The Jerusalem Syndrome
nytheatre.com review by David Gordon
September 24, 2008
I hadn't heard of the mental phenomenon known as the Jerusalem Syndrome prior to seeing Laurence Holzman, Felicia Needleman, and Kyle Rosen's musical comedy at the NYMF. Jerusalem Syndrome is the clinical name given to a mental illness that causes tourists in Jerusalem to suddenly start believing they're biblical characters. According to studies, Jews tend to think they're Moses, Abraham, Sarah; non-Jews, Jesus, the Virgin Mary, and John the Baptist. Generally, it occurs in people with previous mental illness; in some cases, it arrives out of nowhere.
The Jerusalem Syndrome focuses on three stories—businessman and Columbia University literature professor Alan and Phyllis; Charles, a gay furniture designer who inherited land across from the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and plans to sell it to a gay resort; and Eddie, a tour guide leading his first tour. There's also Mickey Rose, a soap star going to Israel to do research for a part, and Lynn, on a trip scheduled when her marriage was still intact.
Soon, they're all found roaming the streets clad in bed sheets. Lynn thinks she's God; the tour guide thinks he's Moses (appropriately); the furniture maker thinks he's the most famous carpenter in history; the hunky soap star thinks he's Abraham; and Phyllis thinks she's Sarah. Moses, with the help of his crush, God, decides to lead the loonies on an Exodus out of Hadassah Hospital, leaving Alan, Eddie's tourists, Dr. Ben Zion and Rena, the head nurse, to find them.
It's an unlikely subject for a musical, no doubt, and plausibility plays a big factor in enjoyment of the show. For true enjoyment of The Jerusalem Syndrome, one must look past the obvious issues of believability and subscribe to the theory of "willing suspension of disbelief."
I certainly hope the creators were going for excessive campiness; if not, then their material has been improperly served. Annette Jolles's production, however, leads me to believe the former. Holzman, Needleman, and Rosen have crafted a charming little piece that, for the most part, works.
The score (music by Rosen, reminiscent of William Finn) is one of the most hummable I've heard in a long time and the best tune in the show, "What a Day!," has been caught in my head ever since. Holzman and Needleman's book and lyrics are often witty, with a lot of guffaw-worthy biblical jokes ("We're the old, they're the new; but it's a testament..." says the woman who believes she's God to Moses, referring to the people who think they're Jesus and the Virgins Mary), but they're still funny because they're just so out-there. Yes, there are a few plot points that go unresolved and others that are predictable from early on, but it's easy to look past the unassuming nature of the piece.
The cast is strong, and the production is very well sung, though entirely over-amplified to the point of distraction. Liz Larsen brings an appropriate undercurrent of sadness to her role as the childless Phyllis (a parallel to Sarah); Austin Miller has the looks, physique, and goofiness of a TV soap star; but my particular favorites were the endearing performances of Chandra Lee Schwartz as Nurse Rena and Felicia Ricci as Lynn, who thinks she's God.
The design elements (sets by Lauren Helpern; costumes by Jennifer Caprio; lighting by Ed McCarthy) suit the piece well and Lorin Latarro's choreography is a lot of fun. In fact the whole staging is a great deal of fun and Jolles has directed with zest and gusto.
Thankfully, the creators don't attempt to justify the causes of the Jerusalem Syndrome, or even to explain them. That would give the show an element of seriousness. This musical is anything but, and you can't help smiling when you exit the theatre.