A middle-aged couple is sitting and waiting for their coffee machine to spit out the java. To pass the time, the husband regales the wife with a bit of gossip: A cab driver, he says, just told him about this suburb up the river where no one ever lied and, as a result, no one died before their time. One night, this guy was relaxing at home while his wife was in the shower when a neighbor came knocking and asking if the wife was home. Now the guy, not wanting to interrupt his wife, said she wasn’t and asked the neighbor to come back another time. It was a lie, so both of the couple’s children died right on the spot, and, later that evening, the town all gathered and asked the couple to leave at once.
To the audience gathered at the 14th Street Y last month to watch this bit of experimental theater by NYU professor Brandon Woolf, the story was nauseating and entertaining and upsetting in equal measure, something to ponder with rage and humility and disgust. Which is just as well, considering that the anecdote is loosely adapted from what may be the most astonishing pages in the Talmud.
A fellow at LABA, a program of the 14th Street Y that uses classic Jewish texts to inspire the creation of art—and where, in the interest of full disclosure—I’m also a teacher—Woolf found himself moved by the segment in Tractate Sanhedrin that addresses that most intricate of all Jewish theological questions, the one pertaining to precisely when we might expect the Messiah to grace us with his presence.
Rather than replicate the Talmud’s high-wire style, with its intense discussions between brilliant rabbinic lights, Woolf plugged in to the essential emotional element at the core of the text: waiting. Filling the stage with coffee machines—36 of them, naturally, just like the number of righteous people the Talmud teaches us roam undetected in our midst at any given time to justify humankind’s existence to God—Woolf created a short play that verges on the absurd, using mundane conversations about home improvement to put the audience in the mindset of those ancient wise men who tried to ascertain just what kind of work, spiritual and otherwise, Jews needed to do to help hasten the coming of Moshiach.
And as the Talmud teaches us that before that happy coming, the face of the generation will be like the face of a dog—inhuman, and likely to chase frivolous distractions rather than obey its heavenly master—Woolf’s play builds up by breaking into song as baristas wearing dog masks pour cup after cup after cup. You can enjoy a bit of this charming and evocative metaphysical work here, and hope that Woolf’s play returns to the stage before you-know-who arrives.