Review: Review: Old Globe’s sharp and witty ‘What We Talk About’ doesn’t pull any punches

The cast of the Old Globe's "What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank."
Nathan Salstone, Rebecca Creskoff, Joshua Malina, Sophie von Haselberg and Greg Hildreth in the Old Globe’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank.”
(Courtesy of Jim Cox)

The world premiere Nathan Englander play is about the unexpected divide between two Jewish couples, one orthodox and one secular


What do you call an ice cream shop at a Holocaust theme park? The funny but tasteless punchline is one of dozens of gasp-inducing zingers in Nathan Englander’s whip-smart comedy “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank,” which opened Sunday, Sept. 18 in its world premiere at the Old Globe.

Directed in the round by Globe artistic chief Barry Edelstein with a palpable rising tension, “What We Talk About” is about the things we don’t talk about, or at least subjects that non-Jews respectfully avoid. But in this fast-moving, 105-minute play, audience members are eager flies on the wall for a very direct, very funny and frequently explosive conversation between two long-estranged Jewish couples who are holding nothing back, including their darkly humorous jokes, like the one about the theme park sweet shop (the Dairy of Anne Frank, with 6 million flavors).

Based on Englander’s 2013 short story of the same name, “What We Talk About” is set in 2019 at the Miami home of secular Jews Phil and Debbie, who have invited over Debbie’s childhood best friend, Lauren, and her husband, Mark, both Haredi (ultra-orthodox) Jews who have lived in Israel for the past 20 years. The wealth gap between the couples is made abundantly clear by the glitzy physical production, with luxurious scenic design by Paul Tate DePoo III, costumes by Katherine Roth, lighting by Russell H. Champa and sound and music by Lindsay Jones.

It’s soon clear that Lauren and Mark’s impromptu visit is a secret mission to bring Phil, Debbie and their teenage son Trevor — an anti-theist who jokingly calls himself a “pasta-farian” — back into the fold, to stop what Lauren calls the “second Holocaust” of intermarriage outside the faith.

Phil, bracingly played with a razor-sharp edge by Joshua Malina, responds back at Mark with acid-laced jokes and insults, and a back-and-forth volley worthy of the men’s singles finals at Wimbledon is quickly under way. Under Edelstein’s taut direction, you can physically see the audience lean in for the follow-up shots over the net. Greg Hildreth smolders and explodes as the righteous but smug Mark, whose rigidity is driven by his unquestioning optimism in God’s long-term plan for the Jews.

The relationship between Debbie and Lauren — which fractured in college when Lauren embraced orthodoxy, moved to Israel with Mark, and bore 10 daughters — is more tentative and fragile. Sophie von Haselberg emits a serene but wounded positivity as Lauren, who quietly shares Mark’s zeal. And Rebecca Creskoff is crushingly conflicted as Debbie, who has both lost her faith and is crippled by anxiety over the rising tide of anti-Semitic attacks in cities like Poway that may be leading to a new genocide. Nathan Salstone offers endearing comic relief as Trevor, who is confidently indifferent to Mark’s proselytizing.

The play’s few weak spots are the devices Englander uses to bridge the emotional gap between the battling characters, like the cliched grown-ups’ pot-smoking scene and an ecstatic but too-theatrical-feeling rain dance. These feel like false notes in an otherwise brutally, and often hilariously, authentic play that audiences will leave the theater talking about long afterward.

‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank’

When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays. 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays. 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays. 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Through Oct. 23

Where: Sheryl & Harvey White Theatre, The Old Globe, 1363 Old Globe Way, Balboa Park

Tickets: $30 and up

Phone: (619) 234-5623