by Melanie N. Lee · August 13, 2014
In Judaism, shiva is the seven-day mourning period following the burial of a close relative, usually taking place in the deceased’s house. In Sitting Shiva, written by Joshua Metzger and directed by Christopher Scott, three middle-aged brothers face their new status as “adult orphans,” coping with traditions, mourners, family wounds—and inheritance. “Define respect,” one brother challenges, naming a big issue in this play.
A single candle with the Star of David lights the table. A white cloth covers a mirror. The three Isaacson brothers, Mark, David, and Henry, stand by their short stools and read in Hebrew from a prayer book. They sit on the stools, greet the unseen mourners, nod—and make fun when the visitors leave. “They came; they mourned; they ate,” says one. Another replies, “We’re Jews. We celebrate. We eat.” Later, a brother quips, “Date night for couples. Free food for seniors. We’re the main attraction in town!”
Sharing food and memories of their recently-deceased dad and years-deceased mom, the brothers fall into familiar familial patterns. Mark, the eldest, a nephrologist and control freak (like his dad), is appalled when middle-child David, a venture capitalist and workaholic (like his dad), makes a business call on his cell phone during shiva week. David quips, “I took it out in the hearse. You think Dad noticed?” Mark also objects to David’s cursing “in my house.” The youngest, Henry, who can’t hold a job for more than two or three years, is worried how he’ll pay for his kids’ college education, and has sought to borrow money. The brothers note that the cost of borrowing money is putting up with the lender’s opinion.
At one point Henry explodes at David, “You leave us and go off and marry a shiksa!”—that is, a Gentile woman. As the brothers argue over which parent loved which son best, David quips, “Dad had a declining marginal utility of love for each child.”
Then David receives a FedEx package containing Sam Isaacson’s will—threatening both Mark’s sense of shiva propriety and his control of the family. “I’m the firstborn!” Mark exclaims. David responds, “You still are, Esau.” The revised will’s contents set off a series of emotional and financial upheavals, exposing dark family secrets that further distress the brothers’ unstable relationships.
Although sometimes they stumble over their lines, Neal Mayer, Jeffrey Plunkett, and Eddie Boroevich do an excellent job playing Mark, David, and Henry, respectively. As for the play itself, Sitting Shiva is full of both sharp and gentle humor, and makes good observations about family dynamics, the impact of unprocessed grief, the burden of tradition, and the insidious power of money. Perhaps the play could be better paced; too much explosive material is saved for the end. Also, at first glance, the actors look more like grandfather, father, and son than like three brothers eight years apart in age.
If you yourself are an “adult orphan” having trouble dealing with parental legacy and sibling dynamics, go see Sitting Shiva and prepare to be schooled.