Left to right: Greg Hildreth, Rebecca Creskoff, Sophie von Haselberg and Joshua Malina in "What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank." Photo by Jim Cox
Nothing like a little high-THC grass to mellow out an escalating confrontation over religion. But before we get to that, let’s backtrack.
Marrieds Debbie and Phil are happily ensconced in their spacious South Florida home with a teenage son, Trevor, all the household conveniences one could want and no inclination at all to practice their Judaism. In Nathan Englander’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank,” a one-act play based on his own 2012 short story, Debbie has invited a long-lost, onetime BFF for a visit. But Lauren, who she knew growing up together in Queens, is no longer Lauren. She’s Shoshana now, an “ultra-Orthodox” Jew living in Jerusalem with her husband Yerucham (formerly Mark) and their 10 children. That’s right. Ten.
In this smart and flammable comedy on the Old Globe’s Sheryl and Harvey White theater in the round, it doesn’t take long for the “happy reunion” to turn pugnacious. Phil (Joshua Malina) made it clear before the visitors ever arrived that the whole thing in his mind was a bad idea. He suspects Shoshana (Sophie von Haselberg) and her spouse (Greg Hildreth) whom he detests will try to convert eager-to-please Debbie (Rebecca Creskoff) to orthodoxy.
Right you are, Phil. The former Lauren and Mark portray their life in Jerusalem and their immersion in their religion in patently idyllic terms. When Debbie and Phil retaliate in defense of their secular, non-restricted life in Florida, sparks fly, with neither sharp-tongued husband holding back. Soon each couple is defining their own Holocaust, teen Trevor (Nathan Salstone) is in the fray shocking the friends from Israel with his mocking espousal of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster (there is such a thing), and all pretense of a huggy reconciliation between Debbie and Shoshana is abandoned. Note: By prescription, Shoshana couldn’t hug Debbie, or anyone else, even if she wanted to.
Director Barry Edelstein lets those aforementioned sparks fly indeed, but “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank” never flies out of control. It’s constantly on the brink of explosion, though, especially when Debbie and Phil’s vodka supply starts fueling the heated exchanges.
Which brings us to the pass-around pot that’s broken out just in time to apparently prevent the company from bolting. The ensuing everybody’s-stoned scene is of the kind that we’ve seen a thousand times before, but it does bring welcome catharsis to the sniping and resentment in the air.
The story culminates with a game for which the play is named, one that has to do with who would provide shelter for whom in the event of a second Holocaust. In this corner, Debbie. In the other, Shoshana.
Edelstein previously directed Englander’s tremendous “The Twenty-seventh Man” in this space at the Old Globe in 2015. “Anne Frank” is nowhere near as engrossing, but it is a highly thoughtful play, one with the volume often turned way up.
The cast is a stalwart one, with Malina making a spontaneously snide Phil and Creskoff’s Debbie desperately trying to make the whole “party” work until, provoked, she can’t try any longer. Hildreth’s Mark is relentless, while von Haselberg’s Shoshana is the play’s most nuanced and riveting character.
It’s said that neither politics nor religion should ever dominate a social gathering. Well, it’s not said at Phil and Debbie’s fancy house in South Florida, but then Shoshana and Mark have a lot to do with that.
“What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank” runs through Oct. 23 in the Old Globe’s Sheryl and Harvey White Theater in Balboa Park.
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.