Wendy Graf's new comedy "The Book of Esther" focuses on a central character named Mindy, who, like Queen Esther, bravely declares her Jewishness in the face of opposition. Unlike Esther, Mindy doesn't save the Jewish people, but confronts her ardently secular family and friends when she discovers her religion.
Young Mindy and Adult Mindy are portrayed by two different actors, who sometimes share the stage. Young Mindy was raised by somewhat self-hating Jewish parents -- they sent her to a Christian Science Sunday school. The spiritual void of her childhood follows young Mindy into adulthood.
After a '70s-era fling with guru-style enlightenment, Adult Mindy settles down, marries and has children. When an acquaintance dies, the rabbi's comforting words and in-depth knowledge of the departed has Mindy questioning, "Who's going to know me when I die?"
What follows is a rapid engagement with Orthodox Judaism, plunging her Christmas tree-decorating family into chaos. Torn between her mother's distaste for "those real Jew-y Jews on Fairfax Ave." and her Chasidic mentor's "Ya wanna do it right, or ya wanna do it all facockta?" Mindy searches for a balance of tradition and contemporary life.
Throw in a fashion-conscious friend who disapproves of Wendy's tzniut-conscious style, a daughter who expects presents for the holiday of Shabbat, and a brief argument with Santa Claus, then "The Book of Esther" becomes at once an introspective quest and a whimsical contemporary tale.
Playwright Wendy Graf has done her own share of searching. Her current careers as private investigator and playwright follow stints as a teacher, actress, comic and TV writer ("ALF," "Murder, She Wrote"). Graf also shares with her protagonist a rabbi who helped her discover Judaism. The spiritual discovery in the play is based on Graf's experience with Kehillat Israel's Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben. In 1998, with Reuben's guidance, Graf became a bat mitzvah in a joint ceremony with her daughter.
"The Book of Esther," through Aug. 5. Theater East, 12655 Ventura Blvd., Studio City. For reservations or more information, call (818) 788-4396.