By Jordan Wright
Warren Ives is a young, handsome and well-educated WASP on the rise. His budding career as a trader at Shearson-Lehman in Wall Street’s storied halls is all but guaranteed until he runs into a ghostly reminder of the past.
With his editor girlfriend, Lesley Rosen, an erstwhile Jew who works at the esteemed publishing house of Harper and Row, he acquires a converted former temple on Manhattan’s lower east side and plans to live there in loft-style splendor. They are, from all outward appearances, a typical upwardly mobile New York couple.
But from the moment they move in they become captive to strange Hebrew chanting coming from an unknown source within the temple. They befriend their local grocer, Morris Lipkind, and invite him into their newly modernized space to witness the eerie voice.
The aging Lipkind, who worshipped in the shul when the neighborhood once had the largest Jewish community in the country, regales them with tales of the former synagogue and its members, eventually identifying the voice as coming from its former cantor. He translates the words of the chant: “Build your house the way it was.”
This ominous news becomes the hinge on which the plot turns. It is news that affects the couple’s relationship as they wrestle with complex and universally familiar issues of faith and spirituality.
You shouldn’t expect author and playwright Ira Levin — who penned such notable suspense and horror stories like “Rosemary’s Baby,” “The Stepford Wives” and “Deathtrap”— to hand you a pretty package tied up in a Bendels bow. This drama centers on a young man’s discovery of his spiritual self and subsequent obsession with its origin.
A tender and deeply affecting story — it is perhaps more in the vein of Hermann Hesse’s “Siddhartha” — “Cantorial” stars James Myers (Warren Ives), Heather Benjamin (Lesley Rosen) and Steve Rosenthal, whose portrayal of Lipkind is riveting, a Yiddish-inflected hilarious and linguistically convincing performance.
Actor John Shackelford is cast in the small but pivotal role as Warren’s estranged politician father. It’s always a thrill to take in Shackelford’s versatile and nuanced performances. Also memorable are the hauntingly beautiful cantorial vocals by actor/singer Rick Flint.
The entire production boasts tightly crafted theatrical elements — starting with the design team of Ken and Patti Crowley. The duo have transformed not only the stage with a bold lighting plan, but also have included the very theater walls. Their use of uplights, downlights, lights to highlight props, spots and stage lights — all in rich jewel tones — combine with designer Dan Remmers’ evocative set to create a sparse, yet dramatic, architectural design in this well-acted ethnic comedy-drama-personal journey. See it!