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Patrick Egan

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Family Feud: Teeth of the Sons

Posted: 05/09/11 07:45 PM ET

I've lived in New York City long enough to expect the unexpected and keep cool in the presence of insanity, but an Orthodox Jew cold busting his human beatbox, dressed only in his skivvies and swilling Jack Daniels, still feels to me worthy of the term "spectacle." The fact that said scene is a heartfelt, emotional cornerstone of a wrenching family drama -- Teeth of the Sons, playing now through May 14 at the Cherry Lane Theatre in Greenwich Village -- should, I hope, convince you that this is a rampant narrative that proves utterly capable of surprise and wonder.

Jacob and Sam are estranged Brooklyn brothers who have cast their turbulent family history into divisive religious terms. Their relationship's combustibility lurches to the fore in the first moments of this searing production, directed by Nicole Haran and staged by the Barefoot Theatre Company.

Jacob (Joseph Sousa) sleeps in what was once the brothers' grandmother's house, seemingly in peace, on the shabby couch, the Torah splayed across his chest. Older brother Sam (Will Allen) slips into the inky dark after being absent for some time and, in the latest of a lifetime of miscalculations, shocks Jacob awake via a prank robbery.

The differences between the two, and the distance they must travel to reconcile, are immediately evidenced by their very appearance: Jacob, in the black and white of his adopted Hasidic disciplines, tzitzis hanging at his side. Sam wears the baggie jeans- hoodie uniform of a young street veteran. Jacob, visibly shaken, can barely tolerate Sam, who noses around the house for booze that is not Manishewitz to take the edge off the intensity he's just ignited.

My brother and I have had our fights, shed a little blood in our day, but nothing with this level of raw contempt. This is not the way that family treats family. Then again, this is no ordinary family. And really, what is ordinary about family?

Sousa brings more than an intense performance as the show's star; he's also the author of this award-winning play. Sousa explained that the work stems from his own experiences with religion, and especially seeing people around him undergo spiritual transformation. Jacob is a stark example.

But religion stands more as a vehicle in the play for other existential issues. "This play is ultimately about identity, and part of the difficulty these characters face trying to carve out an authentic identity for themselves is breaking out of the limitations their parents have set before them," Sousa wrote in an e-mail.

Jacob used to be known as Jake. Sam is short for Samuel, so named after his grandfather. Even Sam's pregnant girlfriend (played by Cassandra M.J. Lollar) goes by Maddy, short for Madeline.

Maddy and Evelyn (Shayna Padovano), Jacob's old girlfriend, survive as the wreckage of the brothers' irresponsible behavior and also as potential anchors to the unmoored young men. Maddy stands as a potential solution for both Jacob and Sam, dabbling with the stability of a Hasidic life, despite her blue-collar Catholic roots while at the same time carrying Sam's child, what could be the cornerstone of a new family.

The story's jagged, emotional escalation and sharp narrative focus epitomizes the kind of work that Barefoot Theatre Company brings to the stage. "Ultimately, we look for theatrical pieces that really make our audiences think about what they've just experienced long after the performance," said Francisco Solorzano, "and that's usually the universal theme of family, love and passion."