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A play about two 19th-century yeshiva boys whose passion for each other rivals their passion for God ought to feel…well, it ought to feel passionate, yes? But Passing the Love of Women, the English-language world premiere currently being staged by Theater J, feels mostly earnest. It has most of the elements that usually add up to theatrical oomph—ideas, story, conflict; competent direction, reasonably deft performances, solid production values—but the oomph itself is missing. What’s meant to be shattering doesn’t inspire much more than a knowing shudder.

Full disclosure: I’ve been down the gay-kid-coping-with-fundamentalism road, so perhaps the truths and consequences that Motti Lerner and Israel Zamir present in Passing can’t leave me feeling anything other than exhausted—and a little impatient. Plus, I was raised in a Protestant family. An observant Jew, or anyone more familiar with the 600-odd prescriptive and prohibitive Judaic religious commandments on how to live, might find more drama and complexity in the conundrums considered here.

Or not. Rewrites apparently continued right up to opening night, and still director Daniel De Raey must work against dramaturgical problems that don’t have anything to do with the flavor of their protagonists’ faith. Deus, in the guise of a telltale pocket watch, proves more machina than anyone will find convincing; comedy keeps throwing elbows at tragedy, which emerges with its ribs rather too bruised; a jester character appears to exist primarily to clarify narrative muddles.

Things start promisingly enough, though. An ominous opening sequence indicates just enough of the play’s unhappy outcome to set the stakes, and then the action flashes back a year or so to the study house of Rabbi Yudl (a stiff, declamatory Mitchell Hébert), where Ziesl, the rabbi’s slender, sensitive son, and Azriel, his hirsute, handsome study companion, are arguing about whether the rewards of faith are to be found in this world or in the next. (Azriel’s typically tortured conclusion: “The righteous man is rewarded by being made to suffer in this world so that he will have done penance for his sins before he dies…”) Their attention to detail, their penchant for arcana, their respect for tradition, and their delight in Byzantine logic are all signal characteristics that will influence their decisions—for good or for ill—after they’ve discovered that they’re as attracted to each other physically as they are intellectually.

The good rabbi, apparently, suspects as much before either of them, although Lerner and Zamir cloud the issue with references to an oath the boys have made to each other, apparently forswearing marriage in the interests of continued, committed joint…study. The light doesn’t appear to dawn for Ziesl (Karl Miller) and Azriel (David Covington) until after the former, in an uneasily amusing sequence, has been forced to marry a local girl, and the latter has been turned away from the yeshiva for refusing to wed the rabbi’s daughter. Ziesl, having done his grim wedding-night duty, follows Azriel to the big(-gish) city in short order, ducking his mother’s watchful eye and dodging the local gossips by disguising himself as…a woman.

Yes, we are indeed in the land of Isaac Bashevis Singer, in which devout Jews are forever donning drag to pursue their love of Torah. (There’s even an offhand reference to an offstage character called Yentl, though—she’s a butcher’s wife—we’re presumably not talking about the same one.) The obvious jokes aside, this is a complicated place: A lecherous landlord (fussy, actorish Joel Snyder) and his gossipy wife (Martha Karl, alternately amusing and touchingly humane) make it clear that the sacred and the profane live side by side here, and a chorus of elders, chanting brimstone threats over the bed Ziesl and Azriel share on their first night together, serves as a stark reminder that the God Jews and Christians worship has his vengeful side. And yet it’s surely no accident that the play’s first reference to that deity comes in the phrase “Lord, full of mercy”; Lerner, Zamir, and De Raey are compassionate storytellers, as interested in celebrating the complex wonder of the Jewish faith as in critiquing the cruel rigidity some of its followers believe it demands.

But the story they’re telling, alas, demands more faith than even the God of the patriarchs does, and an audience can be asked to suspend disbelief only so far. Ziesl, having reluctantly accepted that he’ll have to continue living as a woman if the two are to be allowed to stay together—bachelor cohabitation apparently being unheard of, even in the presumably Spartan conditions of 19th-century Poland—constructs an elaborate theological argument to justify what seems to be his burgeoning sense of femininity. (For a moment, the play nearly veers into the yet more complex and perilous territory of transgender experience in a world of inflexible gender norms, but it merely glances in that direction, then retreats.) Tensions mount as the two deal with crushing poverty, close calls with nosy neighbors, and the hectoring spirit of the rabbi, who (spoiler alert!) tracks them down at their city hideout and promptly expires from shock. Once his family moves to town, Ziesl is constantly encountering his mother or his sister—speaking to them, even—without either of them discovering what’s going on. Of course, he apparently makes so attractive a girl as to draw the attention of that horny landlord, so…no, never mind. Miller is attractive and waifish, and he, like Covington, gives a heartfelt performance, but he’s never anything but identifiably masculine. It’s true that we see what we expect to see, to a certain extent, but to accept the string of confusions and coincidences Lerner and Zamir serve up, we’d need to believe that the Jews of Lublin are a simple lot indeed.

And their wisdom, worldly and otherworldly, makes it plain that they’re anything but. There’s much to like about Theater J’s production—Caren Anton’s tart, tradition-minded mother; the mingled menace and benevolence in the grin of Tim Getman’s joker. But ultimately the story of Azriel and Ziesl—can the comprehensiveness of their initials be a coincidence? Are we not meant to understand them as embodying the struggle of every man or woman who’s ever wrestled to reconcile feelings and faith?—may be too intellectually ambitious to be dramatically workable. Tony Kushner, the prodigy behind Theater J’s last bold expedition into the territory where ideas and beliefs overlap, might have been able to make something theatrically exciting out of the Singer short story that inspired Lerner and Zamir (the latter is Singer’s son), but even Kushner occasionally gets lost in the thicket of his own thoughts. Lerner and Zamir don’t ultimately go far afield enough to get irretrievably lost, but Passing the Love of Women does wander—and after it finds its bearings again, it proceeds to a place that will trouble only the most hidebound of traditionalists. Most everyone else will long since have wrestled and made peace with the idea that in conflicts between faith and experience, no individual and no institution escapes undamaged. CP