Alan Gross’ High Holidays starts as a “Midwestern version of a Neil Simon comedy,” said Chris Jones in the Chicago Tribune. We’re introduced to Billy Roman, a Jewish teenager coming of age in the 1960s in the fictional town of Iroquois, Ill. Then we meet his family—a domineering shoe salesman father, a foul-mouthed mother, and a rebellious, Bob Dylan–loving older brother—and we start to think of Brighton Beach Memoirs. But High Holidays quickly delves into far more “dysfunctional territory,” with Billy’s parents practicing a kind of parenting just short of child abuse. For the most part, Gross’ play doesn’t include the “notes of love” that could show that these characters actually care for one another. Without such touches, the play’s intended “laugh lines” are not only unfunny, they make the audience complicit in the cruelty.
Two and a half hours of relentless, “anguished dialogue” is certainly a lot to take, said Tony Adler in the Chicago Reader. Do we really need to hear Billy’s mother, Essie, impolitely threatening to ram a football up his posterior, or his father, Nate, using a “Yiddishism to call him a mental defective”? But Gross’ real mistake is his central character, Billy, whose struggles to master the Torah for his bar mitzvah simply aren’t very compelling. Far more interesting is an “Oedipal triangle” between Nate, Essie, and Billy’s brother Rob that’s never allowed to develop. By failing to make “this glaring bit of dysfunction” the focus, Gross gives us a play that turns out to be as dull as it is traumatic.