Secular Jews often embrace Orthodoxy, and they do so for a variety of spiritual and psychological reasons. But when newfound piety creates a holier-than-thou attitude, family conflicts are typically in store. In Joseph Sousa’s first play, “Teeth of the Sons,” now being produced by the Barefoot Theatre Company in the West Village, two brothers find their relationship sorely tested one when one brother becomes a chasid.
The award-winning play premiered two years ago in Portland, Ore., where it was lauded by one local theater critic as “first-rate,” and as a “taut, thoroughly credible drama.” Sousa, who is not Jewish, stars in the play as Jake, the newly Orthodox brother.
Directed by Nicole Haran, “Teeth of the Sons” takes place in the Midwood section of Brooklyn. Sam (Will Allen), who has been estranged from the family, returns to Brooklyn to find a place for himself and his pregnant girlfriend, Maddy (Casandera M.J. Lollar), to live. He is astonished to find that his formerly free-wheeling brother, Jake, is a ba’al teshuvah (returnee to strict Jewish observance). As they alternately battle each other and beat box together, the two brothers discover new pathways to Judaism. Evelyn (Shayna Padovano), an old flame of Jake’s who reappears toward the end of the play, represents a different approach to Orthodoxy, one grounded in a love for Israel and Jewish mysticism.
The playwright grew up in a Catholic family; his parents, who hail from the Azores Islands off the coast of Portugal, raised him in a small town near Fresno in Northern California. He and his Jewish fiancé are set to be wed next weekend, and he is a frequent participant in the Manhattan Jewish Experience, directed by Rabbi Mark Wildes, and in the Isralight outreach program, coordinated by rabbis David Aron and Mottle Wolfe.
Sousa told The Jewish Week that he got the original idea for the play when two friends suddenly embraced religion — a Jewish friend became Orthodox after a summer trip to Israel and a Christian friend was born again. Sousa began to wonder what internal conflicts were obscured by these abrupt changes.
In the resulting play, Jake’s embrace of Orthodoxy, the playwright noted, “circumvented his need for personal growth” by obscuring the deeper emotional issues that he faced as the son of an absent, non-Jewish father and the grandson of a Holocaust survivor. The play’s title comes from a mysterious line in the Book of Jeremiah: “The parents ate sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are blunted,” which appears to refer to the sins of the parents being visited on their offspring.
In an incisive interview on YouTube, Sousa calls the play a “case against fundamentalism.” But he quickly adds that it is “not about about judging Jacob’s religion. It’s about the pitfalls of someone who’s trying to live their life so righteously that they don’t see what they sacrifice in the process. Judaism is about “loving your brother more,” he suggests. “So why do you have so much venom towards people who aren’t playing by the rules?”
“Teeth of the Sons” opens Friday, April 22 at the Cherry Lane Studio Theatre, 38 Commerce St. The play, which runs through May 14, will be performed on Tuesday-Saturday evenings at 7 p.m., with Saturday matinees at 3 p.m. For tickets, $30, call Telecharge at (212) 239-6200 or visit www.telecharge.com.