At a moment when the bickering family in Jenny Rachel Weiner’s satire The Chameleon least expects it, the roof of their house caves in, and not just figuratively.
Though, without question, the sudden ceiling collapse serves as a metaphor for the fragile, imperiled state of several family members and relationships inside the Golden-Kruger household in suburban Long Island.
Gathered for a “Jewish Christmas” dinner of takeout Chinese, and celebrating a milestone job offer for prodigal daughter Riz (Dina Thomas), the family had already seen the mood marred by turbulent outside interruptions.
But a hole in the roof is also an actual catastrophe for everyone in the house, another WTF, post-dinner disaster in a night filled with them, meant to be played for angst and laughs — the measure of which can be hard to read in director Ellie Heyman’s world-premiere production at Theater J.
Despite the awkward live execution of the roof caving in on Andrew R. Cohen’s impressive two-story suburban home set, the damage works to amplify tension in an already tense situation, as Riz and family squabble over a career- and character-defining matter of ethics.
But what happens next is much less clear, when seemingly a storm blows through the house, sending family members flying, and clinging for dear life to the furniture, lest they be — who knows? — swept away as if by a twister.
Since the house’s upper floor would seem to prevent someone downstairs from being sucked out through the ceiling, is there merely a changing wind blowing new energy into Weiner’s scenario? If a major weather event has stalled overhead, neither the set nor sound design tell that story, and the different versions of wind-tossed flailing from the ensemble just give the impression the director and cast haven’t all agreed on the physical reality they’re conveying.
Heyman’s cast, in other ways, too, appears not to be on the same page, most notably in how performers steer around, or run right over, jokes in the dialogue. Conversely, a few supporting players overemphasize their punchlines, like Jack Benny tossing snarky asides to the TV audience, though with less finesse.
In the lead, Thomas does manage to bring comic finesse and dramatic nuance to Riz, a 39-year-old actress, who, as her uber-progressive younger sister Stephanie (Emma Wallach) points out, has actively concealed her Jewishness in order to get ahead in Hollywood. Riz has changed her surname to Stapleton, dyed and straightened her hair, and had a nose job, twice.
Now, after years of struggling, she’s on the verge of stardom having landed the sure-to-be breakout title role in The Chameleon, a big-budget superhero movie. Then, the proverbial roof caves in, as shocking anti-semitic revelations about the film’s director bring down an avalanche of controversy that could cancel him and Riz’s big break in one fell swoop.
In the play’s defining dilemma, Riz is forced to choose whether to embrace her identity and take a principled stand, or stomach her own hypocrisy for the sake of holding onto a life-changing role. The Hollywood drama plays out with hectic, real-time urgency, via social media posts and breaking news updates that Riz tracks on her cell, while her dad Mitch (Eric Hissom) proudly expounds on how superhero stories are Jewish stories because the creators of the genre’s template heroes were all Jewish immigrants.
Weiner’s script draws interesting parallels between comic-book heroes who had to hide in plain sight, and Jews, for whom blending in, chameleon-style, historically was a matter of survival. Mitch recounts that his 98-year-old mother, Bubbe (wonderfully played by Nancy Robinette), a Holocaust survivor, had to, on one frightening occasion during the war, blend into a group of Germans.
But, useful or not, blending in, or assimilating, can also be a path to completely selling out, an outcome Riz and her less accomplished actor husband Joaquin (Ryan Sellers) might eagerly accept over living with Riz’s parents. She argues the validity of assimilating, extolling the privileges and opportunities it provides, potentially, if you play the game a certain way.
Riz tries to play the game. Fueled in part by her ill-advised Tweets, the Chameleon director controversy blows up from a minor spark to a full-on wildfire, a viral media event that she can’t control. The playwright forfeits some control as well, with the situation spinning and developing at a rate too fast to be believed, sorely straining credulity as the social media storm finally settles down for the melodrama’s mawkish conclusion.
The Chameleon (★★☆☆☆) runs through Nov. 5 at Theater J, 1529 16th St. NW. Tickets are $40 to $91. Call 202-777-3210, or visit www.theaterj.org.
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