Next to “Chopsticks,” “Heart and Soul” is probably the most recognizable and easily played piano tune in the Western world. You may remember it from its appearance in the movie Big when Tom Hanks and Robert Loggia danced it on the giant keyboard in the Manhattan FAO Schwarz store. It’s a simple little ditty that’s mildly entertaining but lacks, ironically, a certain amount of soul.
Like “Heart and Soul,” Elijah: An Adventure requires a piano and is an amusing entertainment that evaporates from the audience’s consciousness as soon as it concludes.
Where the two differ is that the song has been committed to sheet music and is, therefore, mostly immutable, whereas the play has every opportunity to become tighter, tauter and more polished. If it does, it could well become the experience for which playwright Michael Mitnick is obviously striving.
Set in 1922, Elijah: An Adventure takes us along on what promises to be a rousing journey of discovery by 17-year-old Elijah (Benjamin Bonenfant), a rabbi’s son from Brooklyn. Though the journey does contain some bona fide coming-of-age elements and the occasional adventure-like interlude, the fact that it fails to grab the viewer by either the throat or the heart belies its title and begs for more workshopping.
Using a considerable amount of his life savings, Elijah’s father (Chris Kendall) sends Elijah to Paris to track down the reclusive composer, Georges Deruet (Chris Kendall again). Elijah is a talented pianist, and it is his father’s hope that under the tutelage of Deruet, Elijah will ascend to the rarified heights of Tchaikovsky, Mahler and Bach.
During the trans-Atlantic crossing, Elijah meets Nicholas (Matthew Blood-Smyth), a fortunate son from the Northeast. Nicholas takes a shine to the much less well-heeled Elijah, and the two join forces to do what every red-blooded American teenager does when set loose in Paris sans parental control: get drunk and get laid.
Through some implausibly random, extremely convenient circumstances, the two boys find themselves at odds over an attractive Parisian, Elisa (Rachel Fowler). Elijah does take some time out from boozing and screwing to honor his father’s wishes and seek out Deruet. His only lead comes from an opium den owner, Otto (Stephen Weitz), whose lighthearted demeanor and ceaseless needling of his wife, Frieda (Mare Trevathan), mask a more sinister, proto-Nazi essence.
The actors, particularly Weitz not only as Otto but also as a Jewish tailor, a Jewish butcher and an effete French bellboy, do the material good service. Trevathan’s work — also in multiple roles — is, as always, a pleasure to behold. Both male leads and the entire ensemble not only portray their characters credibly but also handle the copious set changes with aplomb. Unfortunately, these seemingly endless scene changes, as well-managed as they are, contribute unnecessarily to the play’s length and scatter its focus.
The action unfolds in front of a spectacularly innovative set designed by Kathryn Kawecki. There are many multi-level, demarcated spaces, all of which are draped in strands of an opaque material that allows partially obscured actors to be seen through it, or on which various still and moving images may be projected. The video of the sea broken by the bow of a ship, in particular, showcases the success of this multimedia approach to storytelling.
I didn’t dislike Elijah: An Adventure, nor was I enamored of it. Mitnick’s star is rising in the theatre world, so I hope that his feet are still planted firmly enough on the ground to realize that this play’s potential has yet to be realized. The removal of some of the extraneous material, the tying up of a few of the more noticeable loose ends and a more prominent dramatic arc for Elijah himself could elevate this play from “Heart and Soul” to “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik.”