Can Bad Dates Make Good Theater?
Tue, 12/07/2010
Special To The Jewish Week
Rachel Evans, below, “Jew Wish”
Rachel Evans, below, “Jew Wish”

On the Off-Broadway stage these days, the date’s the thing. The Jewish date, that is.

In a quirk of theater programming (and perhaps a collective indictment of the Jewish singles scene, or at least Jewish men), no fewer than four plays of late — all by Jewish women — mine the dating lives of their authors. And they expose some of raw nerves that make dating such a sensitive proposition these days: the pull and peril of online dating, the obstacle posed by religious differences and the thorny issue of Jewish identity.

Taken together, it’s not a pretty picture.

One guy, after a flurry of early interest in a woman, lets three years go by, then — as if nothing had ever happened — shoots off an e-mail to her. Another, an Israeli, is so cocky that he expects an American Jewish woman to fall for him in seconds. And still another, this one a religious Jew who has an on-again, off-again relationship with his observance, is eager to bend the rules when it comes to getting physical with his very secular girlfriend.

So what’s it like to bear your dating soul on stage for all the world to see?

“It’s obviously a little terrifying,” said Rachel Evans, who wrote and starred in the one-woman play “Jew Wish” at last summer’s International Fringe Festival here. “I had worked in comedy so I didn’t have a problem making fun of myself. I have my faults and I show them. I was just a little nervous about offending people, especially my parents, who are depicted a little harshly in the play.”

The play traces her misadventures in dating and problems with JDate, the popular online dating service, as she unsuccessfully seeks out the perfect guy. Far from perfect is one guy whom she corresponds with via e-mail and phone calls. But whenever it comes to actually meeting in the flesh, he pulls out the excuses. Then, after a three-year hiatus, he cluelessly e-mails her out of the blue. Still curious about him, she later finds out that he is in a small film. She goes to a Q and A with the cast after the film, and when she sees him, she’s glad they never went out; he is, it turns out, awkward and lacking in confidence.

Evans said one reason she wrote the play was to give a shout-out to her Jewish sisters, to buck them up in what can be a rough dating environment.

“I think men used to have most of the power [in dating situations],” she said. “I think it’s starting to change a little. As a single woman, there’s a certain amount of self-pity you go through analyzing and overanalyzing why guys don’t call back. But you have to get over it.”

Evans said a number of women who saw the show told her that her story resonated with them, and that the show helped them look at things through a comical and positive lens. She added that women sometimes get down on themselves when they think they’re the only ones having hardships and pressure from their parents to marry.

Could there be another motivation to write the play? How about the fairy-tale notion that the perfect guy might come to a show and be smitten?

“That’s not why I wrote the play,” Evans said. “But on a semi-conscious or maybe even a conscious level, there’s the thought that some guy will see my play and think I’m awesome. You never know. There’s fantasy and there’s reality. I think for singles, there’s this battle that goes on of, ‘It only takes one person,’ while there’s the question of, ‘Where is that person?’”

For Melanie Zoey Weinstein, writing “Sex and The Holy Land” was a way to help reconcile who she is, in terms of her Jewish identity, with who she is supposed to be. The show, in which Weinstein stars as Lili, follows three American Jewish girls who travel to Israel and meet Israeli guys who try to seduce them. They wonder if they love the men more than they love the land.

The 25-year-old playwright said the play was inspired by her own trip to Israel.

“It was the first time in my life being close to men who put their lives on the line,” Weinstein said. “There’s naturally a sexual tension, but there’s a lot of humor also. When I was there, for example, one guy was unbelievably forward in a phone conversation and I had to pretty much hang up on him. Another guy would always see me and call me ‘Ms. America.’”

The show, which also played at the International Fringe Festival and at the JCC of Manhattan, features stereotypical Jewish mothers (complete with head coverings and New York accents) who appear to warn their daughters not to take buses alone or be careless with guys.

“Sex and the Holy Land” is hardly the playwright’s first adventure in provocation. Weinstein said she still remembers a sex ed class in high school where a rabbi answered questions students had. What was the playwright’s question?

“I asked where in the Torah it was written that sex before marriage is forbidden,” she recalled. “He said it didn’t but they preferred that we didn’t.”

As for how the play was received, Weinstein said she is less nervous now than when it first opened, and she is hoping to bring it back at other venues.

“The show is provocative so at the time I was really scared some people might be offended,” she said. “I understand that my purpose is to put stuff out there as I see it because it’s coming from my heart. And I’m a nice Jewish girl when it’s all said and done.”

Amy Holson-Schwartz also considers herself to be a nice Jewish girl. But on the subway, the 26-year-old from the West Village couldn’t help but feel strange after an attractive guy sat down next to her.

“He was a good-looking guy — but then I saw his yarmulke,” she recounted. “I was curious as to why it turned me off so much, and through my play I set out to explore why I had such a reaction when it was a cute guy.”

Her play “Can I Really Date a Guy Who Wears a Yarmulke?” was performed at Theater Row as well as The Knitting Factory. The play tells the story of Eleanor, a secular Jew who meets a religious Jew named Aaron. In the play’s pivotal scene, Eleanor, unmasking Aaron’s hypocrisy, wonders how observant he really is if he is so willing to engage in premarital sex.

In real life, Holson-Schwartz never actually dated a guy in a yarmulke, and she hasn’t come up with an answer for why she was so turned off by the thought of it. The playwright, who describes herself as a humanistic Jew, said she thought it would be unlikely for her to date someone who was observant. But she would never say never. “I’m extremely selective about the men I date,” she said. “But at this point I wouldn’t rule it out.”

The New School graduate said couples of different religious levels told her they identified with many parts of the show. But levels of observance may be only one factor in the dating equation. Overall, Holson-Schwartz is clear-eyed about the scene today.

“It’s a jungle out there,” she said. “I think a big problem with dating now is that people waste each other’s time. People say to give everyone a chance. Well, you’re not helping anyone if you date someone who’s totally incompatible or you don’t like them enough.”

Sivan Hadari, who wrote and stars in “The Emancipation of The Sassy Jewish Woman,” which played at Theatre Row, said she hoped her one-woman show would inspire others to not place limitations on themselves.

“To do a play like this really does show your vulnerability,” she said. “This is the first time things have come out that I haven’t really talked about before.”

Hadari said she had a difficult time while dating a guy who lived in a West Bank settlement. She had gone to the Yeshivah of Flatbush and now she had her sights set on being a singer and an actress.

“He said [acting and singing] was a stupid waste of time and money,” she said of her then boyfriend. “He would listen to his records all day and I would bake carrot cake in the trailer.

“We were totally away from civilization,” Hadari continued. “I don’t think it has to do so much with religious differences as the fact that you have to find your own voice. A lot of women think that a guy can save you and any other problems or differences will simply go away. The fact is, relationships are tough.”

And writing a play about one’s personal life — dating misadventures and all — is no cakewalk, says casting director Robin Carus, who worked on “Can I Really Date a Guy Who Wears a Yarmulke.”

“You have to walk a fine line,” she said. “You want to be creative and garner introspection while sharing life experiences, but you don’t want to come off as narcissistic. The thing to ultimately remember is that people who are going to the show are looking for some sort of escape.”