“The Goldberg Variations” (with some slight modifications to the title) is a challenging harpsichord piece by Johann Sebastian Bach, a career-altering recording of that piece by pianist Glenn Gould, a ballet by Jerome Robbins, an “X-Files” episode and a novel by Andrew Grof.
Now, “The Goldberg Variations” has taken on another form, as Stuart Meltzer’s engaging and intricate play by that title gets its world premiere at Island City Stage in Wilton Manors. Meltzer, a Carbonell Award-winning director, is best known in South Florida as the founding artistic director of Miami’s Zoetic Stage. But he is also a gifted and skilled playwright, as his highly theatrical play about a dysfunctional if loving family demonstrates.
“The Goldberg Variations” features crisp, smart dialogue as well as lots of laughs and, by the end, a powerful emotional shift. A major part of Island City’s mission is to bring new LGBT-themed works to life, as it did with the award-winning “Daniel’s Husband” by Meltzer’s husband-to-be, Michael McKeever. Staged by Island City artistic director Andy Rogow, “The Goldberg Variations” is among the company’s finest productions to date.
Meltzer’s “Goldberg Variations” takes place in the Upper West Side Manhattan apartment occupied by Sam Goldberg (Peter Librach) and his formidable wife, Judy (Patti Gardner). As per family tradition, the Goldbergs’ grown children, Caleb (Ryan Didato) and Charlotte (Ilana Isaacson), along with Charlotte’s eager-to-please hubby, Theodore (John Manzelli), have gathered to celebrate the 86th birthday of Sam’s mother, Bessie. Just one peculiar wrinkle: Grandma has been dead for 21 years.
Caleb, a gay man who works tirelessly to keep his personal life a secret from his overly interested mother, does have a partner, a gorgeous Latino guy named Pablo (Alex Alvarez). To Caleb’s horror, Charlotte calls Pablo and invites him to the birthday dinner — and into the vortex of Goldberg family drama.
Structurally, Meltzer’s “Goldberg Variations” is inspired by Bach’s. Caleb directly addresses the audience in an opening “aria,” introducing the characters with short insights into their natures. Then, Caleb, like the man who created him, turns into a director. He has his family reenact interactions that have already taken place, instructing them to alter tone or words. To create variations. And near the end of the 90-minute play, the “aria” repeats.
As adept as Meltzer is at playing with form, he never forgets the moving, resonant family story that drives his piece. “The Goldberg Variations” is funny, even hilarious for much of its running time. But at its heart, the play explores the world of a young gay man who is finally embracing who he is, even as he tries to stop time to avoid an inevitable tragedy.
Working with his stellar design team — Michael McClain (peerless when it comes to creating chic sets), costume designer Peter A. Lovello, lighting designer Ardean Landhuis and sound designer David Hart — Rogow has guided the cast to uniformly strong performances.
Embodying the playwright’s voice, Didato is compelling as narrator, participant and observer. A slight emotional remove in his family’s presence is self-protection, as Caleb’s journey towards joy has included plenty of pain.
Recent Carbonell winner Alvarez could play the dreamboat boyfriend without uttering a word — there is much talk, particularly by Charlotte’s straight husband, about how handsome Pablo is — yet the versatile actor dazzles as he conveys every ounce of the stereotype-busting satire in Meltzer’s script.
Isaacson, an improv veteran who works more often in film, TV and commercials, makes Charlotte a droll, neurotic woman straight out of a Woody Allen movie. Manzelli, whose Theodore tries (and spectacularly fails) to convince everyone that he’s not in the least bit prejudiced, has never been better. Meltzer’s lines and the actor’s magic create an eager-to-please character who is immensely likable despite his inability to avoid outrageous comments.
Librach’s Sam, who fusses with the wife he adores (as more than a few long-married folks do), insists on the ritual retelling of his mother’s story. It links Grandma Bessie, a concert pianist and piano teacher who escaped Nazi Germany as a girl, to Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, possibly the first musician to perform Bach’s work. Folklore? Maybe. But there’s nothing speculative about some shocking news Librach shares, followed by an equally shocking decision, and the actor handles that shift in tone with just the right mixture of power, vulnerability and determination.
Gardner, a Carbonell winner with impeccable timing, turns a woman who might have been a stereotypical Jewish mother into a matriarch with an iron will and a tender heart. Smotheringly supportive of Caleb (from his perspective), her Judy will do anything to make sure her children are happily settled before life shifts. As all too soon, it will.
Meltzer’s work as Zoetic’s artistic director and a teacher at Miami’s New World School of the Arts doesn’t leave him much time for writing, which is a shame. He has an intelligent and theatrically mature voice, and (like McKeever) the ability to take an audience on a journey that begins in laughter and ends in something deeper. For Island City and Meltzer, “The Goldberg Variations” provides more proof that South Florida is a place where significant new works can flourish.
“The Goldberg Variations” runs through July 16 at Island City Stage, 2034 N. Dixie Highway, in Wilton Manors. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 5 p.m. Sunday. Tickets cost $35. To order, call 954-519-2533 or go to IslandCityStage.org.