TAMPA — Behind the Gates intends to shine light on a closed world, the ultra-Orthodox Haredi sect in Israel, and the Jobsite Theater staging of Wendy Graf's play gets off to a promising start, with a marathon monologue by a troubled 17-year-old named Bethany Leiberman.
As she profanely recounts her misery over being adopted, her useless parents and therapist, and American teenage life in general, Bethany undergoes a transformation, shedding her black Metallica T-shirt, Goth makeup and nose ring and changing into the modest garments of a kosher maidel, a pure, sacred Jewish maiden.
Kudos to Danielle Calderone for mastering this opening speech — although at 10 densely worded pages, it is a lot to ask of an audience to take it all in — but her Bethany is soon to be gone. When she is sent by her parents to spend the summer at a school in Jerusalem, she not only falls under the spell of the Haredi, takes the name of Bakol and vanishes into the sect's neighborhood Mea Shearim ("hundred gates"), but she also vanishes for much of the rest of the play, largely to be supplanted by her desperate mother and father.
Behind the Gates becomes a made-for-TV soap opera, as Susan and Jerry Leiberman (Caroline Jett and Pete Clapsis) enlist the U.S. embassy and an Israeli investigator to try to find their daughter. The Leibermans are affluent American Jews — Jerry is a lawyer — and they've been in Jerusalem before, but they seem to know almost nothing about Israel and behave like the loudest, most ignorant, boorish people imaginable. Even good actors couldn't make Graf's cartoon figures believable, and the overwrought, amateurish performances by Jett and Clapsis are painful. Petrus Antonius, outfitted in khaki vest and shorts, is a stereotype as Ami, the world-weary investigator who has seen it all, and Frank Jakes plays the American attache as a hapless patrician.
Graf is a pedantic writer, littering her dialogue with Biblical references and little primers on the Haredi, and the play devolves into a kind of rant against the sect's subjugation of women, not exactly uncharted territory. At times, it veers awkwardly into a psychodrama on adoption.
The Jobsite production, directed by Karla Hartley, has no particular feel for Jewish culture. Brian Smallheer's set features the Western Wall, prayers on slips of paper crammed in the cracks, and a rabbi sports a weirdly fake beard, as if he had wandered from a Saturday Night Live skit into this tiresome play.
John Fleming can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8716.