Theater / Film

Review: Zoetic Stage’s world premiere of ‘Wicked Child’ brings conflict and a family into focus

Written By Christine Dolen
January 15, 2024 at 3:42 PM

From left, Wayne LeGette, Margery Lowe, Ben Katz, Gracie Blu, Jeff Brackett, Michael McKeever and Jeni Hacker  in the Zoetic Stage world premiere of “Wicked Child” at the Carnival Studio Theater in the Adrienne Arsht Center through Sunday, Jan. 28. (Photo courtesy of Justin Namon)

David Rosenberg’s “Wicked Child,” now getting its Zoetic Stage world premiere in the Carnival Studio Theater at Miami’s Arsht Center, is not a reaction to the Oct. 7 Hamas terrorist attack on Israel.

Eerily, though, it feels like one.

“Wicked Child” was written in 2016, and former Miamian Rosenberg workshopped it at Zoetic’s Finstrom Festival of new plays in 2022. Each act takes place during an April Passover Seder, the first in 2022, the second in 2023. Today’s war hadn’t happened yet.

Jeff Brackett and Ben Katz play stepbrothers Ben and Jake in the Zoetic Stage world premiere of David Rosenberg’s “Wicked Child” at the Arsht Center. (Photo courtesy of Justin Namon)

But so many of the issues that continue to fuel furious conflict in the Middle East are artfully woven by the playwright into an extended family’s conversations as they celebrate their ancient ancestors’ deliverance from slavery in Egypt.

The traditional feast takes place in the expansive, expensive home of Mark Silver (Michael McKeever) and his wife Fay (Jeni Hacker) in affluent Rye, New York.  Fay’s sister Cindy Blumenthal (Margery Lowe), her husband Leo (Wayne LeGette) and their sons from previous marriages – Cindy’s Ben (Jeff Brackett), Leo’s Jake (Ben Katz) – are the guests, along with Jake’s Asian American girlfriend Amelia (Gracie Blu).

[RELATED: Read Christine Dolen’s preview of “Wicked Child.”]

Ben has just returned from his Birthright visit to Israel, joyously bearing gifts which he distributes as the family awaits an elegant Seder meal prepared by the Silvers’ live-in Filipino chef, Arnulfo.

Jeff Brackett, left, as Ben and Ben Katz as Jake look for the prophet Elijah in the world premiere of “Wicked Child”at the Arsht Center. (Photo courtesy of Justin Namon)

The gifts run the gamut from a beautiful Haggadah in Hebrew to use in retelling the Passover story during the Seder to an antique box containing – surprise! – a dildo in Israeli colors for Jake. The latter is in keeping with the stepbrothers’ relationship. Though they’re in their mid-to-late 20s, at this reunion they regress to hurling bro/frat boy insults.  Amelia, who assumed she was dating an adult male, is not impressed.

Through the lens of this particular family, Rosenberg, director Stuart Meltzer and the seven actors touch on or dive more deeply into a host of issues, including Israel’s very existence, the necessity of educating younger Jewish generations about their heritage, antisemitism, the world-altering tragedy of the Holocaust.  But the playwright doesn’t stick with a one-sided view of Israel.

Ben Katz and Gracie Blu trade differing views of Israel in the Zoetic Stage world premiere of “Wicked Child” at the Arsht Center. (Photo courtesy of Justin Namon)

Following Ben’s shocking after-dinner announcement that he quit his successful New York job to sign up for combat duty with the Israeli Defense Forces, Rosenberg has Amelia, as the non-Jewish outsider, drop bombshells to Jake about her views of the State of Israel and its treatment of Palestinians.

A year later, Ben has come home after a shattering event that occurred when he and his fellow soldiers were on patrol, and Jake has a thriving political blog that is far too anti-Israeli/pro-Palestinian for the family’s taste – he has become in many ways the questioning, challenging “wicked child” mentioned in the Haggadah. During the second Seder, Jake makes a speech so incendiary that he and Ben come to blows. Fay then lets Jake have it with her words.

“You’ve never faced an existential threat. You don’t know what you’d do if you did. It’s not a perfect country, of course it’s not,” she says. “But if something happens? When this boils over, and it will, soon, when something happens. You’ll be awfully glad you have that place. And terrified if it’s gone.”

As serious and timely as the issues in “Wicked Child” are, the play is also an artful family dramedy.  Meltzer is deft at finding funny, lighter moments in otherwise serious material, and there are many in Rosenberg’s script.

