Family-centered dramas are everyday fare on American stages, but playwright Ali Veterbi, in her award-winning drama, “In Every Generation,” has a particularly lofty ambition.
In tracing, non-chronologically through the millennia, a series of seders held by the Los Angeles-based Sephardic Jewish Levi-Katz family, she aims to encapsulate the endlessly troubling journey of an entire people—their traumas, their ambivalences, their struggles to assimilate yet to maintain tradition, community, faith and ethical principles.
It’s a worthy goal, but in this long two-act play, currently in a polished production at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, it’s basically unachievable.
In the first act, set in 2019, the playwright hits every hot-button issue, fulfills every modern-play cliché, starting with the cast of characters: Holocaust-survivor grandpa Davide in a wheelchair (Michael Champlin); crusty but beloved old-world Holocaust-survivor grandma Paola, played by Luisa Sermol (“They tried to kill us, they didn’t, let’s eat,” she says, in a heavy Italian accent, of the lengthy proscribed ritual that comprises the Passover dinner); emotionally overwrought mother, Valeria (Cindy Goldfield); rebellious daughter who scoffs at old-school Jewish tradition (Olivia Nicole Hoffman); adopted Chinese daughter/devout Jew and, as we find out later, a lesbian (Sarah Lo). More long-held secrets than you can count, all of which are forcibly revealed over the hour-long first act. Endless squabbling between the two sisters. Grandpa grunting in annoyance, Mom sobbing, Grandma chowing down.
The general tedium of the seder from hell is interspersed with didactic passages from the Haggadah (the Passover prayerbook) and pro forma discussions of white privilege, anti-Semitism and many other issues.
It’s a relief that in the second act, although we’re with the same family, same holiday, we go back first to 1954, when Davide and Paola are newly married—it’s fun to see them as a young couple—and even more long-held secrets are revealed.
Then we jump ahead to 2050, when some of the same old conflicts arise plus an understandably unnerving discussion of the world’s increased anti-Semitism and homophobia. Worthy topics—but no new insights on offer, no language that rises above the quotidian.
It’s a lovely idea, in the last scene, to jump back to 1416 BCE, to the very arrival of what will eventually be the Levi-Katz family in the land of Israel, knowing what we now know about that family, and the Holocaust, and Israel itself, and with the echo of the prayer, always recited on Passover, reverberating in our minds: “Next year in the holy land!” But here too the scene is anchored by the revelation of the inevitable big family secret.
And despite the best efforts of a uniformly strong cast, Michael Barakiva’s adept direction and some beautiful, haunting Hebrew songs (which pop up here and there throughout the play), the final scene is just plain hokey—and what is meant to be uplifting biblical storytelling instead feels, once again, didactic.
Still, there are other delights in this production: Nina Ball’s excellent set design; the impressive ability of the actors to speak Hebrew and Italian; the utter authenticity of details (you never doubt that this family is Jewish); and a historical timeline that crawls across the top of the proscenium between scenes.
But ultimately this earnest, humorless play fails to rise above the tropes of the dysfunctional-family prototype.
TheatreWorks Silicon Valley’s “In Every Generation” continues through Feb. 12 at Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View. Tickets are $30-$75. Call (877) 662-8978 or visit theatreworks.org.