In “real life,” the course of a relationship rarely runs smoothly. In Theater J’s production of “One Jewish Boy” written by British playwright Stephen Laughton, the relationship at the center of the show definitely does not a smooth course follow, nor a linear one for that matter—and that is precisely what makes this performance so incredibly intriguing. You watch, eyes glued, the entirety of the ride because you’re afraid you might miss a beat and not get to see how this man and woman came to be, how their journey ultimately unfolds, and whether or not they are defined by their ending.
…thoroughly satisfying. Gruenhut delivers an emotional rollercoaster disguised as a psychological mystery, wrapped in the cloak of romance. She pulls off a delightfully entertaining theatrical coup.
In recent years, more intimate plays, even two-handers such as this one that spotlight the rocky ups and downs of relationships, have become increasingly popular theatrical fare. Beyond the efficiency of staging a tighter, smaller play, there is also the draw of being able to really spend some time dissecting a relationship. Since the pandemic and all that brought to the table in terms of human interaction, partnerships, particularly romantic partnerships, have gone under rather rigorous artistic examinations, be it in television, film, books, and yes, theatre. Laughton’s play is no exception. Alex (Alanna Saunders) and Jesse (Danny Gavigan) are it—they are the play. And what a tempestuous ride this couple takes audiences on as they navigate their way through a first date, a proposal, wedding, baby, and the kind of turbulence that can derail even the most steadfast of unions.
Per the play’s title, Danny is Jewish. Alanna is mixed race. Theoretically, in this day and age, that pairing shouldn’t garner a second thought. And yet, the victim of a hate crime, Danny is afflicted with PTSD. He suffers through paralyzing flashbacks and painful remembrances of voices that still haunt him, and in the process, he unwittingly dismantles, brick by brick, his relationship with Alanna. The show begins at the end—that is to say, we already know how their relationship is destined to shake out…or do we? The true cleverness of this play lies in the fact that when you think you have it figured out, there’s a subtle turn of events that effectively remaps the entire course.
If there is any weakness here, it is in some of the “easier” jokes that the playwright goes for during moments that are otherwise intensely provocative. In several instances, the jokes are simply not needed. Though a few of the timelier bits of humor do work quite well and manage to elicit hearty laughs from the crowd—such as when scrolling on his phone, looking for a potential place to live, Jesse quips about his online house hunting obsession, “Zillow is like Tinder for married people.”
There are a number of elements that make the U.S. premiere of this play work exceedingly well, not least among them, the overall set design. It’s pretty evident that Theater J invested in making this production look and feel ultra-contemporary and artistic. The aesthetic of Deborah Kim Sivigny’s set is perfection. It is a highly symbolic space that helps further translate the language of this play and the language of the couple’s love, and it is wonderfully augmented by lighting designer Jesse W. Belsky’s thoughtful contributions. That the production includes projection designer’s Danny Debner’s ridiculously creative scene transitions and time stamps is hugely helpful as far as keeping up with the trajectory of the couple’s relationship.
Perhaps though, the true driving force of this play’s success is Johanna Gruenhut’s finesse and ability to read between the lines as a director, making the production as a whole thoroughly satisfying. Gruenhut delivers an emotional rollercoaster disguised as a psychological mystery, wrapped in the cloak of romance. She pulls off a delightfully entertaining theatrical coup.
As Jesse and Alex, both Gavigan and Saunders are in it for the long haul. Not an ounce of energy fades and the power of every single line can be felt until the very end. Saunders is at times haunting, evocative, in-your-face, and quietly vulnerable when she needs to be. It is an exquisite performance. For his part, Gavigan moves quite adeptly between the moments of recalled trauma and the more manic moments when he’s seemingly drowning in love. The character’s frenetic energy is palpable. This really is a meaningfully comprehensive night of theatre. You get a love story, an activist’s story, a comedy, and some tragedy too. Translation: you will laugh and you will cry.
Running time: One hour and 45 minutes with no intermission.
Advisory: Contains depictions of assault, drug use, and hate speech.
“One Jewish Boy” runs through July 2, 2023 at Theater J, 1529 16th Street NW, Washington, DC 20036. For more information or to purchase tickets, go online. For Theater J’s Covid policy and safety guidelines, please click here.