The 2nd Book of Ruth
Or, the Rabbi, the Blonde, and Their God
By Zalman Velvel
The Laboratory Theater of Florida, Fort Myers, Fla.
Friday, May 23, 2014, Second row middle
Directed by Carmen Crussard
The 2nd Book of Ruth is, fundamentally, a boy-meets-girl story. Except the boy is a rabbi. An Orthodox one.
Rabbi Yoshi (Jonathan Best) reacts to yet another frank comment from Ruth (Jennifer Grant) in The Laboratory Theater of Florida's production of The 2nd Book of Ruth. Photo courtesy of The Laboratory Theater of Florida.
This plot-twist in Zalman Velvel's new play is both its enticement and its challenge as revealed in its world premiere at The Laboratory Theater of Florida in Fort Myers. Yet, the role of a rabbi in the story's love triangle—or, in fact, the story's love pentagon—goes beyond serving as a tool for laughs and intrigue. Underneath the comedy and its romantic tug is a play about duty and how it withstands the buffets of such psychological forces as lust, love, and loss.
Velvel, a native New Yorker now living in Fort Myers, has written 10 plays, a couple of which have been staged Off Broadway. This is his second to debut in Fort Myers but the first for Lab Theater, a 57-seat playhouse occupying downtown Fort Myers' old Kiwanis Hall, which originated as a Mission-style Episcopal church. For The 2nd Book of Ruth, he draws on his own Jewish heritage, though he is not an Orthodox Jew (he calls himself a poshuter yid, or "Simple Jew"). Nevertheless, he wanted to depict Orthodox Judaism from the inside out, as gentiles rarely see such an unfiltered perspective from Hollywood and American theater depictions. Many of this play's jokes are drawn from Jewish custom and Yiddish phrases, but the humor is nevertheless accessible even to non-Jewish audiences.
The entire play, which begins in 1992, is set in Rabbi Yoshi's New York City office, which is presented in detail by set designer Deborah Kik. The rabbi (Jonathan Best) is trying to write an acceptance speech for an award he is receiving as outstanding young rabbi, and from the outset we see his tendency toward formality and self-seriousness. Enter Ruth Preston (Jennifer Grant), a bubbly and seemingly bubble-headed blonde desiring conversion to Judaism. Her reason: she's marrying a Jew, and though he rarely even goes to synagogue, Ruth intends to become a "Super Jew" to get back at the sniping remarks of her future mother-in-law. Revenge, Rabbi Yoshi points out, is not a viable reason for conversion.
The rabbi and Ruth immediately clash in all things. She's a touchy-feely type; he won't even shake her hand because it is inappropriate for a rabbi to touch any woman other than his wife. She talks with unabashed frankness; he is completely reserved. She is grounded in her real world; he resides in his mystic realm. She smokes; he likes fresh air. She jokes; he doesn't know how, and this turns out to be the first lesson between pupil and teacher: she offers to help him with his speech by instilling it with humor. This is the start of their uneasy but enduring relationship. She comes to admire his spirituality, he comes to respect her intelligence. She reveals that she's already read all of the books for conversion and started shopping at Bloomingdales; she's got questions the books don't answer. Of their ensuing lessons in conversion, the rabbi later reports that Ruth turned out to be one of his most inspiring pupils.
We don't see these lessons. Instead, subsequent scenes, which take us through 2003, feature Ruth's succession of husbands and near husbands, all played by Mike Dinko: David Greenberg, the philandering gynecologist who is three sheets to the wind on his own wedding day (he and Ruth soon divorce); Morty Diamond, the elderly millionaire who never outgrew his teen years (Ruth reports that he came and then he went, leaving her a wealthy widow); and Artie Mentchnik, the flaming red-haired, self-help con artist who uses volunteering at 9/11's Ground Zero as a platform for promoting a multi-million-dollar scam (he flees the country before Ruth marries him).
