'Seder' At Hartford Stage: Moral Choices Over Matzo

The show: "Seder" at Hartford Stage.

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What makes it special: It's a world premiere of a new play by Sarah Gancher, directed by Elizabeth Williamson, associate artistic director at the theater.

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What's it about?: During a seder in Hungary in 2002, a splintered family discovers disturbing revelations about their elderly mother's dark past.

What do we learn? That Thanksgiving isn't the only gathering that brings out the worst in families. This first night of Passover is a doozy, too. 

Seriously: Early on -- so no need for spoiler alert here -- we find out that a photograph of Erzsike (Mia Dillon) is featured on the wall of murderers in a new museum in Budapest -- the House of Terror -- that chronicles the horrors inflicted on its citizens by the Communist secret police following WWII. She was a secretary there and during the course of the play the family grapples with her involvement with the notorious building and its powerful men during the Nazi, Communist and fascist regimes.

Pretty dramatic: Especially since her estranged daughter Judith (Birgit Huppuch) is now curator at the museum and she was the one who decided to include her mother on this wall of shame.

That's quite a coincidence: A bit -- and there are a number of stretched narrative points that make the play pretty schematic and whose further revelations veer into melodrama. There's even flashbacks -- complete with a sound effect that suggests torture -- from the past in the form of an intimidating secret police officer Attila (Jeremy Webb)  being awful to Erzsike's younger self. It might work better in a film but on stage it comes across as a tired trope.

Still, the issues discussed, the fine performances, the themes of the work and yes, the juiciness of the drama itself make it damn compelling. The two-hours in this intermission-less work fly by. There's something about a family screaming around a dinner table that is so relatable, Pass the wine and go to hell.

Sort of like "August: Osage County?: Hardly. This play has more on its mind than that riveting-but-less-substantial work and though there is one character whose job it is to lighten the almost-unbearable family angst, it doesn't have "August"'s  over-the-top verve. Still director Williamson and her talented cast have found moments here and there to breathe, reflect and even laugh.

But why a seder? Why indeed, especially since this family is not observant. (They do it at the behest of one daughter who is seeing an American-Jewish psychologist.)  But sometimes the symbolism of the ceremony gets contorted into a less-than-comfortable fit for the family's situation, And the play's title doesn't begin to suggest the fascinating issues in which the family grapples.

The story?: Erzsike's "good" and long-suffering daughter (having to put up with the tough-as-nails mother),  Margit (Julia Sirna-Frest) and her slacker thug brother Laci (Dustin Ingram) gather none-to-comfortably to meet Margit's  boyfriend David (Stephen Rattazzi). Finally showing up is Judith, estranged from her mother for years. Erzsike is at first hopeful that her daughter is back in the family fold but she soon learns it's not the reunion she had hoped.

The back-and-forth arguments are accompanied by a wide range of emotions by an extraordinary Dillon who never stoops to sentimentalize or soften her character. Her changes in temperament during the play are subtle, gradual and completely grounded in the progression of the conflict. Huppuch is her foil and her equal and gives a tough-yet-vulnerable performance that is filled with anger and ache.

Giving much needed levity is Rattazzi (who was also wonderful in Yale Rep's "Indecent"and "Marie Antoinette") as the visitor of faith and psychology trying to bring a bit of peace to the coming-apart family. His comic delivery is warm, measured and terrific, though the situation he finds himself in is a bit of a stretch

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Who will like it? Those who love battling family drama. Those who see so-called moral issues in all their complexities.  

Who won't?:  Those who like their villains in  black-and-white terms

For the kids? Older ones at junior or high school age should see it -- and discuss. 

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Thoughts on leaving the parking lot: Driving hime I wondered what playwright Arthur Miller might have made of this subject and am grateful that so many playwrights are continuing to deal with such moral issues in such nuanced ways. It's a complicated world out there. 

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The Basics: The production wraps up its run this Sunday at the location on 50 Church St., in downtown Hartford. The show is around two hours long. Shows remaining are Thursday at 7:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m.; and Sunday at 2 p.m., Info at .www.hartfordstage.org and 860-527-5151.

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Now what did YOU think? 

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