A misplaced package forms the central conflict of "Handle With Care," a new romantic comedy from writer Jason Odell Williams about love, communication, fate, and the importance of GPS-enabled tracking devices. It is currently receiving its off-Broadway premiere at the JCC Centerstage.
The play opens in a motel room in Goodview, Virginia, on Christmas Eve, with a young Israeli woman frantically yelling in Hebrew at a hapless DHL delivery man. At an impasse, since the delivery man, Terrence (Richard Scooter Rosenthal), doesn't understand Hebrew, and the woman, Ayelet (Sammi Cohen), doesn't speak English, Terrence calls in reinforcements in the form of his childhood friend, Josh (Jamal Abdunnasir). Hoping that his Jewish friend will be able to communicate with the near-hysterical woman, he assigns Josh the task of delivering the news to Ayelet that the package she entrusted to the care of the good people at DHL has been lost. This situation wouldn't normally be the end of the world, if not for that fact that this particular package happens to be a coffin containing the recently deceased body of Ayelet's beloved grandmother, Edna (Diane Chevron), with whom she had been traveling across the country.
From there the story continues in nonlinear fashion, jumping back and forth through time between the present, where sparks quickly begin to fly between Josh and Ayelet (despite the severe language barrier) while Terrence continues to try to track down the package, and Edna and Ayelet's arrival at the motel in the hours just before Edna's death. Through the latter scenes, we learn that Ayelet was convinced by her grandmother to come to America in order to get her out of a deep depression following a recent breakup. It isn't long, however, before Edna admits that she had personal, very specific reasons of her own for making sure they made a stop in Goodview.
A low-key, character-centric show like "Handle With Care" lives or dies on the strengths of its cast, and, for the most part, the actors in this production deliver. It's pretty clear early on that Ayelet and Josh — who is nursing some emotional wounds of his own — will end up together, and the simple joy of the play is watching exactly how that inevitable conclusion comes to be.
Cohen and Abdunnasir share a lovely chemistry, and the scenes between the two of them are easily the play's strongest. He gives Josh an appealingly nervous energy that the audience can't help but root for. Cohen is the standout, however; great in a difficult role that often requires her to use only her body language and inflection to get Ayelet's feelings across to the audience (at least those who don't speak fluent Hebrew). Chevron for the most part only appears onstage with Cohen, but effortlessly captures the wise, often meddling, occasionally infuriating, but always loving personality that goes hand-in-hand with being a grandmother.
Richard Scooter Rosenthal is effective in the role of scatterbrained Terrence, but gives a broad performance that too often feels calibrated for a zanier, more over-the-top show than the one the rest of his co-stars are in. He isn't done any favors by Williams' script, which saddles him with a monologue late in the show explaining exactly how he came to be a delivery man that feels superfluous considering that it doesn't give any insight into the character that isn't readily apparent in his actions throughout the story.
"Handle With Care" isn't groundbreaking theater, but setting aside minor complaints like the fact that Ayelet's English comprehension skills grow at an improbably accelerated rate (as they must, if the plot is going to move forward in any way), the simple story is sweet and charming. The show is perfect holiday programming for the JCC, complete with a seasonally appropriate setting, reinforced with Christmas standards serving as musical interludes between each scene change.
Sean Daniels' direction feels confident, preventing the single setting from becoming monotonous by constantly keeping the actors moving around in the space and breaking up the action with the occasional spotlight monologue. The set perfectly captures the feeling of a dingy, just-this-side-of-seedy motel room in the middle of nowhere. One subtle bit of staging that I found to be particularly effective was just following the scene where Ayelet and Josh share dinner together, when the two electric Sabbath candles they use stay lit as the lights come down for the scene change, for a few brief moments flickering side-by-side against the pitch black stage. It's a lovely image and, in keeping with a key theme of the play, no words are necessary.