Many thanks to playwright Jason Odell Williams for taking time to talk to me about his romantic comedy, Handle With Care, opening tonight in New York, and starring Broadway legend Carol Lawrence, the original Maria in “West Side Story.” It tells the story of a young Israeli woman who reluctantly travels with her grandmother to America. Fate and hilarious circumstances bring together the young woman, who has little command of English, and a young American man with little command of romance. Is their inevitable love an accident? Or destiny generations in the making? Produced by my lifelong friend Sara Crown Star along with Doug Denoff, it arrives in New York after rave reviews around the country.
What was the initial inspiration for this story? is any of it based on characters or incidents from real life?
The initial inspiration was I wanted to write a play for my wife. I was an actor at the time and was becoming tired of bad auditions and mediocre plays that were angry and about “serious important issues.” I wanted to write a romantic comedy – in the best sense of that word – that people from 8 to 88 could enjoy. Like Neil Simon or the classic sitcoms from the 60s and 70s. So I asked my wife what kind of play she’d like to act in, and she wanted something where she couldn’t be understood or where there was a communication gap. She’s Israeli and speaks fluent Hebrew so i thought i’d start with that. I thought she should be lost or stuck somewhere where no one or very few people can understand her. And from there a play was born! It’s not based on any specific real life incidents but I drew on my experiences when I first visited Israel and Charlotte’s nieces and nephews couldn’t understand me and we had to find some common-ground method of communication. And the two main characters, Josh and Ayelet, started off as versions of my wife and I, but over time became their own characters. I usually begin writing a character with a person or actor in mind and then the character takes over and becomes its own living breathing being.
What is the biggest challenge in creating a romantic comedy? The Atlantic wrote about how the genre seems to be disappearing from movies — why is it hard to create one these days?
I think because everyone is so familiar with the structure – and you can’t really deviate from it too much or it won’t work. Boy and Girl meet, there are obstacles along the way, Boy and Girl fall in love and end up together. It’s no secret that the two main characters are going to get together in the end and it will be a happy ending – the only question is HOW. So everyone knows what’s coming and therefore it’s harder to surprise them. And it’s hard to not seem schmaltzy. It’s hard to be sincere in this day and age. It’s definitely the hardest genre but ultimately my favorite. Because you’re challenge is to make people laugh, cry, smile, feel warm, and delight them from start to finish. No easy task.
What is it like to work with the legendary Carol Lawrence? How does her extraordinary background in theater contribute to this production?
She’s pretty amazing. I sometimes forget about her roots and her background and just see her as lovely Carol, the actress playing Edna, but once in a while I have to pinch myself when I remember she was the original “Maria.” Her stage experience and also just her life experience help her bring such amazing depth and warmth to the role. And she’s also extremely sweet and endearing in person. Lovely to have in the cast. We’re very lucky!
What makes the relationship with a bubbe so universal?
Everybody has one. And if you weren’t particularly close to your bubbie, you know what’s it like to be close to SOMEONE in your family. And that’s universal. Family and Love are the most universal topics I think. And the best topics.
What did you learn from regional productions of the show that helped make it work off-Broadway? Were there any major changes along the way?
Yes, and there are still changes! There will probably be script changes up until a few days before opening night! But that’s what theatre is about. Tweaking and re-writing until you get it right. We learned SO much from the regional productions. Learned where the laughs are, where audiences were confused, where they were bored, where they were charmed, surprised, enthralled. Listening to an audience watch your play night after night is incredibly informative. It’s the only way to know what’s working. So i will use the first several preview performances to tinker and finalize the script for sure.
What were some of your favorite romantic comedies — legitimate theater or movie — when you were growing up?
When Harry Met Sally is the perfect romantic comedy film. And then for theatre, Barefoot in the Park is a benchmark play for me. If I can come anywhere close to Nora Ephron, Rob Reiner or Neil Simon, I’d consider myself very lucky.
What do you want families to talk about after they’ve seen the show?
I want them to talk about their own families, their own stories of fate and destiny, whether or not they believe in fate or destiny or soul mates or if it’s all just a bunch of random chaos, to talk about their own stories of finding love and falling in love. I want them to leave the play buzzing and smiling and happy and feeling a renewed faith in humanity! Is that too much to ask??
What makes you laugh?
My wife and my daughter. A great romantic comedy. And of course – this play!