Thursday, March 23, 2023

“There’s not a wasted moment,” said Tony and Grammy nominated actress Carol Lawrence, speaking about the New York production of Handle with Care. “The characters are fun and delicious.”

Lawrence is appearing as “Sabta (Grandmother) Edna” at The Westside Theater in Manhattan. She joins Charlotte Cohn, Sheffield Chastian and Jonathan Sale on the off Broadway stage to tell a tale of loves lost and new love found. JLBC spoke with star Carol Lawrence, star/director Charlotte Cohn and playwright Jason Odell Williams, the husband and wife team that has written, directed, and starred in Handle with Care soon after opening night. Jason initially created “Handle with Care” and its main character, Ayelet, as a vehicle for his wife about five years ago.

The play takes place December 23 and December 24 in time sequences that are non-sequential. JNS questioned Carol Lawrence about how the “holiday” setting would play throughout the year. “On stage, time always remains the same. In the theater, we create the moment. Our duty as actors is to portray the author’s desires and expression. It doesn’t matter what day or time of year it is.”

The audience is invited into the action of the play, almost as a fifth cast member. The play’s technique—some dialogue is presented in Hebrew with no translation, some English dialogue is “actually” Hebrew—creates both mystery and connection, eliciting significantly different reactions from Hebrew and non-Hebrew speaking audience members.

JNS asked Lawrence how she, an Illinois born Italian-American, had developed the character of Edna, the Jewish Bubbe. “Italian families are so close to the Jewish mishpocha, it defies comment,” she responded. “They delve into places where their noses should not be. Edna is trying to find a way to make Ayelet, her favorite granddaughter, smile again. She puts her in the middle of the chaos.”

Fate—or God conspiring with Edna—bring together Josh, the Jewish grandson of Edna’s long lost Catholic first love, Simon Brook, and her Israeli granddaughter, Ayelet. The rest is future.

“It’s the most romantic way of solving the whole problem,” said Lawrence. As a 17-year old, her character, Edna, fell in love with Simon Brook, a young Catholic American who had come to Israel as a volunteer. After they were forced to part, she endured decades of a loveless marriage. In the denouement of her life, she has come to America to find her long lost love and is devastated to learn he had died just three months earlier. “It is a moment so poignant, so sad, a dichotomy on the stage that is very fulfilling for me,” Lawrence said.

Lawrence dies on stage—that is, Edna, her character, does. “Once she hears Simon has passed away, the life goes out of her. Her hopefulness dies.” Reflecting a moment, the veteran actress says “I think they are joined in heaven.”

The emotional swings in Handle with Care are wide. Lawrence was asked if she felt the script allowed Ayelet enough time to fully react to the barrage of circumstances. “It’s turmoil for her to be all by herself in a country where she can’t express herself is a frustrating and tumultuous experience. By the end of the play, the audience is in need of a solution, a way of finding happiness out of all the pain.”

The Broadway veteran talked about the dynamics of working with Charlotte Cohn, the Israeli actress playing her granddaughter. “Her complexity in the show is enormous. She wears many hats valiantly and warmly. I loved her from ‘hello.’ We get along exceeding well. We share very small quarters,” Lawrence noted. “The mutual encouragement goes on all evening.”

Carol Lawrence defines herself saying “I am basically a ham and a clown. I love performing and making people laugh ever since I could walk and until I can’t walk. I’m doing exactly what I love doing. I’m thrilled to be back in New York theater where I feel at home. It’s a very, very blessed time.”

Charlotte Cohn is Producing Partner, married to the playwright and star of Handle with Care. She is the daughter of a Danish Jew and a Sabra. The family made aliyah when Charlotte was five. The youngest of four sisters, she grew up Modern Orthodox in Rechavia. Cohn served in the Israeli army for five years. After she completed her service she made what was to have been a one year trip to America that turned into a 20-year sojourn. Her mother and two sisters live in Rishon Le Zion; one sister lives on a religious kibbutz near Beit Shean.

Ayelet, says Cohn “is based on a fascination with language and communication issues. The character can’t speak or is misunderstood.” She describes the play as “a marriage between the mundane and the sublime, the simple and the elaborate.”

Charlotte Cohn says Handle with Care “is a commercial, lovable, exciting piece of art. It is a cross generational experience with universal themes and combines art with commercial ability…Doing both producing and acting can get overwhelming - even for a former officer in the Israeli army. I have the luxury of the character having been written for me. I have to marry my personal emotional life and behaviors with the circumstances and the other actors.”

“I love the feeling of going on stage and bringing the character - and Jason’s work - to life,” says Cohn. It gives me incredible joy both as producer and as actress.” She notes that Ayelet “is not supposed to be understood. The audience is supposed to go through the journey of discovery with Josh.”

“The most interesting thing to me in this play is the reaction of the Hebrew speakers in the audience.”

By Maxine Dovere

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