Sunday, March 15, 2009

"Rabbi Sam": ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

"Who is this Farrakhan? A schvartzer with a big mouth!" says Bob, one of the many characters inhabited by Charlie Varon in his latest one-man production "Rabbi Sam." Varon plays the clueless Bob, as well as Rabbi Sam, Sam's child Noah, a yoga-loving woman board member, a decidedly un-yoga loving Jerry, Sam's nemesis and head of the fictional Temple Beth Am's board of directors...and then comes Act Two and we meet Sarah Schimmel.

Throughout Act One, we have been conditioned to believe Rabbi Sam is a visionary, a wild thinking rabbi who has come later in life to his calling, a man determined to shape a new future for his beloved Judaism. But when Sarah Schimmel, the widow of the old President of the temple, shuffles her bathrobe walk into Act Two, everything changes. As the deciding vote in the decision of whether or not to fire the new Rabbi, chain-smoking, gravel-voiced atheist Sarah becomes the truest voice of sanity in the temple's political wilderness. She and Sam and Noah appear to come to an understanding -- that in the end only one Commandment really matters: don't spend your life lonely.

"Rabbi Sam" is brilliant in spots, though it drags a bit in Act Two. To this reviewer it seems as if Varon only gives lip service to Sam's flaws: perhaps he doesn't really buy them himself. Why does Sam decide to play politics at the end? Why is this suburban synagogue job so important to him, if, as is implied, he is independently wealthy? Sam's speech to the children at the end of Act Two, clearly a watershed moment to Charlie Varon, would have scared the pants off me if I'd been a kid forced to listen to it.

A discussion with a rabbi at the conclusion of the play brought these subjects to life, but they should have come from Rabbi Sam himself. Perhaps, as the show develops, they will.

Make no mistake about it, Charlie Varon makes Jews howl and gentiles chuckle, and no one comes away from any of his shows without deep respect for the man's craft in solo performance. He and co-writer/director David Ford have helped develop the genre in San Francisco over the past 15 years (in collaboration with the Marsh) so we have come to expect miracles from them each time out. Is this show a miracle? Maybe not yet. But you will see "Rabbi Sam" and be glad you did.

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Rabbi Sam" three stars with a BANGLE of Praise. Charlie Varon and David Ford deserve a star each for writing, direction and performance. The BANGLE is for the brilliant story about the two scrolls. This introspection is where Rabbi Sam sparkles most brightly. There are several of these moments. We wish there were a few more.

EXTRANEOUS COMMENT FROM THE REVIEWER: We saw two one man shows in two nights. For one we had no expectations and were taken by surprise. For the other we had great expectations that were only partially met. Both shows earned three stars. This is as much a statement about expectation as it is about art. A newcomer's slate is clean: we have no illusions about what he or she may come up with. But a veteran, whom we have seen many times, does not get to start clean. It is harder for him. The worst thing a performer can do is be brilliant in the past. Nothing less will satisfy us.

There you have it. We reviewers are theater lovers but we are sharks. Our teeth sparkle in the moonlit sea.

"Rabbi Sam"
The Marsh
1062 Valencia Street, San Francisco
Through April 5

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