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The Jerusalem Syndrome

Theatre Review by Marc Miller - November 30, 2023

Curtis Wiley, Karen Murphy, Alan H. Green, Jennifer Smith,
Danielle Lee James, Lenny Wolpe

Photo by Carol Rosegg
The Jerusalem Syndrome? The timing does not seem propitious for the York Theatre Company to trot out what's meant to be a fizzy, escapist musical comedy set in the present-day Middle East. But, Artistic Director Jim Morgan asserts in his program note that the York ultimately decided that the "show's message of hope and peace is needed now more than ever." Indeed, but The Jerusalem Syndrome, which has been in the works since 2007, unfortunately still emerges half-baked.

Jerusalem Syndrome is, apparently, a real thing, and it would appear to be a viable premise for just the sort of whimsical romp the authors, Laurence Holzman and the late Felicia Needleman (book and lyrics) and Kyle Rosen (music), intended. It's a condition in which visitors to Israel, overwhelmed by the religious and historic stimuli, exhibit delusional or psychotic tendencies. In the writers' limited purview, it manifests itself in assuming the identity of a Biblical figure: You see the Western Wall, as Mickey (James D. Gish, supple of voice and muscular of thigh), a hunky TV soap star, does, and you figure you're Abraham.

Something similar happens to Phyllis (Farah Alvin), trapped in an unfulfilling marriage to workaholic Alan (Jeffrey Schecter)–she decides she's Sarah. Eddie (usually Chandler Sinks; Pablo Francisco Torres at the performance I saw, and he was excellent), a bumbling tour guide, becomes a bumbling tour guide's polar opposite, Moses. Sidney (John Jellison) turns into King David; his wife Marilyn (Karen Murphy) imagines herself as Eve. Ira (Lenny Wolpe) is John the Baptist. Charles (Alan H. Green), heterophobic and planning to build a big gay resort across the street from a cathedral, is Jesus. Sylvia (Jennifer Smith) and Mrs. Randolph (Danielle Lee James) both fancy themselves Jesus's mom. Mr. Murphy (Curtis Wiley) is Noah. And Lynn (Dana Costello), reeling from a painful breakup, well, Lynn figures she's God.

In real life, you get the victim out of Jerusalem and back home, and the syndrome quickly just evaporates. But do that and you don't have a musical. So Holzman and Needleman squire these 11 off to a Jerusalem psychiatric ward run by Dr. Zion (Josh Lamon), who's assisted by Rena (Laura Woyasz), giggly and thrilled to be caring for her favorite TV hunk.

It sounds fun, doesn't it? Then why does so much of it feel so anemic? Holzman, Needleman, and Rosen lay it all out in dutiful musical-comedy fashion and play by the rules. The opening number, "El Al Flight," introduces us to most of the dramatis personae and many of their conflicts. (It does seem needlessly complicated: The visitors in fact arrive on three El Al flights, conveniently ending for rhyming's sake with 10, 3, and 5, so how do they all end up in the same customs line at the same time? That's one busy airport.) There are basic storytelling errors: Lynn weeps copiously through the opening number, pulling focus, without our knowing why. And some of these Syndromers' stories get a much more thorough throughline than others. We learn a lot about Mickey, Eddie, Charles, and Lynn; the other seven, very little to nothing. And when you give the great Karen Murphy practically zilch to do, you're committing a sin of Biblical proportions.

But, then, we never understand Jerusalem Syndrome very well. If you think you're Abraham, how do you reconcile that with all the modern paraphernalia around you? Why wouldn't a simple driver's license or passport snap you back to reality? Charles, convinced he's Jesus, actually cures an old woman's pain–how? The authors don't bother with explanations–they're too busy setting us up for yocks that mostly emerge as feeble. (Lynn: "It's me, Adonai, your Lord." Eddie: "Oh, my God!" Lynn: "That's right.") Sometimes they go for salacious: Lynn/God, after deep-kissing Eddie/Moses, murmurs, "Oh Moses, I don't know why they say you're slow of tongue." Eww.

The lyrics are generally fine, when you can hear them. Rena's "Room 17" is full of clever rhymes, but they'll mostly elude you, because Woyasz can't project over Miles Plant's orchestra. It's six pieces, with heavy doubling and tripling, and Josh Liebert's sound design has it dialed up to 12. Rosen's music is musical-comedy-traditional–a '60s score, maybe even '50s, with a title song, character numbers, ballads, and a modicum of tunefulness. Some of which is borrowed: The main phrase of "You Can Lead," in which Eddie's Moses gains popular approval, copies Maltby and Shire's "Starting Here, Starting Now," note for note. Normally I love this kind of retro, and certainly there are some listenable songs here. But the melodies don't lodge in the memory.

Morgan's set is basic, and Don Stephenson's direction frenetic, with much running around in circles and waving of arms, or maybe that's Alex Sanchez's choreography. It's a big show by York standards, and most of the sizable cast is forced to double as chorus–what's Lenny Wolpe, who just had a big scene, doing playing a street vendor? No problem with Rob Denton's lighting or Fan Zhang's costumes, though I did wonder why the Syndromers, now cured, suddenly emerged from the hospital in their street clothes, when they hadn't yet made it back to the King David Hotel to change.

Rarely have I witnessed such a disparity between cast and material. These are pros, with ample Broadway and Off-Broadway credits, and they play it with more commitment and enthusiasm than it deserves. Alvin's Phyllis actually makes you care, Jellison is terrific in several roles, Gross isn't afraid to play up the selfish Charles's unlikability, and I could extend the praise right down the cast list. You may end up enjoying The Jerusalem Syndrome anyway, there's so much talent on that stage. And you may go out on a high: In a late-breaking plot development, peace talks break out all over the Middle East. From the authors' mouths, on that count at least, to God's ears.

The Jerusalem Syndrome
Through December 31, 2023
York Theatre Company
Theatre at St. Jean's, 150 E. 76th Street, New York NY
Tickets online and current performance schedule: