“Undo,” a play about a Jewish couple’s divorce ceremony, premieres at Annex Theatre Jan. 18. Annex company member Erin Pike interviews playwright Holly Arsenault and actors Mark Waldstein and Samantha Leeds.
JTNews: How would you summarize “Undo”?
Holly Arsenault: “Undo” takes place in a world that is exactly like our own, except in order to get divorced, you have to endure an elaborate ritual of undoing that involves everyone who was invited to your wedding. In the world that we’re in, all religions have this ritual. It’s not just a Jewish thing. But the family whose ritual we are seeing happens to be Jewish.
JTNews: Mark and Sam, what characters do you play?
Samantha Leeds: My character is the youngest daughter, Naomi. She’s 14. She’s taken on Judaism in an intense way to cope with the [dissemblance] that’s going on with her family.
Mark Waldstein: I play Abraham (Abe), who is the father of the groom, soon-to-be-ex-groom. Abe is sort of the patriarch of this play. He’s always nudging people. He’s not afraid, at times, to speak his mind.
JTNews: Why did you choose to focus on a family that is Jewish?
HA: I loved the image of the broken glass, which plays a central role in this play. That is the only reason that I made them Jewish. My stepfather’s Jewish, so a little part of my family was Jewish, and I had Jewish friends growing up.
I wrote the first couple of scenes almost 12 years ago, and then I put it in the drawer for over a decade. In that decade, I married a Jewish person, so I gained this huge, wonderful Jewish family. Suddenly, one day, I thought, “I think I might be able to write this play now.” It wasn’t that clear of a trajectory. It wasn’t like, “Oh I get Jews now, I’ll write this play.” I sat down to write another play, but this one kept asserting itself to me. I could hear these people talking to me in a way I hadn’t before. A lot of people have commented that it feels really appropriate. “Somehow, this feels like something that Jews would do” is a comment that I get a lot.
MW: When I first read the script, I actually had a moment where I said to myself, “This isn’t real…is it?”
SL: I did that, too!
MW: Could I have possibly have been around all this time, and missed that somehow?
HA: My mother-in-law said, “I’ve been Jewish my whole life, but is it possible that I just missed this?” People have said to me throughout this process, “Is this real?” And I say, “Really? You think that somebody has to put on their wedding dress and go back — you think that’s a real thing that could actually happen?” Despite that [the play] is a fantasy, the tone is stark naturalism.
JTNews: Was the Jewish context was the right choice for this play?
HA: Absolutely. It fits in this world. And maybe if I had decided that they were Methodists, and did that research, I may have found ways that it aligned. But —
MW: [Whispering] Methodists aren’t funny!
HA: [Laughs] For one thing, the characters needed to be funny —
MW: No one tells Methodist jokes.
HA: [Laughing] So yes, that helps. Another reason that it feels possible to people is, I think that Jews “do” death better than a lot of other religions, by which I mean they don’t try to ignore it.
And this ritual is essentially a funeral. So it makes sense to me that it makes sense to other people, that this feels like something that Jews might do. Because the ritual that I’ve invented is honoring this institution that existed, and honoring how difficult it is to end it, and allowing people a vessel for experiencing that and sharing their grief about it.
SL: It’s okay if the audience thinks that this is a very real ritual. That’s what the theater is for, right?
HA: It’s not a play about Judaism. The play is also in a suburb of Philadelphia, but it’s not a play about Philadelphians.
MW: Because at heart, it’s a family play. It’s about a family who happens to be Jewish. And that’s a real thing in the world. Not every Jew goes around broadcasting that.
SL: Mark and I grew up two towns away from each other in New Jersey, at different times. From a purely cultural level, this play is so fun. I remember reading this play for my audition and just being like, “Yes, this is so right on!” There’s something so satisfying about doing this show.
HA: As a non-Jewish person writing a play about Jewish characters, there’s anxiety. I want to get it right. I want to be respectful. I want people to understand the tremendous affection I feel for this culture, for Jewish practices.
MW: Everything Holly just talked about, Sam and I are here to attest to. She’s done it very thoroughly.