Dallas — Love triangles are tricky—in life and on the stage. See for yourself in Dallas playwright Miki Bone’s funny and revealing Division Avenue, directed confidently by Dean Nolen in its regional premiere at Contemporary Theatre of Dallas.
Hyper-conservative religious parents and the thrill of life and love in the larger world compete for the heart of Efraim (a fresh-faced and sweetly willing Jake Buchanan), a young Hassidic Jewish widower trying to escape the confines of the tightly knit and isolated Hassidic community in South Williamsburg, Brooklyn. From start to finish, you’re rooting for this smart, brave adventurer.
The show opens with a short, telling scene. A bright light shines on wide-eyed Efraim, sitting front and center, his long whiskers shaved off and a look of resolve in his eyes. A solo cello twangs sharply offstage as he clips off his long side curls, a distinguishing mark of his Hasidic identity. Lights out.
When action resumes, Efraim is at the kitchen table while his mother Gita (a comically gravel-voiced and dour Nancy Sherrard) bears down on the ironing board and her only son’s rebellious haircut. Loving, but not above spying, she scolds Efraim for reading at the public library, a destination she has discovered by tracking him through his smart phone. Efraim loves his mother for her devotion and her secret kindness to other women in the community. He hates the mean-hearted gossiping and finger-pointing of the community, and he begs her to see there is good outside the Hasidim culture.
When Efraim meets Sarah (a vibrant and frankly sensual Marianne Galloway), a pretty young social worker new to the neighborhood, his resolve strengthens to establish a life for himself outside the narrow sanctuary of the religious community he grew up in. Galloway and Buchanan generate some serious chemistry from first glance—and the heat continues to build. Even so, breaking free is easier said than done. The trials and tensions of finding a way out generate the action in the play and make us feel the difficult choices and consequences for this earnest and appealing hero.
First off, Efraim’s father Moishe (a thin-lipped and glowering Ben Westfried) who meets his shorn son in on a park bench to tutor him in the Talmud. He also compels Efraim to help him in a civil suit to get cyclists off the streets. Moishe recalls how the Hasidic group came from Romania and the terrors of the Holocaust to create a “sacred place” in Williamsburg. “Bicycles are a secular invasion of the neighborhood,” he insists. He is particularly affronted by the form-fitting outfits women wear, especially when he sees Efraim checking out a shapely cyclist in tight black shorts and a pink top.
To this end, Moishe hires Pete (a smiling, broad-shouldered Ian Ferguson), a gay civil rights lawyer who takes the case for both professional and private reasons. Coincidence leads to revelation, especially in the tight confines of a city neighborhood, and everybody’s alliances are tested, reaffirmed or broken. We see a generosity of spirit in both men when Efraim asks for Pete’s help—and some playful distinction about the difference in “coming out” and “getting out.”
The cyclist lawsuit, a subplot to bring the major characters face to face, is based on an actual bike lane controversy in Williamsburg a few years ago when the Hasidim managed to temporarily get the lanes removed. Here the perceived threat to their space by cyclists represents the less visible but vastly more disruptive impact of modernity on the group from the Internet and smart phones. Ironically, Moishe himself relies on his smart phone to keep up with neighborhood news—and to police his son’s activities. When father and son face off over beards, bikes or a half-dressed girl, they are both clearly ethical, energetic and stubborn men. Efraim hopes his father will also accept that his son is an individual moving toward a new world he feels he must engage.
As the play progresses, Efraim struggles to figure out his next move. His first short and confounding marriage was family-arranged, and he is both touching and hilarious as he approaches Sarah, a transplanted Texas Catholic with a big heart and a healthy sense of inclusiveness. Sarah, an accomplished flirt, volunteers to help this home-tutored young man who must somehow pass the GED before he can even attend college. When she persuades him to let her shave his stubble, the scene moves from funny and awkward to gentle, loving and downright erotic. You better believe this man will find a way to confront his parents, his religious past – and move into the greater world. The play demonstrates what playing the “getting out of jail” card can cost—to all the players.
Rodney Dobbs’ revolving scenic design swiftly moves the action from a kitchen table to a park bench, to a lawyer’s office and back to an apartment with a big sofa. Rich Frohlich’s sound design features an evocative but not intrusive score written and played for solo cellist by Calum Ingram. Clare Kapusta’s costume design includes gradually stripping Efraim of his dark clothing and black hat and dressing him in brightly colored shirts and sneakers as his resolve grows.