- The Washington Times - Friday, May 14, 2004

Can an observant Jewish man love the Torah and another man? That’s the crucial question posed in “Passing the Love of Women,” a cautionary fable about mixing sex and religion based on the short story “Two” by Isaac Bashevis Singer, which is receiving a visually impressive production at Theater J.

In 19th-century Poland (brought to ecstatic life in Daniel Conway’s set, which uses towering Stonehenge-like tablets etched in Hebrew to evoke both the shtetl, or village, and the religious forces roiling in the play), the answer is a resounding no.

In the modern world of playwright Tony Kushner, who mingles the cabala and other aspects of Judaism with homosexual culture, homosexuality and orthodoxy might find mutual space, but not in the old-world villages of Frampol and Lublin. There, God does not approve, and his wrath is swift and devastating to the point where you wonder, “Why not a plague of locusts?”

Ziesl (Karl Miller) and Azriel (David Covington) are brilliant Talmudic scholars who have reached a crisis point — to continue studying together, they must obey Jewish laws and marry. The thought of wives and making children disgusts them; Azriel flatly refuses Reyzele (Elizabeth Jernigan), the bride chosen by the esteemed rabbi Yudi (Mitchell Hebert). Ziesl goes along with his arranged marriage to the compliant Esther (Amy Montminy) but abandons his wife after their wedding night to skip town with Azriel.

In Lublin, the two live together, but with a twist as old as Greek comedy — Ziesl must dress up like a woman.

This sets up all the cliches of situation comedy, including a lecherous landlord (Grady Weatherford); the idea of Ziesl actually taking on feminine mannerisms and “women’s work”; and times when the women gossip and walk around nude, thinking they’re in all-female company. You know the drill — Ziesl becomes a drag and a nag while Azriel gets to study the Torah and become a jealous husband.

“Passing the Love of Women” swiftly becomes not an exploration of forbidden love at odds with deep spiritual beliefs but a quasi-farce in which the accent is placed on just when and where Ziesl and Azriel are going to get found out. This dilutes the emotional hub of the play and makes the retribution for what Yudi calls “a dreadful passion” jarringly out of place.

The play’s weaknesses aside, there is plenty to recommend about Theater J’s production, apart from the visual elements and strong direction by Daniel De Raey.

Mr. Singer’s trademark use of ghosts and spirits is keenly at work here, as Azriel and Ziesl are never completely alone, instead haunted by the women they spurned and the rabbi they disobeyed.

Performances also rise above the text, starting with Mr. Miller as Ziesl. He plays Ziesl with the inelegant grace of an adolescent who is coming to grips not only with his manhood, but also with his feminine side. When he is disguised as a woman, his gestures are compact and understated. Mr. Covington, a bit pouty, is not as solid as Mr. Miller, but he does take on a tragic countenance in the second act.

Caren Anton is excellent as the hard-driving rabbi’s wife, who doles out love and curses with equal vehemence, as is Mr. Hebert as rabbi Yudi, visibly torn between his love for his son, Ziesl, and his adherence to God’s laws.

The current controversy over homosexual “marriage” gives “Passing the Love of Women” a topical gleam, causing us to ponder exactly why same-sex unions push so many buttons. However, “Passing the Love of Women” does not adequately probe the passion for scholarship and sexual expression that would drive the two main characters not only to thwart the conventions of society, but also evoke the ire of the Almighty they purport to love above all.

**1/2

WHAT: “Passing the Love of Women” by Motti Lerner and Israel Zamir

WHERE: Theater J, Washington DC Jewish Community Center, 1529 16th St. NW

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Saturdays, 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays. Through June 6.

TICKETS: $18 to $35

PHONE: 202/777-3229

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