New Theatre’s The Gospel According to Jerry is a two-hander, that theatrical form in which a disparate pair talks, clashes and bonds over the course of the play. This one has two authors as well: playwright-screenwriter Richard Krevolin and Rabbi Irwin Kula.
The tender-hearted piece at the South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center certainly follows the two-hander form, but the production isn’t formulaic — it’s lovely.
Director Stephen Neal and his cast, John Manzelli as a rabbi named Jerry and Christina Alexander as a gospel singer/choir director named Nia, imbue the show with warmth, humor, intelligence and an undercurrent of chemistry. It doesn’t take much time after Jerry and Nia first lay eyes on each other at an Overeaters Anonymous meeting for the audience to start envisioning them as a just-maybe couple.
The production values of The Gospel According to Jerry are quite simple.
Stephen E. Davis’ set consists of a church meeting room represented by a platform with a door, folding chairs and a chalkboard; a rectangular area downstage that serves as a swimming pool, the bimah at Jerry’s temple and the choir loft at Nia’s evangelical church; and a “stained-glass” window floating above the stage. Lighting designer Eric Nelson creates the shimmering effect of water in the pool, and sound designer Anton Church supplies the splash of water, the muted rumble of traffic, the buzz of an unhappy crowd.
This minimally suggested world is inhabited by two complex, utterly recognizable human beings. They happen to be a white Jewish male and a black Christian female, but their struggles, flaws and insecurities will resonate with anyone who has panicked as middle age comes knocking at the door.
Manzelli’s Jerry is a garrulous divorced guy who lost weight but still attends Overeaters Anonymous meetings as a way of reinforcing his commitment to a healthier life and avoiding the temptation to binge and purge. He’s also a man with mother issues, though that judgmental parent mostly speaks to him in memory, as his mom is in the final stages of Alzheimer’s disease.
Alexander’s Nia has a more dramatic character arc, evolving from a subdued single woman insecure about her weight to a strong, articulate risk taker who’s unafraid of plunging into the debates and arguments that come with knowing Jerry. (It must be said, though, that Alexander’s normal body size doesn’t fit the description of overweight Nia in the dialogue, and costumer Ricky J. Martinez could do more with padding in the initial scenes to make the character’s weight loss credible.) The actress is an experienced singer and musical director, so her a cappella renditions of Amazing Grace, other hymns and sacred Hebrew music are truly powerful.
To an extent, Jerry and Nia become vehicles for exploring numerous issues, from antisemitism to economic opportunity to the personal impact of faith. But Manzelli and Alexander, a dynamic acting duo, keep the characters’ journey grounded in truth, vulnerability and empathy.