The new off-Broadway play “Modern Orthodox” begins familiarly enough, with an uncomfortable encounter. Two strangers awkwardly introduce themselves, sitting at a table in a restaurant in midtown New York. The two strangers are named Ben and Hershel; Ben is prepared to propose to his longtime girlfriend, Hannah, and Hershel is the jeweler whose engagement rings have been recommended by Ben’s cousin’s friend’s half-brother. Written by Daniel Goldfarb, it turns out that the play is not about Modern Orthodoxy at all; in fact, a more accurate title for the show would be “Modern/Orthodox,” or even “Modern vs. Orthodox.”
The show has acquired an appropriately Hollywood-friendly cast, with Craig Bierko (“The Long Kiss Goodnight,” “Sour Grapes,” the recent Broadway revival of “The Music Man”) as Ben, Jason Biggs (“American Pie”) as Hershel, and none other than 1980s teen-film princess Molly Ringwald (“The Breakfast Club,” “Pretty in Pink”) as Hannah.
Goldfarb, 31, affable and nervously talkative, is a graduate of both The Juilliard School and New York University, and is now a professor of playwriting at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. His first play, “Adam Baum and the Jew Movie,” set in the Golden Age of Hollywood, also struggles with questions of Jewish identity. In it, a Jewish movie mogul hires a non-Jewish screenwriter to write a film about antisemitism, and in their struggles over the script, they wrestle with what, precisely, it means to be Jewish in America.
“Modern Orthodox” treads on similar territory, appointing Ben and Hershel the representatives of secular and religious Judaism in the country and letting them duke it out. Goldfarb sees the work he does as a playwright as having a spiritual tinge to it.
“I sometimes tell people my inspiration comes from God,” he said. “It’s as good an answer as any, you know what I mean?”
Goldfarb’s show is a comic duel between two competing strands of Jewish life, the religious illogic and backwardness of Hershel going up against Ben’s well-remunerated secular lifestyle. Disturbed by what he deems Hershel’s smug sense of superiority, Ben makes him take off his yarmulke (which has a Yankees logo) before he agrees to purchase a diamond from him, setting in motion a series of events that force Ben to take Hershel into the apartment that he and Hannah share.
The play has been deemed a romantic comedy but, much like the title, this is a feint, a distraction from the real business being conducted. Ben, the audience’s stand-in here, is simultaneously intrigued, horrified and puzzled by the mysterious world that Hershel has come from, and “Modern Orthodox” provides a particularly secular outlook on religiosity. Like a traditional comic foil whose zaniness reinvigorates the staid and slightly stale lives of his victims, Hershel and, by extension, Orthodox Judaism, is here to shake up things.
The ideology behind Hershel’s bizarre but comic behavior is given approximately the same amount of credence as that of the zany old ladies who insist on murdering their lodgers in “Arsenic and Old Lace.” Nonetheless, “Modern Orthodox” is about the sacred and the profane, innocence and experience, polluting each other to their mutual profit. Ben and Hannah, growing acquainted with Hershel’s touching naiveté, reinvigorate their faltering relationship with a dash of artlessness; and Hershel, influenced by his stay at the Casa de Modernity, has a surprisingly racy and uninhibited encounter with a woman he meets through an Internet dating service.
“I think it’s a very positive show, from the second half on,” Goldfarb said.
Ben asks Hannah, after their initial encounter with Hershel, whether she finds faith romantic. Faith, whether in God or in love, is the driving instigator here, the force that prods the play’s characters toward their final destinations.
Saul Austerlitz is a writer living in New York.