Family ties are fraying in ‘We All Fall Down’

Dana Stern, Eleanor Reissa, and Liba Vaynberg in the Huntington Theatre Company’s production of “We All Fall Down,” playing January 10 — February 16, 2020 at the South End / Calderwood Pavilion at the BCA. Photo: Nile Hawver

BOSTON – In almost every family there is a man or woman who takes it upon himself or herself to be the glue that binds the family together.

If there is no one to fill that role, the ties that bind can fray or break.

Lila Rose Kaplan’s comedy “We All Fall Down,” at the Huntington Theatre Company production is having its world premiere in the Calderwood Pavilion of the Boston Center for the Arts.  It concerns a Passover Seder, an occasion for a family that has come together  – somewhat haltingly and hilariously –  to perform a  sacred religious ritual.

Linda (Eleanor Reissa), the matriarch of the Stein family of Westchester County, has invited a total  of 11 people to be part of the first Stein family Seder and preparations are proceeding at a manic pace. This is made more difficult because the family is secular – with a capital “S.”

Linda is an acclaimed psychologist who has written a best-seller (cue the rim shot) called “Raising Difficult Children,” which has attracted the attention of a talk show host named Ellen.

Father Saul is a longtime college professor and author who has suddenly and mysteriously retired form his teaching job in mid-semester and has resorted to taking to the drink.

Eleanor Reissa and Stephen Schnetzer in the Huntington Theatre Company’s production of “We All Fall Down, “playing January 10 — February 16, 2020 at the South End / Calderwood Pavilion at the BCA. Photo: Nile Hawver

Those “difficult” children are  a daughter named Sammi (Liba Vaynberg), an educator at a “feminist charter school” that Saul calls “a commune”  and Ariel (Dana Stern), whom we meet as she does continuous yoga poses, hoping to ride  yoga to fame and fortune all around the world.

Then there’s Beverly (Sarah Newhouse), a Christian friend and former neighbor of Saul and Linda who cared for Sammi and Ariel, and who insists it is an honor to be invited to what she insists is “Jewish Easter.”

The most versed in Seder traditions happens to be Esther (Elle Borders), Linda’s enthusiastic grad assistant who had a hand in Linda’s book and is trying to convince Linda that Ellen is a big deal.

Early on, there are ominous signs as two couples pull out at the last minute and the daughters remove sections of the dining table.

Also on hand is Saul’s sister Nan (Phyllis Kay, a longtime standout at Providence’s Trinity Rep) as an atheistic and leftist civil rights warrior, about the last person on earth to attend a Seder. For much of it, she can be found reading magazines in the bathroom

 I confess I wasn’t a big fan of Kaplan’s “Home of the Brave” at the Merrimack Repertory  Theatre in 2016, a farcical modern take on “Tartuffe” that just didn’t seem to work.

But here the characters and the situations Kaplan has put them in seem more grounded in reality and the dialogue rings true.

Kaplan could fashion a good 10-15 minute stand-up monologue from her bon mots in this 95-minute piece performed without an intermission Cue the rim shot when Linda appears in an authentic costume from “Fiddler on the Roof”  to lend an air of authenticity to a Seder that surely needs it. Then she dons 10 finger puppets representing the ten plagues by which God “persuaded” Egypt to let the Jews go.

Ultimately, it appears that the beauty of the Stein Seder is in the eye of the beholder as Saul proclaims loudly “A Seder has to have real Jews and Hebrew.”

Even this unconventional Seder will invoke memories of Seders Saul and his sister were part of many years ago.  And. of course, family dysfunction and secrets will keep bubbling to the surface, further roiling the ceremony.  

And as the secrets reveal themselves, so will Linda reveal her motive for calling them all together.

Judy Gailen’s set is in concert with the busy and somewhat manic pace of the Stein home, and includes a back wall festooned with empty picture frames, suggesting a certain  emptiness inside the home itself.  It is a place where even the bathroom is off-limits when it comes to delivering an urgent message from a well-known talk show host.                 

David Remedios’ sound provides the appropriate sprightly klezmer interludes as well as other Jewish music taken from other media.

Relationship pieces such as this one are right in the wheelhouse of director Melia Bensussen, who  provided  the lovely, heartfelt direction for Huntington’s 2014 “Awake and Sing!” and she is at home with Kaplan’s writing and the characters, and the comic timing required to put the best face on the piece.

As with any new work, there are a few rough patches, but in the end this Seder is a satisfying meal, showing us once again how important – and difficult – it is to keep family bonds intact.  

The Huntington Theatre Company production of “We All Fall Down.” Directed by Melia Bensussen. At the Calderwood Pavilion of the Boston Center for the Arts through Feb. 16.