The name Israel means, "One who wrestles with God." The Star Bar Players' adaptation of the Rodgers and Stone musical Two by Two, a re-imagining of the Noah story as an ethnic family comedy, actually gets down on the dirt and does some Hebraic soul-searching, its humor and sweetness serving to dramatize the resonant tension between faith, family and reason.
The play begins with our 600-year-old protagonist Noah, expertly played by Robert Tiffany as a pop-eyed, loving father who is surprised to learn of God's plan to destroy the rest of the world. "They were doing that?" he exclaims upon hearing God's description of humanity. "We don't get into town much." His wife Esther, given humor and gravity by Julliard graduate Leah Chandler Mills, is a strong matriarch, but in supporting Noah's wacky schemes she must contend with three difficult sons.
The gruff and pragmatic eldest brother Shem (Tony Babin) stands to inherit the bulk of the family fortune by law. Babin displays admirable personality in this role, culminating in a song with his abrasive wife Leah (Sue Bachman), in which they sing hilariously about not giving a crap whether people like them or not. Ham (Emory John Collinson) is lazy, immature and hurt by the inattention he faces as a middle son; Collinson has his floppy body language and injured whine down pat.
Last but not least, young Japheth (Charlie Davenport) is the proto-humanist. His familial loyalty is complicated by a resentment of God's insistence on condemning His creations, not to mention a secret love that doesn't jive with God's laws either. Japheth knows that humans will be human, even in the most righteous of families, and challenges God, "There must be something, somewhere that you like."
If I've made this sound too heavy, it's not. Based on the 1954 play The Flowering Peach by protest writer Clifford Odets, the script rings with wit and tenderness. As interpreted by Star Bars, it runs from the occasionally cartoonish -- Ham stutters "Th-th-th-there's thousands of them!" at the appearance of the ark-bound animals -- to the surreal, as the family listens to the otherworldly warblings of the mouselike Gitka. With the introduction of the scantily clad Goldie (Gina Di Tullio), a calf-dancing Gentile idolater, things even get downright ribald.
Director Ricky Vila-Roger emphasizes the acting and the narrative rather than the music and choreography, and I for one applaud this choice. Richard Rodgers and Peter Stone's solid score, which features the catchy title song, as well as the funny "You Have Got to Have a Rudder on the Ark" and Esther's motherly "Something Doesn't Happen," is sung tastefully, supplemented by understated dance steps. That said, I must take issue with the synth-heavy, computer-based musical accompaniment. I got used to it after a couple of tunes, but the digital rinky-dinks distract from the warmth of the performances. A skilled piano player may have worked better.
Still, Two succeeds -- without a full orchestra -- because of its intimately appealing smallness, because of its ensemble cast of well-rounded characters, and because of the well-aged love of Tiffany's Noah and Mills' Esther at its center. Emotion kicks in at all the right times; they even pull off a sentimental death scene, which we accept because the actors have spent enough time building up a trust fund of sympathetic believability.
Following up Lend Me a Tenor, the Star Bar Players are on a roll. Whatever one's religious affiliation -- and this play doesn't feed us easy answers -- Two by Two is an enjoyable and moving exploration of a family who, despite their differences, get together and build a three-story boat anyway.