Theater, at its best, can thrill and inspire us, can take us to another world, can even make us feel that we, ourselves, are growing into new and better people.
If only that had been the case at the new off-off-off Broadway production of “Aaron Goldfarb’s Bar Mitzvah,” which opened last Saturday at Temple Beth Shalom in Teaneck, N.J., and closed later that evening at the Teaneck Marriott.
The set-up seemed promising enough: A young boy of 13 becomes a man by taking on the traditions of his forbears, and is welcomed into a new life by friends and family. Replete with singing, dancing, speeches and a colorful cast of characters, it was the sort of production that could have brought some showbiz pizzazz to the rather staid suburbs of northern New Jersey.
But alas, in the course of its extremely limited run, the show failed to deliver on its great promise, doomed by a lackluster and uncharismatic leading man, shoddy writing, some atrocious singing and dancing, and a chaotic supporting cast that, far from demonstrating the loving wit one might hope for, often seemed on the verge of collapsing into caricature.
The problems undoubtedly begin with Aaron Goldfarb himself, who utterly failed to match the glittering performances of peers and predecessors such as Eddie Finkelstein of Congregation Beth Aaron, Gina Cohn of Congregation Shaarei Israel and even his older brother, Jack, who gave such a marvelous performance at the very same bimah just four years ago.
But Aaron lacks the golden pipes and easy charm of his older brother, who was just accepted to Harvard. His underdeveloped voice seemed charmingly raw in the opening blessings, but over the course of the service, his nasal whine became grating and scratchy. By the time he was halfway into his haftorah, even the most sympathetic members of the audience were looking to the exits, or at least to the restrooms.
Aaron utterly failed to redeem himself with his dull-as-dishwater d’var Torah speech on the story of Noah and the Flood, a derivative screed that reached the utterly unsurprising conclusion that one man really can make a difference in this world. Gee, thanks, Aaron.
In Aaron’s defense, he was done no favors by the largely disappointing supporting cast. Susan Goldfarb, who took on the dual role of mother and director, failed miserably at both. The ceremony was painfully long, dull and repetitive, while her own appearances were shrill and gushy without a hint of charm. She did show a few sparks of wit once she was well soused at the after-party, but by then, her zingers about Aunt Clara’s nose job were too little, too late.
Likewise, Rabbi Feinstein, touted for months as “the exciting new young rabbi,” proved himself to be little more than a smooth-faced glad-hander whose toothy smile was a window onto a sea of breath-taking shallowness. His smug, fatuous rendition of the shacharit was a reminder of much that is wrong with Judaism today.
The score of this debacle was also partly to blame. The problems began during the ceremony itself, and here the blame would seem to rest squarely on the shoulders of Rabbi Feinstein, who seems to have decided that the way to make services more “hip” would be to bring in show tunes. If this sounds like a bad idea, wait until you hear the Hatzi Kaddish sung to the tune of “When You Wish Upon a Star.”
The musical faux pas continued after the ceremony when Aaron’s father, Harold Goldfarb, provided a playlist that was by turns dated (“The Electric Slide”) and cringeworthy (Harold’s own attempts to rap freestyle over Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise”).
Shining out like a beacon from this sea of mediocrity was Aaron’s older brother, the aforementioned Jack, who reminded us all of the spectacular triumph of his own bar mitzvah by delivering a scene-stealing turn as the supportive older brother. With a brief, hilarious speech and a tone-perfect rendition of “Lean on Me,” Jack reminded the audience of the high standard that he set and his younger brother has failed to match.
Honorable mention also goes to Aaron’s grandmother, Estelle Himmelstein-Goldfarb, a saucy, 93-year-old comedian in the classic slapstick tradition who nearly stole the show during the candle-lighting ceremony when she accidentally lit one of the papier-mâché racecars on fire.
But alas, the performances of aged firecracker Estelle and hunky young Jack were far too little to rescue this leaden production. So disheartening were the proceedings that this critic wished she could have rescued those two and let a flood wash away the rest.