Through these scenes we are told—though we don't necessarily see—that a close friendship is developing between Rabbi Yoshi and Ruth. We do see the rabbi mature in many ways, expanding his library to include modern sexual counseling books and learning how to tell jokes, which Best pulls off nicely with Billy Crystal drollness. As Ruth survives her trio of relationship crises and the rabbi endures his own personal tragedy, the romance between them simmers before finally surfacing in the last scene. That this development is somewhat jarring is in part due to the character of Rabbi Yoshi. If he were to express feelings for Ruth in any way, it would undermine the character Velvel has drawn; even in later scenes Rabbi Yoshi still won't shake Ruth's hand. Perhaps a soliloquy or meditative moment along the way would have clued us to his crisis of conscience that suddenly surfaces in the final scene.
Yet, would even that do the character justice? The rabbi's silence, even to himself, is a matter of duty. One of my wife's Air Force commanders used to say, "Ethics is how you behave when nobody is watching." For the rabbi, someone is always watching: God. That may or may not be true according to your own theistic leanings, but even so, Rabbi Yoshi himself is watching. His door may be closed and nobody else present, but the rabbi never waivers from his behavior; he thus won't give in to Ruth's request for any touch or word of affection. Yoshi admits at play's end that his first love is, has been, and always will be being a rabbi. You might consider this selfish or even foolish, but growing up with an Air Force chaplain for a father, being married to an Air Force officer, and being a journalist myself, I understand how the oft-spoken credo of "God, country, and family" is given in that specific order. Over time and in certain circumstances, those priorities might switch around or be replaced, but for some, as with Rabbi Yoshi, they never change.
This theme of duty plays out among the other characters, too. Ruth wants to have children, for those children she wants a good father, and she believes Jewish men make the best fathers. Sounds simple-minded, but she is showing, in her way, a sense of duty to her future children. The husbands, too, play off duty's dichotomous aspects. Artie puts on a show of duty for his own scheming purposes; David displays true duty to women in his profession but not in his personal life. Morty, the elderly teen, displays a public persona of a good-timing guy who lucked into his millions and has no social conscience whatsoever. Yet, he proves to be absolutely loyal to both Ruth and Rabbi Yoshi, a sense of duty that long outlives him.
Similarly, social morality is played out in radio broadcasts that open each scene. Airing first from the top of the World Trade Center and then the Empire State Building, they carry the insinuation of being the voice of God on high as they report and comment on key news events over the years. Vice President Dan Quayle is pretty much run out of office for misspelling potato while President Bill Clinton has an extra-marital affair and still maintains a 70 percent approval rating. There's no right or wrong here; sin is between you and your God, and true duty falls in a spectrum of personal and social accountability.
Ruth is ever-aware of the gossip generated by her three relationships: David's mother-in-law always puts her down. The age difference between her and Morty cause other women to snicker at his funeral. The FBI agents grill her about her financial dealings with Artie. Understanding the insidious nature of such gossip, in an act that proves not only a sacrifice for her but for Rabbi Yoshi, too, Ruth makes sure gossip doesn't touch him. He, however, can't even fathom these concerns; and yet when he finally lives up to the fact that he has, inwardly, become part of Ruth's temporal world, he makes a decision on the basis of appearances. It causes a spiritual crisis in him of which he is not aware because he remains stubbornly anchored to his sense of duty. For Ruth, her frankness has tipped her into her own spiritual crisis, one of which she is fully aware.
"Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God." This famous Scripture from the original Book of Ruth in the Bible is a two-way street on the spiritual realm, placing the responsibility of duty on each participant. Ruth reverses Rabbi Yoshi's teachings when she gets him to speak this Scripture with her in a last-gasp attempt to attain his love. Based on everything we have seen of Rabbi Yoshi, we should not be surprised—even if we now share Ruth's frustration—that her attempt will fail.
Ruth does have one more gasp, though, one of utter faith; and Rabbi Yoshi has one last lesson to learn: when it comes to his stalwart dedication to duty, God should still come first.
May 30, 2014