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Review | ‘The Chameleon’ aims for sharp satire. It’s blunted by a frantic pace.

Review | ‘The Chameleon’ aims for sharp satire. It’s blunted by a frantic pace.

In “The Chameleon,” Jenny Rachel Weiner’s world-premiere comedy about the complexities of being Jewish in America, the roof caves in on the characters — literally. It’s an apt metaphor for the predicament of the central figure, Riz, an actress catapulted into a social media maelstrom after the celebrated director of her action movie is exposed as an antisemite.

If this Theater J production, the first under its new artistic director, Hayley Finn, doesn’t sound like a laugh riot, well, it’s not really. Owing to events totally out of Theater J’s control, this is both a ripe and raw moment to unveil a satire exploring the complexity of Jewish identity in a society marinating in unanticipated quantities of hate.

With such a delicate issue, in such an emotionally wrenching time for Jews and non-Jews alike, a comedy leaping into the fray shoulders an especially formidable burden. Weiner’s play, directed with unmodulated freneticism by Ellie Heyman, tries a bit too hard. It seeks to fill the stage with the emotional baggage of eight characters, many of them hyperventilating over various dilemmas and disasters. In the process, it simply overpacks.

When over 90 minutes every interaction is infused with the panicky intensity of a hospital emergency room, a desensitization settles in. Everything can’t be that urgent — even in a neurotic suburban New York Jewish family (and I speak from experience). Although it has many touchstone interludes for anyone who grew up on the fringes of mainstream Gentile America, “The Chameleon” never devotes enough care to making an audience care about what’s going on.

And what’s going on is … a lot. It’s Christmas Eve in the Long Island home of Mitch (Eric Hissom) and Val (Sarah Corey). Gathered for Chinese takeout — a traditional feast for “Jewish Christmas” — are the generations revealing the evolution of Jewish assimilation. Bubbe (Nancy Robinette) is a Holocaust survivor who has lapsed into dementia; Mitch and Val are the comfortably middle class, culturally Jewish parents of Stephanie (Emma Wallach) and her older sister, Riz (Dina Thomas), who changed her Jewish-sounding surname, Golden-Kruger, to Stapleton, to make herself more marketable in the entertainment industry.

Stephanie and her Black girlfriend, Maya (Arielle Moore), are social justice warriors who try to guide Riz, recently cast as a new superhero, the Chameleon, on how to respond to the taint of her suddenly benighted film project. “And we know,” Stephanie boasts. “We’re Gen Z.”

“The Chameleon” revels in its endless complications: It involves more twists than a knitted scarf. I haven’t even mentioned the self-dramatizing talent agent (RJ Pavel) or Bubbe’s flashbacks or the treatise on Jewish contributions to comic books or Riz’s daffy Brazilian husband, Joaquin (Ryan Sellers), sneaking upstairs to guzzle bottles of Manischewitz, the sweet wine traditionally poured at Passover seders. (Or as Joaquin calls it, “Jew juice.”)

Weiner devises a resonant symbol in the comic-book character of her title. The Chameleon’s superpower, born out of suffering, is knowing when to blend in and “when to fight for justice.” It’s a useful shorthand for Jewish survival and Jewish values. As “The Chameleon” also points out, these qualities are challenged in a world continually laying siege to religious and ethnic minorities.

Set designer Andrew R. Cohen has conjured the attractive decor of a two-story house on the Goldman Theater stage, while Danielle Preston’s costumes reflect the moderate range of affluence the characters embody. Robinette is a model of dignity in a role that in lesser hands might seem pitiable. Too little context, though, is provided for Riz’s elevation from “starving artist” to action hero for Thomas to find a compelling core to her portrayal. The assignments of other cast members correspond most closely to all those easily agitated comic types you’ve seen on television.

We live in breathless times, for sure. Still, life onstage is sometimes rendered more effectively when everyone is just instructed to take a deep breath.

The Chameleon, by Jenny Rachel Weiner. Directed by Ellie Heyman. Set, Andrew R. Cohen; costumes, Danielle Preston; lighting, Ryan Selig; sound, Sarah O’Halloran; projections, Danny Debner. About 90 minutes. Through Nov. 5 at Edlavitch D.C. Jewish Community Center, 1529 16th St. NW. theaterj.org.

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Peter Marks

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