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This article by Nicole Plett was prepared for the October 24, 2001

edition

of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Review: `The Book of Candy’

When the lights come up on "The Book of Candy"

we, the audience, are greeted by a rabbi as if we were congregants

at a Purim festival. As one of Judaism’s strangest yet most

light-hearted

holidays, Purim uses masquerade and feasting to celebrate the victory

of Queen Esther and her uncle Mordecai over a genocidal plot to kill

the Jews of ancient Persia. That the beautiful Jewish virgin Esther

is forced to become a king’s concubine, or that the villain Haman,

his 10 sons, and 75,000 non-Jews die in the course of events, only

adds to the thorny terrain of the biblical Book of Esther.

The fearless and prolific writer Susan Dworkin has addressed her own

questions and curiosities about the Book of Esther by composing first

her novel, "The Book of Candy," and now a musical play of

the same name.

In a world premiere presented by Trenton’s Passage Theater, in

co-production

with Playwrights Theater of New Jersey, "The Book of Candy"

opened at Mill Hill Playhouse on Friday, October 19, where it plays

through October 28. The show then moves to Playwrights in Madison

for performances November 1 to 18.

As a play within, "The Book of Candy’s" characters are so

anxious to please, the audience can’t help but be charmed by the

sparkling

quality of their masquerade, the funny song lyrics steeped in

self-deprecating

Jewish humor, and the lively tunes of the klezmer-like musical

ensemble

that accompanies all. This quality of a sophomoric endeavor is both

the show’s endearing strength and its weakness. Over more than two

hours running time, its morality play tone and multivalent, mixed-up

plot, becomes grating.

Lauren Mufson plays the likable Candy Shapiro (nee Deal), a Long

Island

native who has grown up to become a gynecologist’s wife. Mufson stars

with a well-rehearsed ensemble of seven additional musical actors

portraying a colorful complement of at least 18 other characters.

Directed by Ahvi Spindell, with choreography by Jennifer Paulson Lee,

the ensemble features Jill Abramovitz, Jonathan Brody, Connie Day,

Beth Glover, Ted Grayson, Adam Heller, and Martin Vidnovic.

Dworkin is a gifted lyricist, working with a lively and amusing score

by Mel Marvin that hits some predictable klezmer melodies but also

introduces touches of tango and other color music. All the actors

can sing, and under music director Vadim Feichtner, the energetic

pit orchestra of five is featured on clarinet and flute, keyboards,

percussion, and bass.

The stage setting reinforces the synagogue theme, its walls set with

two tablets inscribed with Hebrew letters signifying the Ten

Commandments.

Eight throne-like chairs across the back of the stage belong to each

member of the acting ensemble. Here they wait before donning simple

costume elements — a fringed prayer shawl, white lab coat, or

signature blue Tiffany’s bag — to mark the identity of the

character

entering the action.

When we first meet Candy, she’s a beloved little girl

growing up in Gimbels Inlet, Long Island, a community that boasts

the highest per capita income in the state of New York. The apple

of her father’s eye, Candy has all the outward trappings of a

"Jewish-American

Princess," a term that is both employed in the play and one we

are supposed to reject. We also learn early on, in Candy’s song about

the secret lives of girls, her sense of an inner mettle that is

overlooked

by her patriarchal community.

Candy seems like an uncomplicated woman. Disappointed in her marriage,

she considers retreating with happy memories into a tower.

Candy’s work outside her home begins predictably enough with

fund-raisers

for her Hadassah (a women’s organization named for Esther), but she

becomes more politically active when she is invited to work for the

political candidate Carol O’Banyon, a Bella Abzug-type figure enamored

of flashy hats. This leads to the show’s major subplot about the

weapons

industry in both its legal and illegal faces. This manufactured crisis

has been chosen to give Candy the sense that "this is her moment

to make a difference."

The plot encompasses biographies of Candy’s mother, father, and two

brothers. Yet the other key player is Orpheo Pastafino, a casino king

and mobster, who met and bonded with Candy’s father during World War

II. After her father’s death, Candy turns to "Uncle Orpheo"

for advice and support.

Gradually, particularly during Act II, "The Book of Candy’s"

plot atomizes into multiple subplots, from Candy’s affair with an

Israeli laborer to her reunion with her estranged brother and her

husband’s professional and romantic battles.

And despite my retrospective sense of the show’s narrative flaws,

individual scenes are brilliantly wrought. The young Candy’s Manhattan

shopping trip with her feisty mother, Maida, is a gem, a platform

for a woman’s words of wisdom accumulated over a lifetime. We learn

Maida’s prescription of a lifetime of dieting for the privileged but

"genetically portly" Jewess. And for purposes of

self-protection

"it helps to marry an irreplaceable doctor." Most important,

however, is Maida’s dictum: "Don’t ignore a dangerous

situation,"

something she learned the hard way when a neighbor was beaten to death

by her husband.

Gradually Candy’s determination "to make a difference" leads

her to trade her philandering husband for a near-incestuous place

next to the racketeer "Uncle Orpheo." "Am I a harlot or

a martyr?" Candy asks us in her final song. Despite Dworkin’s

best efforts, the question is one of many that remain unanswered.

— Nicole Plett

The Book of Candy, Passage Theater, Mill Hill

Playhouse,

Front and Montgomery streets, Trenton, 609-392-0766. $20 & $25.

Continues

to October 28.


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