For instance: When Cindy realizes Ben will be going to the desert to fight, she insists the two of them have to go to the Nordstrom store in White Plains the very next day to find him a hat that will give him complete sun protection. Or this:  One of Ben’s gifts to Leo and Mark is a bottle of a new Israeli whiskey – which happens to be terrible.  This gives each of the men the chance to have a taste, then make a face showing different kinds of utter disgust.

Jeff Brackett as Ben and Margery Lowe as his mom Cindy in the Zoetic Stage world premiere of David Rosenberg’s “Wicked Child.” (Photo courtesy of Justin Namon)

The performances, by a mix of Zoetic Stage veterans and newcomers, are impressive and uniformly strong.

McKeever, one of the company’s founders, is a prolific South Florida playwright who also happens to be a fine actor. His Mark in “Wicked Child” is a man privately battling cancer, putting on a brave host’s face for the rest of the family as Fay watches him like a hawk.  By the second act, his little pot belly has disappeared, and he’s clearly very ill.  McKeever’s performance, among the best of his career, is quietly heartbreaking.

Hacker’s Fay is a down-to-earth rock for Mark and the rest of the family.  An eloquent woman with unshakeable convictions, she’s fierce in battling for her beliefs and for those she loves.

LeGette and Lowe breathe believability into the more stereotypical Leo and Cindy. LeGette’s Leo is a dad who emotionally supports both of his sons, listening, occasionally chiming in or intervening.  Lowe’s Cindy, always impeccably turned out, is the mom who fusses over her family, her cooking and being gracious, a real home-and-hearth sort.

As part of a younger generation trying to find its place in the world, Brackett’s Ben, Katz’s Jake and Blu’s Amelia are very different people.

Jeni Hacker as Fay and Michael McKeever as her husband Mark work through their own problems in the Zoetic Stage world premiere of “Wicked Child” at the Arsht Center. (Photo courtesy of Justin Namon)

Brackett compellingly conveys Ben’s idealism and naïve enthusiasm, then later takes Jake and the audience through a crushing story that will likely haunt Ben for the rest of his life.

Katz embraces Jake’s flaws – his initial cluelessness about the political complexities of the Middle East, his tone-deaf criticisms of Israel at the family’s Seder – and thus serves as an effective catalyst for a great deal of conflict.

Blu, who is making her professional debut in “Wicked Child,” takes Amelia from coolly analytical to appalled about how much she doesn’t know about the attractive man sharing her bed.

Meltzer and company do their storytelling this time on a traverse stage, with audience seated on either long side of the rectangular playing area designed by B.J. Duncan with props design by Natasha Hernandez.

The round Passover table is in the center of the space atop a turntable, so occasionally it rotates a bit, giving the audience views of different actors’ faces.  The set does not, however, suggest the sort of tasteful affluence specified in the script.

Jeni Hacker’s Fay has stern words for Ben Katz’s Jake  in Zoetic Stage’s world premiere of “Wicked Child” at the Arsht Center. (Photo courtesy of Justin Namon)

Laura Turnbull, best known in South Florida as an actor, has done a beautiful job with the costume design, particularly in the way she reflects Fay and Cindy’s personalities through the way they like to dress.

Lighting designer Becky Montero helps to amplify and mute emotions, and her final framing of Jake and Ben as they ritualistically watch for the arrival of the prophet Elijah is haunting.  Sound designer Matt Corey’s work, including short musical interludes, is subtle yet potent.  Hacker has contributed intimacy direction, while Paul Homza has done the fight choreography that turns a verbal altercation into something physical.

“Wicked Child” is not, as noted, about the current war.  But Rosenberg’s script is timely, thought-provoking and prescient as it explores the ever-escalating stakes in that volatile part of the world.

WHAT: World premiere of “Wicked Child” by David Rosenberg

WHERE: Zoetic Stage production in the Carnival Studio Theater at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami

WHEN:  7:30 p.m. Thursday-Friday, 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday (additional 7:30 p.m. show Wednesday, Jan. 17, no matinee on Saturday, Jan. 20), through Sunday, Jan. 28

COST: $55 and $60

SPECIAL EVENT:  Talkback with playwright David Rosenberg, director Stuart Meltzer and the cast following the Jan. 21 Sunday matinee.

INFORMATION:  305-949-6722 or www.arshtcenter.org

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