Sins of the playwright

Isaac retells an Old Testament tale as a family coming to terms with its dysfunctionality

I don't know about you, but if any Old Testament story is primed to make me an atheist, it's the saga of Abraham, the man who's happy to stab and incinerate his son because God asked him to as a test of faith. You can talk about historical context and how the birth and crucifixion of Christ later heralded a new era of celestial mercy in the New Testament, but the oft-debated Abraham-Isaac tale sells a vision of faith that puts human life a distant second to unthinking obedience to a cruel, capricious God. If this is the true order of the universe, maybe hell isn't so bad after all. To paraphrase Mark Twain, at least the conversation down there would be interesting.

The sheer outrageousness (by Western liberal, post-Enlightenment standards) of the 22nd chapter in Genesis makes it a nutrient-rich field for plowing by an opportunistic playwright. Men (and to a far lesser extent, women) have believed for millennia that God is worth killing and dying for. The story of Abraham and Isaac cuts right to the heart of this troubling issue by asking, Should faith be used to enrich life, or make it less valuable by placing all the emphasis on the big reward waiting for you at the top of that golden escalator? Either God can be stirred in our empathetic treatment of one another in the right here and now (that old "God is love" bumper sticker), or the faithful are sitting around waiting, flipping through magazines, and not taking much notice of one another in this great big green room called planet earth. In the latter context, the murder of a son by his father, if done in the name of God, can be justified.

Recent SMU grad and Minneapolis resident David Schulner, a young Jewish playwright, apparently has a few problems stomaching the story of Abraham and Isaac too. As part of its First Annual New Works Festival, Kitchen Dog Theater presents a world-premiere production of a play that has had input from some pretty notable sources--Tony Kushner, Jon Robin Baitz, Craig Lucas, Liz Swados, and the Dog's artistic director Dan Day. Schulner, currently an artistic associate with the Hidden Theater in Minneapolis, is a bit of a wunderkind in contemporary American drama, having had scripts developed at Lincoln Center, the Humana Festival in Louisville, and the Sundance Theater Lab. Clearly, a lot of people think this kid (at 23!) is destined for big things.

Yet he makes a rather anemic case for that assessment with Isaac, which offers all sorts of allusions to the pressure of being one of the chosen people and the seemingly endless journey (on foot, no less) that is faith. We sit there wondering precisely how these frequently intriguing loose ends will be tied together, and the culmination is a family therapy session between an apologetic Abraham and an empowered, forgiving Isaac. Instead of complexity, we get dysfunction. Denied profundity, the audience is served a cleansing from that pesky co-dependency that is humanity's relationship with God. It's a shockingly facile treatment of a philosophical-theological dilemma. Schulner occasionally raises goosebumps with his learned insights, only to flatten them with trendy choreography that's composed of precisely one variation on 12-steps.

Director Dan Day has elicited brisk, alert performances from Isaac (Jesse Erbel), Abraham (Bill Lengfelder), and wife and mother Sarah (Erin McGrann). He's also brought in the ominous musical talents of D'Drum and Beledi Ensemble member Jamal Mohamed, who's on hand to help underscore the confrontations and tender confabs with flute, hand drum, and gong. Yet I think Day did make a mistake by overlooking one simple, vulgar, but compelling house-management truth--a 90-minute play about the contradictions of faith needs an intermission. Granted, 90 minutes is shorter than your average two-act evening in the theater, but during the last 20 minutes or so, the sound of butts shifting in the creaky wooden risers competed with the high drama onstage. This stuff ain't exactly Alan Ayckbourn; it's too intense (at least until the lame finale) to deny time for ticketbuyers to process it with a cigarette or a plastic cup of red wine in the lobby. Alfred Hitchcock once said the average film length should not exceed the endurance of the human bladder; any poor schmuck unlucky enough to down a couple of beers before curtain was treated to a contest for attention between his bursting bladder and the important issues onstage.

"How many years does it take to see God?" one character wonders aloud as Abraham and Isaac, separated by almost the entire expanse of the stage, march soldier-like in unison on a seemingly endless trek through the desert toward Mount Moriah, where God has asked Abraham to make Isaac into a burnt offering. Sarah stands, literally and figuratively, between and behind them, as clueless as Isaac is that her boy, and not a ram, will be sliced and set upon a wooden pyre to be sacrificed. A demonic, hallucinatory figure lets Sarah know what her husband's real goal is, and she desperately pursues them to prevent the deed.

What we have in Isaac are three competing versions of faith, of how to confront the unknowable, and they line up just accurately enough with many of our collective experiences with family to reflect a certain version of reality. Cold, steely patriarch Abraham is guided by principle (or rather, his unwavering devotion to it); emotional matriarch Sarah attempts to fly in for the rescue on wings knitted with apron strings, a lioness who doesn't give a damn about what God wants when it means protecting her cub; and restless, inattentive, irreverent Isaac is a smart kid facing manhood and adult responsibility armed with a healthy skepticism of both. Jesse Erbel as Isaac has the most fully developed role, and he acquits himself nicely, especially in providing the play's much-needed moments of comedy. The contemporary teenage cant into which he breaks may be distracting when other, lesser actors attempt it, but Erbel keeps the transition between eras smooth as milk chocolate. Bill Lengfelder and Erin McGrann as the parents have Gloomy Gloria roles--one marches stoicly, the other pursues with desperate maternal longing--but they do hit all their cues with convincing emotion.

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