Sarasota’s Florida Studio Theatre smooths a bumpy ‘Isaac’

Rachel Moulton as Shelley and Sid Solomon as Isaac in “The God of Isaac.”
Rachel Moulton as Shelley and Sid Solomon as Isaac in “The God of Isaac.” PROVIDED PHOTO

If you just read a synopsis of James Sherman’s “The God of Isaac,” you might expect a play that’s serious, thought-provoking and full of heart. As Nazis prepare to rally in his small Illinois town, a young non-observant Jew searches for his ethnic identity.

The opening scene changes your mind. The title character’s stereotypical Jewish mother, seated in the audience, interrupts his monologue with self-pitying one-liners. Maybe, you begin to think, this is going to be a silly but pretty funny comedy.

When the play (briefly) turns into a parody of “On the Waterfront,” you can’t help but feeling that “The God of Isaac” is itself struggling to find its identity.

Sherman’s 1982, which is on the stage of the Gompertz Theatre in Sarasota’s Florida Studio Theatre through Aug. 28, is a mishmash of styles, themes and ideas that never coalesce. Like its main character, it seems always to feel compelled to try to be something it isn’t.

Still, in the end, it’s acceptably entertaining, occasionally quite funny and even a bit thought-provoking.

Isaac Adams, our protagonist and narrator, is a writer looking back on his adult life. He had never given much thought to his Jewishness until Nazis threatened to march to his hometown, Skokie, Ill., in the late 1970s. That threat propels his years-long, single-minded quest to find out what it means to be a Jew. He seems to ask pretty much every Jewish person he meets. He becomes so obsessed and annoying that he harms his career and ruins his marriage.

The FST production, directed by Kate Alexander, does its best to smooth out Sherman’s lumpy script, and largely succeeds. Much of the credit goes to FST newcomer Sid Solomon in the title role. He’s onstage for pretty much the entire show, and he has such a likeable stage presence that he gets you over the script’s hurdles. Solomon even keeps the audience on Isaac’s side at times when Isaac is being kind of a jerk. The play wouldn’t work at all if Solomon couldn’t do that.

Marina Re is fun in her two-dimensional role as Isaac’s mother, who remains in the front row of the audience through most of the show. Rachel Moulton’s pretty good as Isaac’s wife, but the character is annoying, and there’s no chemistry at all between her and Solomon, even when they’re supposed to be uncontrollably hot for each other. Rebeca Miller delivers the strongest performance of all the supporting roles, as Isaac’s longtime friend and sometimes girlfriend.

The set by Isabel and Moriah Corley-Clay, a semi-realistic, semi-impressionistic version of Isaac’s living room is strikingly attractive, given its requisite utilitarianism, and Yuri Cataldo has designed some evocative costumes for the movie parody sequences that punctuate the play.

But you have to wish that Sherman would have had the sense to leave those scenes out of his play, or that Alexander could have gotten permission to cut them. They’re stupid and unfunny, and they don’t fit at all into the play. They make Sherman seem more interested in being clever than in creating compelling theater.

In the end, though, he’s not even all that clever. “The God of Isaac” has a bit of substance, and it’s mildly instructive. It ends with a comfortable moral that has much more to do with being human than with being Jewish, but Sherman often seems more interested in distracting us from his story with movie parodies and Borscht Belt humor than in immersing us in his character’s intriguing quest.

Details: Through Aug. 28, Gompertz Theatre at Florida Studio Theatre, 1241 N. Palm Ave, Sarasota. 8 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday. $25-$39. 941-366-9000, floridastudiotheatre.org.