When people conjure images of superheroes, what generally comes to mind are more traditional caped figures in six-pack outlining body suits with personal branding emblazoned across their chests. Usually, a Jewish woman from humble beginnings whose superpower involves blending in with the background is not first on most people’s superhero playlist. But that is precisely the type of character Jenny Rachel Weiner’s new play, “The Chameleon,” introduces to the Gotham universe—that and so much more.
…a hilarious, wonderfully conceived, contemporary-minded family portrait that is reflective of the true nuances that make us human…Theater J’s world premiere of “The Chameleon” will certainly be one that sticks with you.
Evoking a definite dysfunctional family vibe from the very beginning, the play sets out to remind audiences that while, yes, familial dysfunction may run amok, these people are still blood—meaning, you’re stuck with them, so embrace them for all they’re worth. That is exactly what Riz—a struggling actor dubbed the family’s “starving artist” (much to her chagrin)—must reconcile. That is, how to accept that her family means well despite their best efforts.
There is Riz’s way too unfiltered mother (a comic coup by Sarah Corey) and her father (Eric Hissom) who is given to long and winding speeches and even more winding philosophical about-faces. Her somewhat abrasive and highly opinionated younger sister, Stephanie (Emma Wallach), offers Riz the occasional glimpse into a pretty harsh mirror, while Steph’s girlfriend (Arielle Moore) has her own political activist agenda at heart. Riz’s husband, Joaquin (a standout Ryan Sellers), is doing his best to juggle the raucous “Jewish Christmas” dinner by sneaking copious amounts of liquid courage. Add to all of this, the unexpected arrival of Riz’s manager (a delightfully narcissistic portrayal by Rj Pavel) and a simple family gathering becomes even more of a fiasco.
The eclectic and loud combination of characters alone is enough to fill an entire evening, as most who’ve experienced similar family get-togethers can likely attest. This one is abruptly interrupted by a scandal—because, what else could happen. Having just landed the role of a lifetime, the titular character (The Chameleon) in a new superhero franchise, Riz learns some very disturbing news about the film’s “iconic” director. Turns out, he’s a Nazi sympathizer—a fairly significant problem for any potential actor, much less a Jewish one. The remainder of the play explores, among other issues, the topic of selling out versus staying true to who you are. That is yet another of Riz’s emotional sagas here. Who exactly is she? Having spent a number of years attempting to distance herself from her Jewish heritage, she is now faced with perhaps the most difficult choice she’s ever had to make. A laugh-out-loud series of tweets-gone-rogue also play a big part in the calamitous unraveling of events.
At the center of this brood—and a galvanizing reminder of their past and how they got to where they are—is the family matriarch. Played by Nancy Robinette—a bona fide national treasure—“Bubbe” is an older woman who’s seen it all. A Holocaust survivor, she is both the past and present personified. It is during her more lucid moments that Bubbe helps Riz to understand that there are indeed some things worth fighting for.
Through the calamity of it all, this play really does come together in the most entertaining way possible. There is just so much happening at any one time. Yet director Ellie Heyman’s meticulous coordination and insightful perspective transform what, in less capable hands, could quickly become a visually incomprehensible Pollock into a hilarious, wonderfully conceived, contemporary-minded family portrait that is reflective of the true nuances that make us human.
The ultra-naturalistic set design alone is enough of a reason to see this production. Andrew R. Cohen perfectly synthesizes “family home” with the magical-realist elements inherent in this story to bring us deep into the universe of this play. Ryan Seelig’s lighting design and Sarah O’Halloran’s sound design add yet more incredibly complex layers to this production as a whole.
World premieres can be tricky to navigate. You really aren’t sure what might transpire on that stage and how, consequently, it will all be received. With its deeply sophisticated sense of humor and a resonant atmospheric quality throughout, Theater J’s world premiere of “The Chameleon” will certainly be one that sticks with you.
Running Time: One hour and 30 minutes with no intermission.
“The Chameleon” runs through November 5, 2023 at Theater J, 1529 16th Street NW, Washington, DC 20036. For more information and to purchase tickets, go online.