Brilliant ideas are charming on paper. They coax professors to smile and experts to furiously nod in agreement. Ideas that you think, when executed, would fly without a falter. But brilliant ideas can lose their luster when we concretize them.
My eyebrows furrowed throughout Theater J’s production of Everything Is Illuminated. There are bounds of brilliant ideas packed into this play; creative choices that should work. And yet, while several of these ideas soared, others squawked and died on its thoughtfully rustic set.
Illuminated is a stage adaptation by Simon Block of Jonathan Safran Foer’s bestseller of the same name. The story revolves around Foer’s trip to Ukraine as he searches for a woman who may have saved his Jewish grandfather during World War II. Three characters serve as his Ukrainian guides: Grandfather (a rugged old man), Alex (his gopnikesque grandson), and Sammy Davis, Jr. Jr. (their erotic dog).
As a first-generation American raised by Russian-Jewish immigrants, I appreciate Illuminated’s story. I, like Foer, am intrigued by my family’s past; astounded by what they endured and mystified by the luck of my ancestors’ survival. This play sparkles with nods to the Eastern European culture I’ve grown up with. Grandfather’s disbelief in vegetarianism is all too familiar, and Alex’s stumble with an English phrase is a recognized sentiment when he shouts: “Fucking English!”
But in faithfully adapting this to the stage, Block has created too many moments of monotony and awkwardness. It’s an innovative choice to have Alex, played by Alex Alferov, switch accents to reveal when he’s speaking Ukrainian and English. But it results in too many moments in which the character over-explains what’s obvious to the audience. By the end of the first act, it’s tiring. As are a handful of monologues. Paragraphs on paragraphs on paragraphs of characters vividly describing specific scenes are better read than watched.
Everything Is Illuminated
closes February 4, 2018
Details and tickets
A secondary plot—in which Foer writes a fictional story about his family’s history—is layered with creativity, but clunkily squeezed into the show. And several choices with the dog border between comedy and cringe. I can see why these artistic choices are made, why they’re smart in concept. But they compromise the production’s watchability.
That’s not to say that there aren’t admirable performances amongst the lacklusterness. Nancy Robinette, who plays an old woman, delivers a chillingly potent monologue, and Eric Hissom grippingly reveals Grandfather’s secret.The number of characters that Daven Ralston juggles is commendable. She brings their vastly different lives and tendencies to life.
Some stories thrive when they stick to their original medium. I believe Everything is Illuminated is one of those stories. I feel the compression of ornate concepts bursting through the seams of this script, gasping for breathing room. While I admit I have not read the book, I sense that this tale prospers as a novel. There’s just too much to convey in a mere two hours and fifteen minutes. Although Illuminated displays inventiveness and care towards the source material, this production withers just as often as it blooms.
Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer. Adapted by Simon Block . Directed by Aaron Posner. Featuring Alex Alferov, Eric Hissom, Daven Ralston, Billy Finn, and Nancy Robinette. Scenic design: Paige Hathaway. Costume design: Kendra Rai. Lighting design: Jesse Belsky. Sound design and original music: Palmer Hefferan. Props master: Kevin Laughon. Casting director: Jenna Duncan. Dialect coach: Nancy Krebs. Fight director: Casey Kaleba. Production stage manager: Becky Reed. Assistant stage managers: Jenny Rubin and Katie Moshier. Produced by Theater J. Reviewed by Emily Priborkin.