The reviewer filing into the intimate confines of the Next Theatre will need a few minutes to let his or her eyes dance off the set for “Everything Is Illuminated.” Scenic designer Grant Sabin’s set is a like a rustic homage to Andy Warhol’s garage. Broken, dirty glass sits on old wood shelving, decorated by knickknacks, hub caps and empty bottles of beer. Dozens of light bulbs line the walls and dangle from the ceiling near center stage, transporting us in spirit and tone to a modern-day Ukraine where people are both stuck in, and desperately seeking to forget, the past.
Novelist Jonathan Safran Foer has seen this, his first novel, and his second novel, “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” turned into feature films. Mr. Foer’s youthful perspective and the talents of playwright Simon Block (who adapted the novel) combine to produce an honest yet quirky work with excellent staging by director Devon de Mayo and the best ensemble the Next Theatre has put together in quite some time.
The play tells the story of writer Jonathan Safran Foer (Brad Smith plays the author) traveling from New York to Ukraine to find the woman who saved his grandfather from the Nazis in World War II in the “vanished” town of Trochenbrod. He is writing a book about the origin of his Ukrainian roots, and the characters of his play-within-a-play also come to life. Sasha Gioppo and H.B. Ward do fine work with limited amounts of stage time.
While the synopsis may sound like the set-up for a muted, introspective affair, enter the force of nature that is the duo of Alex (Alex Goodrich) and his grandfather (William J. Norris), as bickering Ukrainian tour guides who take Jewish Americans to find the remains of the relatives they lost during the Nazi occupation. This process of finding out how someone lived, as opposed to reliving the nightmare of how they died, is a major theme of the play.
Literary, neurotic Jonathan and the exuberant, working-class Alex seem about as different as two people can get, but during brief monologues and conversations Alex’s intellect shines through. Jonathan simultaneously begins to regret his quest, and his growing uncertainty gnaws at him. The narrative becomes just as much Alex’s as it is Jonathan’s.
Mr. Goodrich (who appeared at Next’s “The U.N. Inspector”) majestically transforms from Eastern European stereotype – butchered American catchphrases, talk about his genitals – into the flesh and blood of the play, even if he may only be a fabrication of Jonathan Safran Foer’s imagination.
As might be expected from a play titled “Everything Is Illuminated,” lighting design is an important aspect of the production, and Heather Gilbert is up to the task. Nick Keenan’s sound design is also a subtly powerful tool, with music used sparingly to for great effect.
Powerful, important and very, very funny, “Everything Is Illuminated” is a production The Next Theatre Company should be proud of.
“Everything is Illuminated” has received an extended run through April 14 at the Noyes Cultural Arts Center, 927 Noyes Street. For tickets, visit nexttheatre.org or call 847-475-1875 ext. 2.