In the intensity of its detachment from ordinary life, the shiva period can be an opportunity for bonding among the surviving family members. Or, as in Josh Metzger’s new play, “Sitting Shiva,” the Jewish mourning ritual can thrust family members together in a way that that brings long-buried resentments and jealousies to the fore. In Metzger’s lacerating drama, three middle-aged Jewish brothers who have gathered to mark their father’s passing end up battling over his emotional and financial patrimony. It runs through mid-August at the New York International Fringe Festival.
Directed by Christopher Scott, “Sitting Shiva” takes place in Great Neck, at the home of Mark (Neal Mayer, who played Bernie Madoff in “Greed”), a warm-hearted nephrologist who is the eldest of the three sons, and who feels both emotionally and spiritually invested in observing the full seven days of the ritual. Joining him are the middle son, David, an arrogant venture capitalist who has intermarried and moved to California, and the youngest, jittery Henry, who is unemployed and whose marriage has hit the skids.
While Mark attempts to take over his father’s role as the patriarch, he is resisted by David (Jeffrey Plunkett), who is the least religious — and the wealthiest — of the three siblings. Henry (Eddie Boroevich), meanwhile, is the most interested in the contents of the father’s will, in which the father’s decisions about the disposal of his assets may permanently tear the fabric of their relationships with each other.
The playwright grew up in Bayside, Queens. He attended the Ramaz Jewish Day School in Manhattan and went to NYU for both college and law school. He was inspired to write “Sitting Shiva” by seeing Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer Prize-winning play, “August: Osage County,” a play about the emotional fallout caused by the disappearance of a Southern patriarch. Shortly after Metzger started writing “Shiva,” his own father passed away, and he leaned on shiva to help him through his own grief.
“Once you sit shiva, you belong to a kind of ‘club,’” Metzger told The Jewish Week, “in which people share memories of their own parents.” During the period of shiva, he noted, “being removed from the community puts you in a heightened family environment.” In his play, he observed, “life-long wounds are reopened, ironically leading the brothers to wonder if they can survive sitting shiva.”
Although the director is not Jewish, he learned a lot about Judaism from performing in the Off-Broadway 1980s musical version of Chaim Potok’s “The Chosen.” Scott said that he “loves how ritual pressurizes people’s emotions and raises the stakes.” In the play, he reflected, “the brothers are “forced to be there and to deal with each other. It’s like a Jewish ‘No Exit.’”
“Sitting Shiva” runs at Teatro SEA, 107 Rivington St. Performances are Aug. 8 at 9 p.m., Aug. 10 at 12:30 p.m., Aug. 12 at 9:15 p.m., Aug. 13 at 4:15 p.m. and Aug. 14 at 4:30 p.m. For tickets, $18, visit www.fringenyc.org.