Jason Odell Williams’ “Handle with Care” at Florida Studio Theatre explores the impact of a misplaced package. The package in question is a coffin, currently occupied. The lives (and afterlives) of the play’s characters hinge on its successful delivery.
The time: Christmas Eve. The place: a hole-in-the-wall motel near a Food Lion in Goodview, Virginia. Ayelet (Anat Cogan), a 30-something Israeli woman, is reading the riot act to Terry (Mat Leonard), a dopey DHX deliveryman. She’s berating him in Hebrew. He doesn’t understand a word, but she’s clearly an unhappy customer. Terry calls his childhood friend, Josh (Michael Zlabinger), who studied the lingo in Hebrew school before his bar mitzvah. Fluent he’s not, but with the aid of a phrase book and charades, Josh gets to the truth: Terry left the keys in his delivery truck to grab some junk food at a gas station. An opportunistic Grinch drove off with his Christmas packages, along with the coffin, containing Ayelet’s grandmother, Edna. Ayelet is, understandably, unhappy. Terry’s paralyzed with fear of being fired, but Josh forces him alert the cops. The case of the missing coffin is afoot.
Flashbacks and dialog reveal the backstory. In America, Josh was a college professor at Virginia Tech during the mass shooting. Only a few days later, his wife died in a car wreck. He left the classroom, and for the last 20 months he’s been helping his grandfather manage a Food Lion. Meanwhile, in Israel, a lousy breakup. broke Ayelet's heart. Her grandmother Edna (Marina Re) browbeat her to see the sights in the U.S.A. After she arrived, Ayelet discovered those sights her grandmother referred to were all near Food Lions in Virginia, including the one near the motel where Edna died — and Josh and Ayelet met. That’s a stocking full of coincidences — something’s clearly up.
To quote the chain gang boss in “Cool Hand Luke,” “What we have here is failure to communicate.” That applies to most of life’s problems — especially for couples. The failure of couples to communicate is also comedy gold. The Hebrew/English language barrier dials that dilemma up to 11. Josh and Ayelet do a pas de deux of mime, charades, and phrasebook-flipping in their struggle to connect. Their communications breakdowns are comedic gold.
Jason Cannon’s direction has a snappy flow. He makes the dialog feel real, without losing the comic music. But the laughs have a serious counterpoint. (More on that later.)
Cogan’s Ayelet is a live wire — and Cogan's performance is brilliantly expressive, Even if you can't speak Hebrew, you get what her character is trying to say, thanks to Cogan's gestures, body language and lightning flashes of emotion.
Zlabinger’s Josh is deftly underplayed. He’s rational, levelheaded and dryly comic. Josh doesn’t wear his trauma on his sleeve. But his pain’s always simmering below the surface, and Zlabinger gets that across. Leonard’s Terry is a lovable good old boy — and not the sharpest tool in the shed. Brainpower aside, his character’s also goodhearted and loyal — with weird flashes of insight. Re’s Edna sweetly evokes the never-say-die vivacity of a young woman’s soul in an old woman’s body. They’re all good people.
Isabel and Moriah Curley-Clay bring this fractured fairy tale to life with a spot-on set. The designers perfectly capture the shabby emptiness of a generic, low-rent, American motel room. The space is banal, yet oddly magical — just a little to the left of mundane reality. The jingly, sparkly happiness of Thom Korp’s sound design and Thom Beaulieu’s lighting add to that surreal vibe. Donna Riggs’ costumes reveal what it looks like when a few random characters are thrown together, the way things happen in real life.
Williams’ play is heartwarming, and occasionally sentimental. That’s cool. But the story also has a dark side. The flip side of human connection is loss. Lovers leave. Lovers die. Bad things happen to good people. Terry and Edna offer the starry-eyed hope that everything happens for a reason. Josh mocks that fortune-cookie pablum. His wife didn’t die for a reason; she died in a random car crash. There’s no divine plan. Brokenhearted Ayelet shares Josh’s existential burnout. So who’s right?
In the spirit of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” this play gives a magical answer but no explanation. Bad things happen to good people, and vice versa. Why?
To paraphrase God’s answer to Job: “You don’t have the math.”
Heavy thoughts aside, “Handle with Care” is a lot of fun. It’s timing is clearly no coincidence.
Marty Fugate is a writer, cartoonist and voiceover actor whose passions include art, architecture, performance, film, literature, politics and technology. As a freelance writer, he contributes to a variety of area publications, including the Observer, Sarasota Magazine and The Herald Tribune. His fiction includes sketch comedy, short stories and screenplays. “Cosmic Debris,” his latest anthology of short stories, is available on Amazon.