Playwright Jason Odell Williams says it’s not uncommon for audience members to watch the opening of “Handle With Care” and wonder whether they’ve wandered into the wrong theater.
Most of the dialogue in those first minutes is in Hebrew.
That’s part of the fun in Williams’ “Handle With Care,” a bilingual romantic comedy that ran off-Broadway last year, had 17 productions around the country and makes its Bay Area debut with a run now through Dec. 20 at San Jose’s City Lights Theater Company.
The December staging is no accident. Williams acknowledges “Handle With Care” is something of a Jewish Christmas play. “I didn’t want it to be a typical dark, snarky, cynical play,” Williams says. “The things that resonate with people are those uplifting romantic stories. Those are the ones I want to see again and again.”
Indeed, “Handle With Care” has the same feel-good vibe of the 1946 film classic, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” which is referenced in the play. The action takes place on Christmas Eve, centering on the unlikely romance of Ayelet, an Israeli tourist and Josh, a young Jewish guy whose Hebrew skills never expanded beyond a Sunday school smattering.
Ayelet finds herself stuck in a motel room one Christmas Eve after her grandmother unexpectedly passes away while the two vacation in rural Virginia. A knucklehead van driver accidentally loses track of grandma’s coffin on the way to the airport, and he recruits his friend, the recently widowed Josh, to serve as interlocutor.
The rest is a comic romp of love and connection beyond mere language, and includes a few surprising twists and turns. But theatergoers beware: There are no supertitles translating the dialogue, even though the main character, Ayelet, speaks solely Hebrew throughout. Williams wanted audiences, like the other characters in the play, to struggle for comprehension.
Williams, 40, says the part of Ayelet was originally written for his Israeli-born wife, actress Charlotte Cohn, who wrote the play’s Hebrew dialogue and premiered the role off-Broadway.
The idea for the plot came during a family visit to Israel a few years ago. Someone told Williams that when an Israeli dies overseas, the body must be sent back to Israel within 24 hours. “There’s an interesting thing for a play,” Williams says. “A built-in clock. That was a light-bulb moment.”
Playing Edna the feisty grandmother in the off-Broadway production was musical theater legend Carol Lawrence. Though Israeli, that character speaks English.
Casting the role of the Hebrew-speaking Ayelet can be a challenge. The City Lights production found Bay Area native Roneet Aliza Rahamim, whose parents are Israeli.
Other productions haven’t been so lucky. Some women who played Ayelet in other productions around the country learned the Hebrew lines phonetically. “It’s a monumental task,” Williams says. “The actresses said it was a great acting challenge. I know it’s a hindrance [to have so much Hebrew dialogue] and that fewer theaters tackle the play. But it’s fun to see the show with Israelis because they’ll laugh before everyone else does.”
Though Williams is not Jewish, his wife introduced him to Judaism and Israeli culture, and he feels strongly connected to both. The couple, living in Manhattan, is raising their daughter in a Jewish home.
He strived to infuse his play with that same haimish feeling, including a sweet Erev Shabbat scene between Josh and Ayelet that highlights their growing ties.
“I love the ritual of it,” Williams says of Jewish life. “It’s about bringing family together. Shabbat celebrates life and family. But it doesn’t mater what the religion is. I love getting family together.”
“Handle With Care,” through Dec. 20 at City Lights Theater Company, 529 S. Second St., San Jose. (408) 295-4200 or www.cltc.org