During the intermission at “Handle With Care,” billed as a new romantic comedy starring Carol Lawrence, the original Maria of West Side Story, I pondered some nearly theological questions: Is there no law, or at least an Actors Equity rule, against misuse of a Broadway legend?
Lawrence plays Edna, an Israeli grandmother visiting the state of Virginia who, we learn within the first few minutes, is dead. But she’s not just dead. Terrence, the yokel DHK delivery man who was supposed to ship her body home, has lost it. Or more precisely, he left his keys in the truck’s ignition, and then somebody stole the truck.
The play by Jason Odell Williams begins with Edna’s granddaughter Ayelet (Charlotte Cohn) speaking Hebrew at great length and with great passion to Terrence (Sheffield Chastain), which he doesn’t understand, as will few in the audience. Terrence, who has yet to tell her what has happened to her grandmother’s body, calls in his friend Josh, whom he figures can serve as an interpreter because Josh is Jewish. This is a laugh line. Josh’s Hebrew is more or less limited to his Haftorah portion at his bar mitzvah. This is another laugh line.
Josh (Jonathan Sale) at first thinks that Terrence is trying to set him up with Ayelet. Terrence isn’t, but it’s clear from the get-go that the playwright is.
This leads to the second nearly theological question: Do producers assume that any show with Jewish characters will find an audience in New York?
These first few scenes take place on Christmas Eve, which presumably has some significance, although I would prefer not spending time to figure out what.
So how, you may be wondering, do they get Carol Lawrence on stage if she’s dead and disappeared?
They flash back to the day before.
It is only in the second act when we spend any quality time with Carol Lawrence, and when the engine of the plot kicks in. It is based on coincidence and fate, and there is some serious sorrow involved: Josh was widowed 20 months ago; Edna was searching for a long-ago love. Were Ayelet and Josh fated to meet? Are we all on a path predetermined by fate? That is the question the play seems to be asking, admittedly superficially (and less interesting than the other questions it provoked for me.) But put aside the endless scenes of Josh and Ayelet trying to communicate when neither speaks the other’s language, put aside the ba-da-bing one-liners, and “Handle With Care” has its moments, thanks mostly to the game four-member cast. Handle With Care doesn’t handle Carol Lawrence with enough care, but it is a pleasure to see her, at 82 and still beautiful, back on a New York stage.
Handle With Care
By Jason Odell Williams
Directed by Karen Carpenter
Set design by David Arsenault, costume design by Martin Lopez, lighting design by Cory Pattak, sound design by Jull DuBoff.
Cast: Carol Lawrence, Charlotte Cohn, Sheffield Chastain, Jonathan Sale
Running time: One hour, 50 minutes, including intermission.