Review: 'Beau Jest' a charm from community theater

It's hard to do farce in the 21st century.

Any idea that would've provided the spark for a rollicking 100-minute drawing-room play back in 1906 usually has been done, with varying degrees of success, on any 22-minute sitcom you can name during the last half-century.

So stage comedy today must rely on intangibles to be a success: A likable cast, say, or plenty of energy to keep our short attention spans engaged beyond the half-hour mark.

Luckily, "Beau Jest" at Lawrence Community Theatre provides both elements.

The play tells the story of Sarah Goldman (Sarah May Shaffer), a Chicago kindergarten teacher who doesn't want to tell her parents she's dating a gentile. So she hires an actor (James Horton) to pretend he's a Jewish doctor that she's dating.

Complications, of course, ensue.

It turns out that Bob, the actor, isn't Jewish either. But Bob is a resourceful sort, drawing on his actor's improvisation skills and a stint in "Fiddler on the Roof" to get him through tight spots - such as saying a Hebrew blessing over the dinner wine.

"To life! To life! To life!" Bob shouts with exuberance.

As usually happens in these situations, the fake boyfriend finds himself falling in love with the fake girlfriend, with consequences for both. It's a classic goy-meets-girl story.

"Jest" isn't perfect. The script is peppered with a few too many in-jokes from the Chicago theater scene, for example. And Sarah's parents, as written, come very close to being the cheap Jewish-parent stereotypes that we've all seen a few too many times in Neil Simon plays and on "South Park."

That's where casting helps. Charles Decedue and Peggy Sampson bring humanity and humor to their parts as Abe and Miriam Goldman. And Brent McCall, who plays Sarah's therapist brother, is wonderfully restrained in his role - providing some much-needed calm to the storm.

Director Charles Whitman makes "Beau Jest" better than it would've been in the wrong hands: Not great, but pleasantly diverting.

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