“I Feel Fifty, Oh So Fifty”: Handle With Care

01/15/2014 4:00 AM |

Handle With Care

The Westside Theatre

Israeli tourist Ayelet is frantic in the first scene of Jason Odell Williams’s Handle With Care (through March 30) because bumbling messenger Terrence has lost a very important package—which, it turns out, contains the remains of Ayelet’s grandma Edna (Carol Lawrence). The language barrier between Ayelet (Charlotte Cohn) and Terrence (Sheffield Chastain) is played for laughs; so is her name, as when Terrence calls on his Jewish childhood friend Josh (Jonathan Sale) to translate. “Ayelet?” Josh asks, and Terrence says, “Yeah, like ‘I-Yell-It.’ And believe me, man, she does like to yell it.”

After this labored scene peters out, a taciturn stagehand enters to move a chair and slightly adjust the cover on a bed, which means that we’re about to get a flashback to Ayelet and Edna at the start of their trip. Every time this stagehand came out, I laughed harder, because she performs such minor tasks: vacuuming a little snow off the floor, moving luggage just across the room and then back again. These are the most useless scene changes I’ve ever seen, and they’re much funnier than anything else in the play.

Lawrence is a Broadway legend: she played Maria in the original 1957 production of West Side Story. After more than 60 years in show business, she knows how to take the stage and hold our attention. At the age of 81, she could easily pass for 50—not just because of her youthful energy and vivacity, but also because she still moves like a dancer. In a career as long as hers, she has had all kinds of material to work with, and while Handle With Care is most surely on the lower end of the spectrum, you would never know it from her performance. She acts as if she couldn’t be more thrilled to be onstage, and when Williams really gives her something to work with—like a monologue about Edna’s lost love—Lawrence plays it with skill and sensitivity. When the spotlight is on her, it’s possible to think that we’re watching a play that’s somewhat worthwhile.

But there’s a huge and obvious problem with this production, and it’s incredible that no one involved noticed and fixed it. The play’s conceit is that Ayelet can’t speak English but falls in love with the amiable Josh anyway through sign language. Yet in her flashback scenes with Lawrence’s Edna, Cohn speaks English easily and with almost no accent at all. Sometimes Cohn seems to remember that she’s supposed to have one, but only rarely, and this implausibility all but sinks this slight play. Sale and Chastain do charming work, and Lawrence is a real pleasure to watch, especially when performing some dance steps at her curtain call. But Handle With Care should have been handled with far more care by its director.