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In Huntington’s ‘We All Fall Down,’ a portrait of a family in flux

World premiere by Lila Rose Kaplan grapples with questions of tradition and Jewish identity

A scene from "We All Fall Down," Lila Rose Kaplan's play about a nonobservant clan celebrating their inaugural Passover.Nile Hawver

Early on in “We All Fall Down,’’ as her family is making preparations for Passover in their Westchester home, a psychologist and author named Linda Stein suddenly materializes — with a suitably dramatic flourish — in a costume from “Fiddler on the Roof.’’

“I wanted to look authentic,’’ explains Linda (Eleanor Reissa). “For our very first Seder.’’

Playwright Lila Rose Kaplan’s invocation of a musical that is famously concerned with the central importance of tradition, Jewish identity, and the pressures on both — from within and without — is a clear signal of the direction “We All Fall Down’’ is heading. In her portrait of a nonobservant clan celebrating their inaugural Passover at Linda’s insistence, Kaplan wants us to consider what the presence or absence of ritual can mean.


Yet the play itself, now receiving its world premiere in a Huntington Theatre Company production directed by Melia Bensussen, also harkens back to another tradition of sorts, exemplified by Neil Simon, especially in works like “Brighton Beach Memoirs’’ and “Lost in Yonkers.’’

Simon’s influence can be discerned not just in Kaplan’s quip-laden dialogue but in her attempt to blend that humor with an anatomization of the kind of stress fractures that are endemic to family life. As a matter of structure, “We All Fall Down’’ also can be added to the lengthy list of what we might call revelations-at-the-dinner-table plays, such as Stephen Karam’s “The Humans.’’

Ultimately, “We All Fall Down’’ doesn’t break enough new ground during its 95-minute journey across those oft-traversed dramatic territories, despite evidence of Kaplan’s considerable talent.

Each character has been assigned traits and dilemmas, but they mostly feel sketched rather than developed — a thinness that is reflected in the performances by most of the cast. Surprises are few, whether it comes to the showdowns within the play or the heated words hurled during those showdowns.


The family at the center of “We All Fall Down’’ consists of Linda, who has written a bestseller titled, in one of Kaplan’s better jokes, “Mothering Difficult Children,’’ and is being offered a chance to plug that book on “Ellen’’; Linda’s husband, Saul (Stephen Schnetzer), who has abruptly retired from his job as a history professor in the middle of the semester, with only a vague explanation; and their adult daughters, Sammi (Liba Vaynberg), who is visiting from San Francisco, where she lives with her boyfriend and helped found the city’s “first feminist charter school,’’ and Ariel (Dana Stern), whose devotion to yoga is manifested in her virtually nonstop poses.

Also on hand are Saul’s sardonically detached sister, Nan (a scene-stealing performance by Trinity Rep stalwart Phyllis Kay); Ester (Elle Borders), a graduate student who doubles as Linda’s ultra-efficient assistant, and whose bond with the psychologist makes her a kind of surrogate daughter; and Beverly (Sarah Newhouse), a well-meaning but clueless former neighbor of the Steins who keeps referring to Passover as “Jewish Easter.’’

Kaplan is possessed of abundant comic gifts along with an obvious understanding that wit can variously serve as a weapon, a shield, or a survival mechanism. But too many of the one-liners in “We All Fall Down’’ lack the zest of, say, her “Home of the Brave,’’ an uproarious sendup of presidential politics, inspired by Moliere’s “Tartuffe,’’ that premiered four years ago at Lowell’s Merrimack Repertory Theatre. Take one recurrent bit of shtick from “We All Fall Down’’: Would even someone as pedantic as Linda really have no idea who Ellen DeGeneres is and keep referring to her as “Eileen’’ or “Eleanor’’?


Complications arrive without necessarily deepening the play. A key plot point — a life-changing development affecting a member of the Stein family that emerges from the shadows of secrecy over the course of the play — is undeniably poignant but also predictable.

However, when it comes to illuminating the resonant depths of religious heritage and the way that heritage can live even in the hearts of those who’ve become nonobservant, Kaplan does deliver, and beautifully, late in the play, in a stirring scene when the traditional Four Questions are sung in Hebrew as part of the Passover Seder ritual.

In that moment, “We All Fall Down’’ lands on an enduring truth, easy to lose sight of: In the end, family is what keeps us from falling down.


Play by Lila Rose Kaplan. Directed by Melia Bensussen. Presented by Huntington Theatre Company. At Wimberly Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, through Feb. 15. Tickets start at $25, 617-266-0800, www.huntingtontheatre.org

Don Aucoin can be reached at donald.aucoin@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeAucoin.