“The Burdens,” a world premiere which is running at City Theatre through May 12, is a play about a family, but it is most definitely not a family play — at least not one for families with young children.
Written by Carnegie Mellon University alum Matt Schatz and directed by City Theatre’s returning artistic director, Marc Masterson, the dark comedy about Jewish adult siblings opens with obscene language, relies on profanity for much of its humor, and the two characters in the show are flawed in ways that are downright disturbing.
That said, “The Burdens” nonetheless delivers profound social commentary on communication in the 21st century, and at times, is laugh-out-loud funny.
The plot is fundamentally connected to the means in which the characters, siblings Mordy and Jane Berman, communicate. Face-to-face interaction is limited to just one or two scenes, and instead, their dialogue is exchanged through text messages, emails and, less often, voice messages. The texting leads to some hysterical and confusing moments, just like it does in real life. Sarcasm is not always detected, and autocorrect can be as frustrating as it is comical.
Married older sister Jane is an attorney living in New Jersey, and is worried about their mother, who is burdened with caring for Zad-Zad, their 100-year-old curmudgeonly grandfather. Mordy is a struggling musician in California, working on getting his songwriting career off the ground. The two, who are in constant virtual contact, eventually come up with a plan to get rid of Zad-Zad.
References to the Jewishness of the characters is constant throughout the show. The playwright, who is Jewish, based the play on his own family experiences. Maybe that is why he felt compelled to make his show’s characters Jews. I found myself wishing they weren’t. Neither character is particularly likeable — although not in ways that Jews are stereotypically unlikable — but they are people with questionable morals and foul mouths.
Catherine Lefrere gives a strong performance as Jane, who turns out to be a richly layered character, and has outstanding comedic timing. Ben Rosenblatt convincingly plays Mordy as the more innocent “little” brother still longing for his sister’s approval. Some of the best moments in the show are when he performs Mordy’s original songs — the lyrics are clever, and he has a beautiful voice.
There is a lot packed into the 75-minute show, which covers relationships, aging and the weighing of values in a family “that uses humor to get through hard times,” as Schatz said in an interview in the program.
“Autocorrect and miscommunication are a big part of this play,” according to Schatz. “How small virtual miscommunications or misunderstandings can have real-world consequences. And also how it’s easier to type something than it is to say something to someone’s face.” PJC
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at