The question of whether people can escape their fate is at the center of Chana Porter’s new play, “Besharet” (the Yiddish word for destiny). In the play, the inaugural production of AliveWire Theatrics, an encounter with the supernatural upends the lives of a Jewish attorney and his wife, causing deeply submerged memories and feelings to erupt. “Besharet” opens this weekend at P.S. 122 in the East Village.
Directed by Scott Rodrigue, “Besharet” is set in New York in the early 1980s. It is the story of Eli (MacLeod Andrews), a 45-year-old public works lawyer who invites a Jewish temp from his office named Samuel (William Green) for Shabbat dinner. But Eli and his wife, Ruth (Olivia Rorick) discover that the temp knows things about their lives that no else knows, and Samuel fulfills the childless couple’s deepest fantasies. While Eli sees him as a demon, Ruth views him as an angel. By the end of the play, nothing will ever be the same. Tia Stivala plays Renee, Eli’s young law partner, who also falls under Samuel’s spell.
Porter, 26, who lives in the Woodhaven section of Queens, grew up in Columbia, Md. Until age 10, she attended Beth Tfiloh, a Modern Orthodox day school in Baltimore. She then switched to public school while still remaining active in her family’s Reform temple, especially with its youth group and summer camp. She graduated from Hampshire College in 2006 and then got a master’s degree in playwriting from Exeter University in England, where she wrote “Besharet.” She and Rodrigue have worked together previously, on a production of “Bird on a Wire,” based on the life of German Jewish poet Gertrude Halstead, who was interned in a French camp during the Second World War.
In writing “Besharet,” Porter told The Jewish Week she drew on the rich tradition of Jewish drama dealing with ghosts and spirits, especially S. Ansky’s “Dybbuk” and H. Leivick’s “Golem” — plays about the intersection between the public and private in which bodies become vessels for supernatural forces. She acknowledged a debt to Craig Lucas’ late-’80s Broadway play turned film, “Prelude to a Kiss,” in which an elderly man exchanges souls with a young bride. Lucas has returned the favor, lauding “Besharet” as “completely original and captivating.”
While it is a mitzvah to invite a stranger home for Shabbat, Porter pointed out that such hospitality carries risks. Her play, she said, “makes us look at what we invite into our lives and how energies and things in the past have consequences.” Nevertheless, is not uncommon that “in moments of great upheaval and crisis, the truth comes out. It may be devastating and cruel, but also really funny and absurd. There’s a joyousness in that.”
“Besharet” runs at P.S. 122, 150 First Ave. (at Ninth St.). Performances are Thursday-Saturday at 8 p.m., and Sunday at 3 p.m. For tickets, $18, call TheaterMania at (212) 352-3101 or visit www.theatermania.com.