Harry Boychick has been celebrating his bar mitzva twice a week for the past two years - and it's still a disaster every time.
The chaotic festivities, which feature shrieking relatives, an inane rabbi and a hip-hop version of "Ve'ahavta," arrived in Times Square last month as The Boychick Affair, a two-hour piece of "experiential theater." By turns entertaining, over-the-top and purposely mortifying, the show is the creation of writer-producer Amy Lord, a Brooklyn native who also serves as director and - if that weren't enough - plays the bar-mitzva boy's mother, Cheryl.
Staged at the Times Square Arts Center, the production's "experiential" element will be familiar to fans of Tony 'n' Tina's Wedding, the long-running off-Broadway production that features shrill, volatile Italians, much like Boychick's shrill, volatile Jews. A veteran of that earlier show, Lord has filled her new production with caricatures - though they're recognizable ones - from your typical Jewish rite of passage, accompanied by Yentl jokes, constant talk of food and an endless stream of inappropriate comments by family members.
In addition to the comically gawky Harry, there's also Grandma Betty, obsessed with showing everyone just how well her looks have held up; Cousin Brendan, a lecherous 20-something rather dubiously claiming to be a med student; and Grandpa Stan, never at a loss for ways to publicly embarrass his daughter's ex, the bar mitzva boy's father.
As viewers may start to suspect, the show drew much of its inspiration from a real-life fiasco - namely the bar mitzva of Lord's real son (also named Harry), a gathering she describes as a "nightmare." From the frozen hors d'oeuvres to her husband's shirtsleeves - which caught fire during a candle-lighting ceremony - the event foreshadowed the raucousness of The Boychick Affair, although one hopes the real celebration didn't involve choreographed dance numbers or the 13-year-old star splitting his pants.
Beginning in the theater lobby outside the "sanctuary," the show literally leads viewers through the high points of the bar mitzva, moving them inside for the very brief service and then to another space for the party and buffet. As with Tony 'n' Tina's Wedding, guests shouldn't be surprised to find themselves sitting next to a "relative" during the ceremony or dancing the "Macarena" with one during the party. The festivities may make you perversely nostalgic about being 13; regardless, a trip to the buffet is included in the price of the ticket - food at Sunday performances is kosher - with wine and mixed drinks extra at the bar.
Although not what you'd wish for your own family event, audience members appeared to be enjoying themselves at one of Harry Boychick's recent bar mitzvas, happily competing in the limbo and listening good naturedly to the rantings of the various relatives. "Even modern Orthodox people" have taken pleasure in the show, Lord says, despite sections she describes as "pushing the envelope." (The fodder for comedy - and shouting - includes revelations of infidelity and a rather unsurprising announcement about a cousin's sexual orientation.)
WHILE The Boychick Affair doesn't offer an especially flattering look at bar mitzvas, enough attention is paid to ritual - both by the characters and in the "program" for the service - that non-Jewish viewers might leave with a sense of what's involved in the tradition. For the playwright, who calls the characters both "an amalgamation" of her own family and the product of "my very weird brain," the show's boisterousness is a reflection of a certain kind of familial love - one that's often loud but also unabashedly honest and expressive.
She inherited it, of course, from her relatives.
"My grandfather," she says, "used to come to my high school and hand out cards that said 'Harry's Taxi Service.' So now it's my turn to embarrass my kids."
She'll be doing so in Times Square into September, with hopes to extend the show through October and possibly bring it back to New York for a longer run. "I would love to come back here," she says, speaking of the city she left nearly two decades ago for LA. "I want to come home, but somebody needs to find my husband a job here."
In the meantime, she's looking forward to winter productions of The Boychick Affair in Florida - where it already enjoyed a successful run - and in Las Vegas. For 18 months beginning in 2007, Harry Boychick also celebrated his bar mitzva in LA, where agents are looking at a possible film version. (If her original Harry isn't available, she says, she'd settle for Zac Efron - "Disney it up a little," she suggests.)
With her son's real-life bar mitzva and dozens of Harry Boychicks behind her, she's an expert on the subject, offering some helpful pointers based on painful experience. "Make sure the hors d'oeuvres are cooked," she says, deadpan. "Hire a DJ who actually has music on his computer. Make sure you have extra plates."
Have the loudmouth characters from her show made her more sensitive to self-conscious members of her own family? Don't be so sure.
"My daughter is having a bat mitzva in January," she says with a laugh, "and she's pretty nervous about what I'm going to do."