The rich like owning stuff. Islands, paintings, many, many homes, precious works of art, vintage automobiles; the list of acquisitions is endless and growing. Should such treasure be owned at all? In truth, all ownership is temporary. Ownership is custodianship. News flash! Everyone dies!
But who owns antiquities? Should they be owned at all? Should precious objects be bought at auction and then disappear into private vaults? Fortunately many of the ultra-rich share their loot with the public. Getty comes to mind, also Guggenheim, Broad, Norton Simon, Henry Ford, and so on. Public museums are wonderful repositories available to everyone. But what about objects that were spirited out of Nazi Germany by a single individual, who then kept them in secret. This is the situation, based on true events, of Angela J. Davis’ new play, The Spanish Prayer Book.
Michaela Adler (Allison Blaize), the atheist daughter of deceased rabbi, Jacob Adler (Allan Wasserman), has traveled to London to deal with some volumes of rare, illustrated Jewish manuscripts that date back to Fourteenth Century that once belonged to a Jewish cultural institution. These precious books were smuggled out of Germany by Jacob’s father, Alexander (Carlos Lacámara), who also managed to take the last person at the institute, the pregnant librarian, Channa Wild (Tiffany Wolff), with him. The books were held in secret by Jacob, a ghostly presence who shows up in the action from time to time with words of wisdom to his estranged wife of fifty years, Joan (the vivacious Laura Gardner), as well as to his daughter. Michaela is in a desperate financial situation. She is divorced and makes a meager living as a temporary schoolteacher, and has the added burden of a daughter who needs medical attention. When the manuscripts were discovered, Joan undertakes to have them put up for auction in London to alleviate her daughter’s financial stress.
Jacob Adler’s protégé, Julien Nazir (charismatic Richard-John Seikaly), a Muslim-born historian who specializes in Jewish antiquities and literature, raises objections to the sale on ethical grounds, and in passing, sparks up a budding romance with Michaela. At the performance I attended, Amy Tolsky was the Law Clerk, and Nancy Fassett took the roles of the Customs Official and Auction House Assistant, fine protean actors both.
The Spanish Prayer Book is an intellectual drama that leaps back and forth in time, with the occasional ruminations of a ghostly Jacob Adler. Under the direction of Lee Sankowich, the pace of the action in the two-act play is deliberative, which is not to say uninteresting. The ensemble of veteran actors is superb.
The play is wonderfully supported by the scenic and projection design of Yuki Izumihara, which gives an excellent rendering of place and time. The projections of the actual illuminated manuscripts are utterly fascinating. The production benefits from the skills of the design team of Derrick McDaniel, lighting design; David B. Marling, sound design; Kate Bergh, costume design; and Heath Harper, properties design. Maurie Gonzalez is the production stage manager.
The Spanish Prayer Book, produced by Laurie Bernhard/SPARK Theatrical and Zeljka Gortinski, runs through Sunday, November 23 at the Road Theatre on Magnolia, located in The NoHo Senior Arts Colony, 10747 Magnolia Blvd. in North Hollywood.