Why Is This Night Different…

Why Is This Night Different…

Ted Merwin’s column appears monthly. He writes about theater for the paper and is the author of the award-winning “Pastrami on Rye,” a history of the Jewish deli.

Leading the Passover seder each year is, for many Jewish men, a sign of their continuing vigor and prominence within the family. In Jennifer Maisel’s Off-Broadway play, “The Last Seder,” directed by Jessica Bauman, a patriarch’s impending slide into dementia signals that nothing, including their Passover observances, will ever be the same.

Maisel’s play joins a number of other recent plays in which seders play a prominent role, including Matthew Lopez’s “The Whipping Man” and Charles Busch’s “Olive and the Bitter Herbs.” It opened this week at Theater Three in Midtown.

In “The Last Seder,” four sisters — each of whom has a partner in tow — return to their childhood home, which is about to be sold, to celebrate Passover. While the father, Marvin Price (Greg Mullavey, who starred in Neil Simon’s “Rumors” on Broadway) no longer recognizes his own loved ones because of Alzheimer’s, his foul-mouthed wife, Lily (Kathryn Kates, who appeared recently in “Bubby’s Shadow” and “Food and Fadwa”), tries to prepare for the holiday even as she carries on an affair with the next-door neighbor, Harold (John Michalski). In the play’s climactic scene, Marvin finally takes the reins of the seder and turns it into a poignant celebration and re-enactment of the family’s history.

Maisel, who grew up on Long Island but now lives in Los Angeles, has written many other plays, including “Out of Orbit,” “There or Here,” “Dark Hours,” “Mad Love,” and an adaptation (with Robert Fieldsteel and April Vanoff) of S. Ansky’s “The Dybbuk.” But “The Last Seder” is one of her best-known works; it won grants from the Kennedy Center and the National Foundation for Jewish Culture and has had productions in numerous cities, including L.A., Chicago, Washington, St. Paul, and Sao Paulo, Brazil. This is the first New York run for the play, which the playwright has adapted for a Showtime film version.

“The Last Seder” is presented in a non-realistic style; the sisters work through their conflicts with both their parents and lovers in abstract spaces. As Maisel instructs in the stage directions, the production should reflect the idea that “in any home a family lives, at once, the same life and different lives.” The audience’s perspective thus keeps shifting, along with the viewpoints of the characters.

Riffing on the idea of order (the English translation for the word “seder,”), Maisel told The Jewish Week that her play is about the Prices’ efforts to combat the disintegration of not just their treasured Passover ritual, but of the family itself. While Maisel decided not to base the four daughters directly on the Four Children of the seder ritual, she said the ritual nevertheless gave her “a structure to work with, but also something to mess with. Because the family itself is so scattered and divided, they want to come back to something where they can feel an underlying sense of order.”

Because they also are in denial about losing the father to Alzheimer’s, Maisel added, the daughters have difficulty with their obligation to “stand up and acknowledge that one of them will need to take over this ritual in the future.” Maisel called the play a “family play that anyone can feel a kinship for.” Everyone, she said, “brings their own experience of seder to the play.”

“The Last Seder” has been extended through Jan. 13, 2013 at Theater Three, 311 W. 43rd St. Performances are Thursday-Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. There are also Wednesday matinees on Dec. 12 and 19 at 3. For tickets, $18, call SmartTix at (212) 868-4444 or visit www.smarttix.com.

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