I hadn’t even started this review of Ruskin Group Theatre’s Passover dinner play, “The Face in the Reeds,” and I already felt guilty — which speaks at least to the authenticity of Robin Uriel Russin’s new dramedy about a dysfunctional contemporary Jewish family trying to navigate the rituals of a seder without coming apart at the seams.
Despite some reliance on stereotyped shorthand, Russin and director Sarah Figoten Wilson believably show how these characters mercilessly — and noisily — prod and poke one another’s emotional sore spots at every opportunity. Even before sparks start flying, we’re prepped for culture clash by Amy Ramirez’s handsome living and dining room set adorned with sacred artifacts — Kiddush goblet, candles, a Swiffer, etc.
Ancient and modern customs chaotically collide, albeit with some under-rehearsed line delivery, as idealistic doctor Barry (Chip Bolcik) tries to keep the peace between his second wife (Stacey Moseley), a converted Catholic who’s observant of Jewish traditions, their improbably precocious son (Aidan Blain) reluctantly preparing for his bar mitzvah, and Barry’s rebellious daughter (Julia Arian) from a previous marriage, home from college with a Mt. Sinai-sized chip on her shoulder.
Adding to the tumult, Barry’s cranky invalid dad (Paul Zegler), a cancer survivor and medical marijuana devotee, has insisted that Barry bring along a young Irish colleague (Tom Berklund) for reasons not immediately apparent.
It’s one of many hidden agendas vying for our attention, and while each holds some degree of narrative promise, taken in aggregate they start to make the piece look like the revolving door of a psych trauma ward. Accommodating the various reveals also entails some clunky dramaturgy, especially in escorting different combinations of characters on and off stage.
The play itself also has a dual agenda, interleaving plot with lessons about Jewish faith and Passover rites. (Even the title is an obscure but symbolically loaded biblical reference.) While honorably intentioned, informative and at times poetic, the result at times leaves us unsure whether we’re sitting in a theater or attending a shul service.
“The Face in the Reeds,” Ruskin Group Theatre, 3000 Airport Ave., Santa Monica. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends Oct. 11. $25. (310) 397-3244 or www.ruskingrouptheatre.com. Running time: 2 hours.