joaquin: Ryan Sellers
Riz: Dina Thomas
Stephanie: Emma Wallach
Director: Ellie Hayman
Set Design: Andrew R. Cohen
Costume Design: Danielle Preston
Lighting Design: Ryan Seelig
Sound Design: Sarah O’Halloran
Projection Design: Danny Debner
Props Design: Pamela Weiner
Movement Consultant: Leslie Felbain
‘I wanted to create a Jewish superhero’: Jenny Rachel Weiner, whose play ‘The Chameleon’ premieres at Theater J (interview by Ravelle Brickman, October 9, 2023)