Jews Don't Join the Circus
nytheatre.com review by Komail Aijazuddin
July 26, 2006
"Step right up folks! Get your Crackerjacks! Cotton candy! Chocolate-covered Prozac!" shouts the usher at the beginning of the performance. Welcome to the adult circus. Outrageously funny and unexpectedly touching, Jews Don't Join the Circus is a one-woman play in the Midtown International Theatre Festival and a daring combination of guilt and gumption. If Jews don't join the circus, then be grateful that this one pulled it off.
The play (written and performed by Beth Kaplan Bongar and directed by Cheryl King) documents the guilt, melodrama, and assorted addictions of three generations of women from an affluent Park Avenue Jewish family. Bongar's characters are hilarious, immediately familiar, and understatedly tragic. Her mastery over them makes you forget that for the better part of two hours one woman has been able to successfully conjure drunken grandmothers, self-obsessed mothers, confused sisters, jugglers, toddlers, and circus performers of all ages and sizes with barely a costume change.
You'll swear half the characters came out of your own childhood traumas, but the play is very obviously based on Bongar's own life. We follow Beth, a gay daughter/mother/wife/clown who wants to join the circus. On her journey toward and beyond the Big Top, she reveals to us an unfortunate but comforting universal truth: everyone's family is dysfunctional. A professional clown herself, Bongar has trained with the likes of Marcel Marceau and shows her skills in impressive and lighthearted juggling peppered throughout the play.
Kitty, Beth's alcoholic grandmother and a former fashion model, is delightfully morose. She takes unbridled glee in undermining her daughter Lila's authority over her four grandchildren (named after the March sisters in Little Women). Kitty is unapologetic in her debauchery ("Varicose veins are lovely, like a subway map. Hey Boys! Want to take the train to Thighsville?") and depression ("I'm sorry I'm alive but Happy New Year anyway") in the same way that Beth is headstrong without being decisive. Some of the funniest moments, however, come from the minor characters in this spectacle. Case in point: Ruth, a "little person" working at the circus, is still trying to wrap her mind around the fact that she was conceived during a drunken Munchkin orgy on the sets of The Wizard of Oz.
King's staging is effective and creative with the space available. Quirky sound effects like clinking chandelier crystals and flushing toilets cement the illusions of space and time and transform the two red stools on the bare black stage seamlessly from tent to tenement. Bongar reminds us all that to love your family is easy: it's liking them that's the trick.