If ambition was all, Women's Minyan, the current offering at New Jewish Theatre, might provide an intriguing journey into a sequestered world about which most of us know nothing. Set in Jerusalem in the present time, we meet Chana (Mary Schnitzler), who has been shunned by her extremist-sect community because two years earlier she abandoned her family. Now, in a desperate effort to see her twelve children, Chana submits her unorthodox behavior to an improvised tribunal of her closest friends and relatives. (For the pagans among us, the word minyan refers to the fact that ten men constitute a quorum for a Jewish prayer service.)
What follows is pretty dull stuff. Act One is mostly setup; Act Two is mostly narrative. By evening's end there's much wringing of hands and though it comes from the New Testament rather than the Old much wailing and gnashing of teeth. The women's minyan becomes a women's waterworks. First-time playwright Naomi Ragen makes the same mistakes that trip up many novice dramatists. Instead of sustained action, we get an accumulation of incidents; instead of characters, we get types.
Admittedly Ragen patterned her story after the classic film 12 Angry Men. But she only drew on the film's premise; she'd have done better to study how the screenplay was crafted. In 12 Angry Men, for instance, even after the movie has ended the viewer does not know if the defendant is innocent or guilty. Here, the unseen abandoned husband (who becomes the defendant in absentia) gets pummeled to pulp. This story is so weighted against him that any sense of drama devolves into excessive piling-on.
Every character in 12 Angry Men is fully delineated. All twelve actors have specific needs and wants to work with: One is suffering from a summer cold, another has tickets to a baseball game, and so forth around the table. Nor are there any supporting characters; it's rare for any juror to go more than two minutes without speaking. That screenplay is a gorgeous patchwork quilt in which every actor is integral to the whole. But Ragen tells us next to nothing about these women, so the actresses have little to work with. Minor players get shunted off to the corners just so they're out of the way.
On a postage-stamp stage like the one at the Jewish Community Center, director (and Riverfront Times critic) Deanna Jent deserves credit for preventing ten actresses from stumbling over one another. But Jent's not a conjurer and so is not capable of instilling life into a lifeless evening. The actresses are forced to fall back on their various techniques. Margeau Beau Steinau, for example, is so brimming with energy and brio that it's easy to overlook how unnecessary her character is. As Chana's mother, Suzanne Greenwald provides persuasive force.
Then there is Nancy Lewis. As Chana's mother-in-law, perhaps her character travels a greater arc than do the others. But the measure of her performance is more than that. As an actress Lewis is like Wile E. Coyote of Road Runner fame. In every cartoon Wile ends up racing off a cliff. He stays aloft owing to sheer momentum. It's only when he looks down that he realizes his precarious position. Then he plummets to the canyon below in a puff of smoke. That's Lewis, as wily and skillful an actress as we have, creating sly, committed performances through momentum alone and with an experienced sagacity that prevents her from ever looking down.
Proceeding from one form of extremism to another, we leave the ultra-orthodox and move on to the ultra-rich. Woman Before a Glass, the final offering in this season's Repertory Theatre of St. Louis Studio series, is a minor piece about a minor celebrity. This one-woman show sweeps us into the inner sanctum of Peggy Guggenheim, who used much of her family's robber-baron money to amass a world-class collection of modern art. Surely art enthusiasts everywhere are beholden to Guggenheim, but that does not make her a candidate for a 95-minute evening of intermissionless theater.
As portrayed in Lanie Robertson's mile-wide, inch-deep script, Guggenheim is a foul-mouthed, self-centered socialite whose reminiscences mostly dwell on sex. If she knows anything about art, she doesn't share it. Picasso, she informs us, was a shit; so what else is new? We learn more about the 1912 sinking of the Titanic (Peggy's father, Benjamin, was one of the victims) than of any artist. But in fact, we don't learn much of anything about anything. Guggenheim does not articulate one single original insight or point of view that will impel you to think to yourself: I never heard that before.
The sleek production, which is mostly set at Guggenheim's Venice palazzo (and then, intriguingly, in a gondola) looks gorgeous. Glynis Bell's sad, showy portrayal is impeccable and complete. Although she's corseted by all those limiting tricks of the trade that we now associate with one-person shows phone calls, conversations with offstage characters Bell manages to wring every last drop of humor and pathos from the material. But despite her protean efforts, don't be surprised if you forget most of what transpired by the time you reach the parking lot.