Crate Expectations: Ari Roth may grow up, but first wheres that Elvis Costello record?s that Elvis Costello record?
Crate Expectations: Ari Roth may grow up, but first wheres that Elvis Costello record?s that Elvis Costello record?

We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

Andy and the Shadows—formerly Giant Shadows, also formerly Gentle Falls a Giant Shadow—has been churning in the psyche of Theater J Artistic Director Ari Roth since 1987. Though the current Theater J production is billed as a “world premiere,” Roth’s warm and woolly, indulgent but winning dramedy has received numerous readings and workshops over the years. Program notes from Roth and dramaturg Peter Birkenhead explain that while Roth has selectively invoked the privileges conferred by his dramatic license and registration, the piece is as messily autobiographical as it feels, drawing on Roth’s boyhood and angry young manhood, and on the experiences of his mother and father, who escaped the Holocaust as young children and have both published memoirs about it. Roth cites the Ingmar Bergman film Fanny and Alexander as an influence, while Birkenhead soberly avers that “Roth belongs to the tradition” of Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, and Tony Kushner.

Serious company. Serious subject. And yet the antecedent, however accidental, that I could not stop thinking of as Roth’s hyperliterate memoir-with-benefits unfolded was High Fidelity. Not Nick Hornby’s novel, but Stephen Frears’ film adaptation, which moved the setting from London to Chicago and installed an affably morose John Cusack as its protagonist.

Andy and the Shadows, the story of a family reckoning with its history and ongoing obligations as Jews, would seem to have little to do with that. But it’s set in Chicago, opens in a record store, and stars lanky, dark-haired Cusack lookalike Alexander Strain, who spends the best part of two and a half hours barreling through the same kind of breathless, self-critical direct address that Cusack did. (“Do I have any duende?” he asks his poor girlfriend.) He plays versions of himself separated in age by decades, like Cusack in High Fidelity. And the play doesn’t really shift into high gear until that girlfriend leaves him, just like in Step Up 2: The Streets. No, sorry, I meant High Fidelity.

Aside from the fact that he is 1) an aspiring filmmaker, and 2) Ari Roth, Strain’s character is also uncannily similar to Rob, the Cusack character from High Fidelity: He’s a bright but selfish young man who can’t conceive of limiting his options in life by marrying his loving, patient, sexy, generally flawless long-term girlfriend (Veronica del Cerro). In that first scene, he’s even shopping for an Elvis Costello record.

One key difference is that Rob wallowed only in his own suffering, whereas Andy peels his family’s scars. The interrogation seems to stem from a documentary film he’s working on, but scenes flash to different ages and eras in Andy’s life so rapidly that it’s hard to keep up.

His mother (the great Jennifer Mendenhall) has been blocked for years trying to write about her Holocaust experiences. His gentle father suffers from heart trouble and seeks only tranquility, immersing himself in local history and jam-making. Andy treats his old man like he’d volunteered for a lobotomy.

Playwrights dream of seeing their work enlivened by a cast as strong as this one. Strain makes us like a guy who spends most of his time being a jerk to the people who love him. Mendenhall is overbearing and tender as his mother, who turns out to have good reason for her reluctance to revisit the past. Colleen Delany plays Andy’s older sister, who volunteers for duty as an IDF medic. (She wears angel wings, which is either a comment on her selflessness or a hint that, for Andy, she’s a kind of Tinkerbell figure.) The show has more great actors than it has interesting things for them to do, but del Cerro and Kimberly Gilbert both provide a jolt of energy in their brief scenes as Andy’s fiancée and younger sister. Michael Claybourne plays a record-store clerk, a nurse, and a cop but modulates these little roles to give each of his scenes a snap of life.

The second act is too long and its endings too many. Still, I found myself envying Roth’s place in this lightly fictionalized family. It’d be nice if his sprawling, talky play could find room to be as interested in anyone else as it is in Andy, but what young man with artistic aspirations isn’t self-absorbed? Andy and the Shadows tested my patience, but it’s got duende to spare.