Think you’ve had bad days? In a few hours of staggeringly foul karma, a workaholic communications mogul named Reuben (Mitchell Hebert) loses his position in the company he founded; is thrown out by his neglected wife, Donna (Kimberly Schraf); and finds out that his youngest brother has only hours to live.
Such anguish would try the patience of Job, and, as luck would have it, Canadian playwright Jason Sherman’s shrapnel-sharp and unyielding play “Patience” is a tragicomic updating of the Old Testament parable. Directed with intensity and probing intelligence by Howard Shalwitz and performed with smarts and savvy, “Patience” is a morally grappling spill of words driven by anger, remorse and perplexity, all overhung by sadness.
Few modern playwrights possess Mr. Sherman’s talent for communicating loss, not just of the tangible — jobs, money — but of something deeper: our connection with divine forces larger than ourselves. We have made ourselves the gods, the titans — and our lives are diminished as a result.
To evoke a sense of unseen forces at work, Mr. Shalwitz has members of the cast raptly watch the action from catwalks and stairs surrounding the set: a Greek chorus that Reuben has chosen not to hear. Some of these observers are played by Michael Willis, who lends a masterful touch of melancholy comedy to a variety of cameo roles.
Job endured his sufferings, seeing them as a test from God, until the urgings of his friends made him question divine justice. It is only when Job sees his arrogance in doubting God’s plan that he is able to truly repent and receive forgiveness.
Reuben, who is Jewish but hasn’t been observant in years, has no such reserves of faith on which to fall back. When misfortunes rain down upon him, he brazenly rails against those who wronged him. Instead of bowing to God’s will, he does something achingly human. Using flashbacks and his own crazy determination, Reuben systematically sifts through his past to find that split second in time when his life began to slide downhill, hoping thus to reverse his fall.
Reuben is not the only character toying with time. His brother, Phil (a sensitive and deft Marty Lodge), is a physics professor who believes in randomness and chaos theory. He has left his wife for a 19-year-old college student (Kosha Engler) but still wishes he could retrieve his old life.
Even the playwright manipulates time, oscillating between the present and Reuben’s recollections and even bringing characters back from the dead. Only the female characters seem willing to move forward: Reuben’s ex-wife, Donna, who becomes a woman of action and accomplishment once she escapes her marriage, and Sarah (played with crystalline surety by Naomi Jacobsen), Reuben’s long-lost love, who has endured grief and loss and emerged stronger and clearer.
A contemporary morality play, “Patience” is not so much about right and wrong as it is about seeing how much ground one man can recover. Reuben is forced to confront his Type A jerk mentality and his unholy self-absorption after his world caves in, but that is not entirely the point.
That he is morally bankrupt is a given. By the end of his personal trials, he is humbled but still arrogant in his quest to control circumstances that seem cosmic in their enormity.
Reuben is a fascinating figure, more complex than a winner who suddenly finds himself in the role of a loser. And he loses everything — his company, his wife and children, his brother, his place in the world. Yet what remains is his sense of entitlement and his reluctance to take full responsibility.
A feast of language, “Patience” is not lacking in visual delights. For starters, the set by Elena Zlotescu is a marvel — a streamlined, linear, Mondrian-inspired box, the sides of which swing effortlessly from one scenario to the next. The clean, glossy graphic of the black, white and red set are tinted in minty pastels from time to time, thanks to Mark K. Andruss’ coolly ironic lighting.
As striking as the set is, the plexiglass walls distort the sound, especially when the actors are at the back of the stage. Their voices sometimes sound muffled and unnatural.
The sound problems do not obscure the essential question posed by “Patience”: Can a modern man like Reuben be transformed by his troubles? Mr. Sherman seems to suggest that redemption is possible, depending on whether we see suffering as a curse or an opportunity. Accept who you are, “Patience” says, and you do not get back your life. Rather, you are born into a new life carved out of your pain and what you learned.
WHAT: “Patience” by Jason Sherman
WHERE: Woolly Mammoth at the Kennedy Center, AFI Theatre, Washington.
WHEN: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, 7 p.m. Sundays. Through July 20. Note: There are no performances July 4.
TICKETS: $21 to $38
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS