Breaking Bread (and Walls) in JERICHO

Corey Tazmania, Jim Shankman and Andrew Rein prep for a train-wreck of a Thanksgiving in JERICHO, the world premiere dramedy now onstage at New Jersey Repertory Company.

“Is this a tissue play?” the theatergoing ladies asked New Jersey Repertory Company’s SuzAnne Barabas at the door, during last Saturday’s opening night of Jericho — to which the NJ Rep artistic director replied, “It’s an issue play — but maybe keep a tissue handy.”

What playwright  Jack Canfora and director Evan Bergman have accomplished with Jericho, the ensemble piece now making its world premiere run in Long Branch, is ruin Thanksgiving — just as they previously made a shambles of New Year’s Eve (Place Setting) and whatever the happy occasion was supposed to be in Poetic License. But if the Bergman-Canfora partnership has proven itself adept at domestic dramas of agita-inducing devastation, then with Jericho the team turns in its strongest effort to date by balancing the truly gut-wrenching emotional fireworks with a bitterly snarky sense of humor.

If anything, it’s the most fun you’ll have this season with such rib-tickling topics as grief, guilt, divorce, depression, mental illness, religious dogma and 9/11.

Carol Todd and Jim Shankman sit and watch the walls of their marriage come tumbling down, in Jack Canfora’s JERICHO.

All issues and tissues aside, Jericho is really a people play — sharply written, rollercoaster paced and performed as a series of extended blackouts by a cast of pros who are repeatedly being called upon to relive one of the most hellish holiday dinners any of us have ever experienced. Set for the most part in the Long Island hamlet of the same name, and at least tangentially connected to the Holy Land sister city where the walls came tumbling down (the “fourth wall” between players and audience is breached numerous times), it all takes place on a stylized set by Jessica Parks; a precarious topple of tables, chairs, lampshades and drooping drop ceilings that, for the second time in as many NJ Rep productions, brings to mind this reviewer’s own home (note to self: make house not so like expressionistic production design).

The welcome injection of humor here derives organically from the show’s two lead female characters, blessed as they are with Canfora’s best lines and a pair of actresses who really make them sing. Beth (Corey Tazmania, sensational in NJ Rep’s Housewives of Mannheim) is a 9/11 widow of Palestinian-Irish heritage; a wisecracking Manhattanite who’s seeing a therapist, seeing her late husband Alec (Matthew Huffman) all over the place, and seeing Ethan (Andrew Rein), a nice young Jewish guy with monogamy issues and a mom (Kathleen Goldpaugh) who expects Beth at the Thanksgiving table.

Meanwhile, Jessica (Rep regular Carol Todd) is a woman whose penchant for wine and one-liners helps her to deal with the apparent end of her marriage to Josh (the ever-intense Jim Shankman) — a tormented 9/11 survivor who’s become obsessed with his own Jewish identity, to the point of planning a move to Israel without his wife.

The fact that Ethan and Josh are brothers — and that the looming Thanksgiving summit of ethnic culture clashes, Twin Towers horror stories and merlot-marinated bile is a slow-motion train wreck you see coming a mile away — still barely begins to prepare you for the tears, anger and confessions that are the tart and staining cranberries in the store-bought holiday stuffing.

The play does switch between heavy-duty drama and genuine laughs with disarming ease — Beth is “as fucked up as a Japanese game show,” while ghostly Alec remarks that her latest dinner-table bombshell has “invented the world’s most depressing drinking game” — and for every zinger that the actors toss out, there’s a line that “zings” the other way; wiping the smile from one’s face in a flash.

Standouts in an equally weighted cast include Shankman, rising to the demands of one of Canfora’s emotional-scapegoat characters; Todd, scary-good as always in a display of well-oiled extreme mood swings, and Tazmania, a solid (if admittedly unstable) center to it all. Only the play’s closing moments — the kind of late-innings stab at “closure” and cure best left to the movies — fail to hit the spot; so much syrupy pie filling, attempting to mask the bitter aftertaste.

But go; go see Jericho and let a team of talented grown ups show you how a bracingly adult, contemporary play can be a thrill-ride in itself. And if Bergman or Canfora ever invite you to one of their family get-togethers — then run the other way, long and far into the night.

Jericho continues Thursdays through Sundays until November 13, with all regular performances priced at $40, and reservations available right here.

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