The husband-and-wife team behind the new play “Handle With Care” connected on a script about, of all things, how difficult it can be for people to forge a connection.
“I basically turned to her one day and said, I’m sick of acting; I want to start writing,” the play’s creator, Jason Odell Williams, told The Jewish Week. He was referring to a conversation he had with his wife, the actor Charlotte Cohn, who stars in the play. “I might as well write a play for you because you’re awesome and amazing,” Williams recalled saying.
Williams asked his wife what type of role she would want to play, and she emphasized themes of language and disconnect.
“I’m really fascinated by miscommunication,” said Cohn. “The core of the play is about miscommunication and faith and fate,” themes she says, that are universal.
“Handle With Care,” which marks the New York return of theatrical legend Carol Lawrence (best known as Maria in the original Broadway production of “West Side Story”), is actually a romantic comedy built around a “lost in translation” theme that mirrors Cohn’s own upbringing.
The play tells the story of an elderly Israeli woman (Lawrence) who brings her granddaughter, Ayelet, (Cohn) with her on a trip to the United States. Ayelet is in her late 30s and still single (“In Israel that’s like a death sentence,” said Cohn). Ayelet ends up stuck and alone in a small, goyishe, Virginia town on, of all nights, Christmas Eve, desperate to claim the body of her grandmother, who died the previous night.
The local deliveryman, who lost the casket en route to Israel, calls in his friend Josh (Jonathan Sale), the only Jew he knows, to try to communicate with the Hebrew-speaker. Unfortunately, Josh only knows what he describes as “shul Hebrew” and a sexually explicit phrase. Nevertheless, Josh and Ayelet begin to establish a connection despite their language barriers, bonding over an impromptu Shabbat dinner, half-remembered Hebrew phrases and the revelation of truth that’s only possible when you think no one else can understand you.
“The connection Ayelet has with this American man happens to be their shared religion, even though they don’t really share the same experience of faith,” said Williams.
The plot loosely tracks some of Cohn’s experiences being raised in two cultures. She was born in Copenhagen and raised in Jerusalem, where she served in the army, eventually as a lieutenant. With a childhood spent in Israel, and an adulthood in America, Cohn has learned firsthand the struggles of adjusting to new cultures and languages. She eventually met Williams when they were both students at the Actors’ Studio in New York. Today, the Manhattan-based couple has a daughter in the third grade.
Although the play is not based on a true story, Williams admitted that he put parts of himself in it as well. “I’m a little bit like Josh,” he said. The child of a Protestant and Catholic, Williams was “raised in between nothingness… Then when I met and married my wife, she sort of reintroduced me to her traditions, and I had a real sort of fondness and respect for them,” he said.
He spoke of his first trip to Israel and understanding his wife’s past struggles as her family rambled on in Hebrew around him. “It was an eye-opening experience, a culture shock in some ways,” he said. He recalled thinking, “People don’t understand me. I’m the one who has to sort of gesture and learn tiny bits of Hebrew.”
Williams wrote “Handle With Care,” with its own wild gesticulations and cultural barriers, in 2008, originally titling it “At a Loss.” That version first premiered in 2011, in Ithaca, and then again in Florida, where the “snowbirds” of the metropolitan New York area advised Williams that the work could run in the city.
Although Williams maintains the sole writing credit, his wife has served as a consultant of sorts, writing the Hebrew lines of the play. As the only Jewish actor in the cast, she has also remained the spokesperson for explaining Israel, or Judaism. This ranges from telling the props mistress what “looks” Israeli, or adding insight into the text when explaining to Lawrence her personal relationship to God and religious tradition (while fairly secular now, Cohn was raised more Orthodox).
Williams has since written other plays, even continuing to utilize Jewish themes. But “Handle With Care” is his first work to make it to New York City.
“I think it’s the same and different,” said Cohn’s of the play’s New York run. “Off-Broadway is sort of like the mountain.”
“It’s been a long journey,” said Williams. “But also doing any play Off-Broadway is sort of a leap of faith.”
True, but this show has the advantage of having Lawrence’s name in the Playbill.
“She’s such a mensch!” gushed Cohn of the 81-year-old Lawrence. He even admits to serenading the Broadway legend with “I Feel Pretty” during breaks in rehearsal.
In a step away from Lawrence’s Puerto Rican accent from her role as Maria, the stage veteran adopted a rough Israeli voice to indicate Hebrew while speaking in English. As Ayelet, Cohn speaks in Hebrew, accented English, and non-accented English (to indicate Hebrew) in the play. Not many actors could do all three, but Cohn has the background necessary to pull it off.
“I have a lot that I bring to the table in terms of that character and where she’s coming from,” said Cohn.
“She’s absolutely phenomenal and completely right for the part, and I can’t imagine anybody else doing it,” raved Williams of his wife. Still, the play is also set to open in as many as seven more productions around North America with other women in the role of Ayelet, “So it can be done,” he admitted.
With the Jewish holiday season more or less over, but Christmastime in full swing, “Handle With Care” hopes to dip into different audiences.
“It’s not just for Jews,” insisted Cohn. “The show just makes people fall in love with it.”
If its two love interests can find common ground in universal themes, so, the producers hope, can theatergoers.
“Handle With Care” runs through Sunday, Feb. 23 at the Westside Theatre, 407 W. 43rd St., Manhattan. For tickets, call (212) 239-6200.