The Book of Genesis is filled with replacement and impersonation: Jacob disguises himself as his twin, Esau, to get his father’s inheritance; Rachel replaces her sister, Leah, in Jacob’s bed. So maybe it’s fitting that the new Bible-based show, “Jacob’s House,” at New York’s Flux Theatre Ensemble, is itself a replacement.
The show originally scheduled by this small downtown company was a revival of Archibald MacLeish’s “J.B,” a modern-verse version of the story of Job; it was suddenly scuttled, due to rights problems. The artistic director, August Schulenburg, quickly wrote a new play based on the story of Jacob, using the cast, set and other creative elements already in place. While his claim of completing the play in one weekend may be as tall a tale as all the others in the Bible, however he wrote it, “Jacob’s House” is a crafty and compelling work that displays the Flux company’s great resourcefulness with limited time, money and — on the night the play was reviewed — air conditioning.
“Jacob’s House” begins with the time-honored play premise of a family gathering after a father’s funeral; then it scatters details of Bible stories into a phantasmagoria that mixes American history and mystical angst. Amoral and driven captain of industry Jacob (Matthew Archambault) has died, and three of his survivors gather in his enormous house to fight over the property, exposing the secrets of the patriarch’s past. His son, Joe (Zack Calhoon) soft and put upon, idolized the old man; his daughter-in-law, Tamar (Jessica Angleskhan), a corporate barracuda, simply wants the house for herself, and his daughter, Dinah (Jane Lincoln Taylor), a high-strung, struggling artist, is obsessed by visions and by a stolen object symbolic of lost love.
As the characters swap memories and passed-down details of Jacob’s rise to wealth and power, the events are re-enacted before their eyes and ours, in vignettes that reconfigure Bible stories (Jacob stealing Esau’s birthright; Rachel and Leah’s secret sharing of Jacob; Dinah’s rape by Shechem; Laban’s stolen household gods) into a new narrative. Through the twisting tales, an angelic figure (Isaiah Tanenbaum) appears and reappears, often as gently coercive authority figures like doctors and lawyers, offering Jacob and his family underhanded deals in exchange for less power and more life.
The story of Jacob has, of course, been subject to countless interpretations: The episode in which he wrestles with the angel alone is said to prefigure the Jews’ relationship with Rome (wrestling with history), to symbolize the birth of Jewish liberalism (wrestling with issues) and to be a Freudian dream image of Jacob’s leaving his family (wrestling with adulthood). Thankfully, this version avoids these typical approaches, as well as any predictable Middle East associations (in the Bible, Jacob’s name becomes “Israel” after his angelic altercation). In Schulenburg’s take, the whole story is an epic American fable of ambition, avarice and Manifest Destiny, lightly alluding to the family sagas of Steinbeck, Edna Ferber and Lillian Hellman.
Jacob’s children meet in 2010, but Jacob’s past takes place in the 18th and 19th centuries, during the Civil War and Indian attacks, and the time discrepancy gives the show a pointed incongruity. More than time is mixed up: In the flashbacks, women play men, blacks play whites, oppressors become the oppressed and vice versa.
What could have been trite and precious left-wing agitprop is kept fresh and unpretentious by Schulenburg’s solid grasp of structure and by his fast pace and sense of humor (the weak Joe is pummeled all evening, by everything from a fist to a crutch to a badminton racket). While the second act is more amorphous and less stuffed with incident than the first, it also has the best writing. For instance, Dinah’s final vision, once she’s blinded, effectively repeats and jumbles the evening’s imagery: a spinning coin, a light at the end of a mine, the golden hair on a man’s chest. And Tamar’s spooky story of Jacob’s death — how he slowly traded parts of his body, and then his mind, to an angel for more life, until he became death himself or, perhaps vice versa — is better than any Bible story, as good as even a superior episode of “The Twilight Zone.”
Kelly O’Donnell’s savvy and fluid direction keeps the show moving effortlessly from present to past on Jason Paradine’s evocative set, which is filled with atticlike elements: trunks, sleds, a fold-up bed; and Kia Rogers’s practical lighting achieves a neat black-and-white bleaching effect at the end. As part of the game, if variably capable, cast, Bianca LaVerne Jones does fine work in many different roles: as Rebecca, Jacob’s scheming mother; Laban, a tough rancher, and a vulnerable and lovesick young Dinah.
Replacement in the Bible often has tragic consequences, but those for the Flux Ensemble are happier. For one thing, it’s prevented the ensemble from producing “J.B.,” a play that read today is an intermittently powerful but self-serious and probably unplayable 1950s chestnut. And there’s another play to which a favorable comparison can be made: “Enron.” The multimillion-dollar extravaganza that quickly closed on Broadway also purported to expose American corruption in a fantastical style, only to emerge as obvious and inflated. To anyone willing to travel downtown, climb four flights and sweat a little, the intrepid “Jacob’s House” will say more with a lot less about the American idea.
“Jacob’s House” runs until May 22 at the Access Theater, 380 Broadway, in New York. *Laurence Klavan is a playwright and novelist living in New York City. First Second has just published his graphic novel, “City of Spies,” co-written