Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company, Frank explore outsiders in the modern world

Elena Giannetti, Nate Cheeseman, and Brandon Bruce in <i>A Strange and Separate People</i>.

Elena Giannetti, Nate Cheeseman, and Brandon Bruce in A Strange and Separate People.

Late in A Strange and Separate People, the engrossing new production at the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company, one of the characters observes that the three people involved in this drama all show signs of Asperger's syndrome.

There is certainly a disconnect between their actions and their beliefs. That conflict fuels Jon Marans's play, as he explores the intersection between Orthodox Judaism and gay life. The three characters, Jay, Stuart, and Phyllis, are ensnared in more than a love triangle, especially when faith enters the equation.

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Jay and Phyllis are married and living in New York City. Their world includes an autistic son and their deep Orthodox faith. Jay, in fact, is a psychologist whose work includes therapy to turn gay men into heterosexuals. That part of his faith gets tested with Stuart, a gay doctor who becomes Jay's lover and a devotee to the faith.

The meat of the play takes place after Stuart and Jay's relationship becomes public. As the men try to balance their new-found love with the teachings of their faith, Phyllis embarks on a deep period of soul searching as she tries to reckon her feelings for both of them.

Marans, whose work includes The Temperamentals and Old Wicked Songs (produced twice by MJTC in the 1990s), never lets his characters off the hook. There are no easy answers to any of the questions of faith, relationships, or humanity raised by the text. Instead, we get a compelling trio of characters struggling in a way people do every day. 

The company delves deep into the characters, led by Elena Giannetti as Phyllis and ably supported by Brandon Bruce as Jay and Nate Cheeseman as Stuart. Kurt Schweickhardt's direction keeps the delicate balance among the characters intact throughout, producing a thought-provoking show packed with energy and insight.

Frank heads "back" to the 1950s

There's a different kind of orthodoxy at the heart of Maple and Vine, the opening show to Frank Theatre's 25th season. Here, the characters drifting in the modern world don't look to faith (they don't seem to adhere strongly to any religion) but the past for strength.

In Jordan Harrison's world, an enclave of modern-day folks recreate the mid-'50s in a gated community in an effort to leave modern-day distractions behind. This is a fully realized recreation of Eisenhower's America, right down to racial divides (an Asian-American plastic surgeon ends up working in a box factory) and intensely repressed urges. At the the heart of the work, in fact, is a relationship very similar to the one in A Strange and Separate People, just played out tightly behind closed doors.

The intensely talented cast is game for whatever is tossed their way, and the design (especially costumer Kathy Vol and set creator Ursula K. Bowden) is crisp and engaging. Harrison's script, however, feels ill formed and prone to fits of stops and starts. That gives the whole show a real lurching quality that undercuts the satire of the situation and the serious core of emotions felt by the characters.


A Strange and Separate People
Through Nov. 3
Hillcrest Center Theater
1978 Ford Parkway, St. Paul
For tickets and more information, call 651.647.4315 or visit online.

Maple and Vine
Through Oct. 27
Old Arizona
2821 Nicollet Ave. S., Minneapolis
For tickets and information, call 612.724.3750 or visit online.

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