Beau Jest, James Sherman’s affectionate portrayal of Jewish family life, which first opened off-Broadway in 1992, is a charming romantic comedy that makes no pretence at immense depth or insight, but nonetheless slips in a few home truths among the froth.
Sarah Goldman, unable to bring her gentile boyfriend Chris to a dinner party, hires Bob, an out-of-work actor, to play every Jewish mother’s dream son-in-law: a wealthy surgeon happy to help with the rituals of the Passover. Sarah’s horror at discovering that Bob is no more Jewish than her real boyfriend is only slightly allayed by his reassurance that, having once had a role in Fiddler on the Roof, he knows one end of a menorah from the other.
The play’s three acts each focus on meals of escalating importance, culminating in the seder feast, with its rituals and readings. The audience is not in the least surprised to find that Bob, both in character and out of it, is decidedly more charming than Chris, and naturally he and Sarah fall more steadily in love with every mouthful of lokshen kugel.
The cast is excellent, delivering the rapid-fire dialogue with wit and rare ease. Lara Pulver as Sarah Goldman and Adam Rayner as Bob resist the temptation to mug and caper for laughs, which lends more warmth and credibility to their romance. As Miriam, Sarah’s mother, Sue Kelvin is an unalloyed delight, bustling across the stage in clothes of impossible vulgarity and evidently ruling the family with a loving but implacable hand. Jack Chissick as her father manages pathos alongside a superb sense of comic timing, and as her brother Joel, nervily divorced and not wholly convinced by Bob’s performance, Alexander Giles is pure Woody Allen, and none the worse for it. The staging is lovingly detailed, recreating Sarah’s 80s Chicago apartment with minute attention to each poster and cushion, a rare thing on stage, and wonderful for transporting the audience.
Beau Jest should be taken on its terms: one does not order seafood at a restaurant, only to complain of its not being steak. It’s a romantic comedy, and delivers both comically and romantically, managing to discreetly address the problems of maintaining independence when inextricably bound up with an ethnic and religious identity. You’ll find here no experimental dialogue, no shattering insights, and no fiendish plot-developments to make you puzzle and ponder for days. But you’ll laugh, and be warmed to the cockles of your heart, which is after all no mean feat.