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WHAT I THOUGHT I KNEW at Jewish Rep showcases the stellar talent of Josie DiVincenzo in a riveting tale

THE BASICS: WHAT I THOUGHT I KNEW, a one-woman (40-character) play by Alice Eve Cohen presented by Jewish Repertory Theatre, directed by Saul Elkin, starring Josie DiVincenzo, opened on February 6 and runs through March 6, Thursdays at 7:30, Saturdays at 3:30 & 7:30, and Sundays at 2 (no performances on Fridays) at The Maxine and Robert Seller Theatre inside the JCC at 2640 North Forest Road, Getzville (650-7626). Runtime: 1hour, 40 minutes, no intermission

THUMBNAIL SKETCH: From the publicist: “Alice, a Jewish woman in her forties who has been told by doctors that she is infertile, discovers a hard lump in her abdomen. After months of visiting expensive specialists, all of whom have different medical theories, a CT scan finally reveals that she is pregnant. Based upon true events and the book hailed by Oprah as ‘darkly hilarious…an unexpected bundle of joy,’ this heartfelt journey through a high-risk pregnancy and the American healthcare system is told with the intimacy of a diary and the suspense of a thriller.”

On a bare stage, with only two chairs as props, Alice, her musician boyfriend, daughter, and 37 professionals are all played by one of Buffalo’s most experienced actors (and a JRT favorite), Josie DiVincenzo who spins a tale (a true tale as it turns out) that made 100 minutes fly by.

THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: As the author, Alice Eve Cohen, told us at the pre-show reception and post-show Q&A, this play started as simply personal notes, but over time was shaped into a published memoir, and then, because solo performances are her specialty, she was not so gently “encouraged” to create a script, by, among others, Rachel Lampert, then Artistic Director of Ithaca, NY’s “Kitchen Theater.” (Note: The Kitchen’s Mission is: “To create BOLD theatre within our INTIMATE space that ENGAGES community and sparks IMPORTANT CONVERSATION.” Yup. This is definitely a play in their wheelhouse and just right for JRT, too.)

As you will see when you attend the play, Alice is a considered person who might overthink things (as we see in the play), but she’s also a woman who can look out for herself, and slyly hinted that, if there were any movie producers/directors in the audience, she’s working on a film script. I can definitely see character actors all vying to grab one of the dozens of juicy roles.

So, WHAT I THOUGHT I KNEW no doubt would or will make for a fine film. But this is theater and one major difference is the intimacy and immediacy and just plain joy that comes from watching the very experienced Josie DiVincenzo playing all the roles on the small thrust stage. And through body language and gestures and of course voices and accents there was no doubt as to which character she was portraying at any given second.

While there are many very serious moments, the play is cleverly dotted with humor which I thought the audience was a little slow to embrace, perhaps through some mis-guided sense of political correctness. Or, perhaps because of the smallness of the thrust stage theater where anywhere you sit you get a pretty good look at the other two thirds of the audience. I like to laugh out loud and even I felt a little constrained sitting in the front row being so close to the only actor. So my advice would be to sit in the second or third row of any section and yuck it up all you want.

I like to laugh out loud and even I felt a little constrained sitting in the front row being so close to the only actor. So my advice would be to sit in the second or third row of any section and yuck it up all you want.

Ms. DiVincenzo praised the writing of Alice Eve Cohen (who specializes in solo theatrical performances, as playwright, teacher, coach, and actor herself) for providing her with clear direction, THROUGH THE DIALOG AS PUT INTO CHARACTER’S MOUTHS. And you could tell that, on opening night, Cohen, in the audience, was pleased that DiVincenzo “got it.” So, while failure is an orphan, success has many mothers and fathers, too.

Using only two chairs and no costume changes, actor Josie DiVincenzo portrays 40 different characters | Photos by Ali Louis

At the Q&A, Ms. DiVincenzo spoke with great tenderness and respect for her director, Saul Elkin, with whom she’s worked many times over the years and she particularly singled out his ability to deal frankly and comfortably with any situation which the play suggests.

Elkin deflected the praise by mentioning Brian Cavanagh’s Lighting Design and Tom Makar’s Sound Design, which here, as with so many plays at so many theaters in WNY, was perfect in conveying the mood of the scene.

Some final thoughts: As with almost every play put on by JRT, you don’t have to be Jewish to “get it,” particularly here where the play is more about motherhood, love, ethics, and tough moral decisions. It would feel perfectly at home at Road Less Traveled Productions where they like plays about moral dilemmas, New Phoenix Theater where they like intimate psychological plays, or O’Connell and Company where they like plays about middle aged women facing tough decisions. If you enjoy productions at any of those venues, you’ll like WHAT I THOUGHT I KNEW.

Also, while “Getzville,” at least to me, sounds rural and remote, the theater inside the JCC is just north of the UB campus, on North Forest, accessible from Millersport Highway or Audubon Parkway (which itself has its own entrance and exit on, as we say in WNY, “The 990”).

UP NEXT: INDECENT by Paula Vogel concerning a controversial Broadway performance of Yiddish playwright Sholem Asch’s GOD OF VENGEANCE is a joint production of both Jewish Repertory and the Kavinoky Theatres. It runs at the Kavinoky Theatre from March 6th through March 29th, 2020.

Next at the JRT’s home stage at the JCC in Getzville it’s MODERN ORTHODOX by Daniel Goldfarb, starring Nick Stevens and Adam Yellen as Ben, an Upper West Side financial guy and Hershel an Orthodox jewel merchant whose views on religion are quite different from each others. It also starts Kristin Bentley and Arin Lee Dandes and runs April 23 through May 17, 2020.

Lead image: Alice, played by Josie DiVincenzo, has been prescribed bed rest and gallons of Gatorade | Photographer is Ali Louis. Photographs provided by Jewish Repertory Theatre

*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)

ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.

TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.

THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.

FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.

FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!

Written by Peter Hall

Peter Hall

Peter Hall continues trying to figure out how "it" all works. For 20 years, as program host on Classical 94.5 WNED and continuing on-stage with the Buffalo Chamber Music Society, he's conducted over 1,000 interviews with artists as he asks them to explain, in layman's terms, "what's the big picture here?"

As mentioned recently in Buffalo Spree magazine, Peter's "Buffalo Rising reviews are the no-holds barred 'everyman's' take." And, on “Theater Talk” (heard Friday mornings at 6:45 and 8:45 a.m. on WBFO 88.7 FM and Saturday afternoons at 5:55 p.m. on Classical 94.5 WNED) his favorite question of co-host Anthony Chase is simply "What's goin' on?"

A member of Buffalo's Artie Awards Committee, Peter holds a B.A. in Comparative Literature from Columbia University and an M.B.A. from SUNY at Buffalo. For over twenty-five years he has been an adjunct professor for Canisius College’s Richard J. Wehle School of Business.

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