A play can borrow the plot from another and still be great. After all, no one considers “West Side Story” any less brilliant for cribbing from “Romeo and Juliet.” So it's not an automatic strike against “The Fiddler's House,” playing at Chamberlayne Actors Theatre, that it so closely resembles “Driving Miss Daisy.” In fact, there's one twist that makes the show, which was written and directed by Richmonder Sheryle Criswell, more interesting than the famous Pulitzer Prize-winning dramedy. Unfortunately, there are other ways in which the play and the production fall short.
Both “Fiddler's” and “Driving” start with black domestics being hired to take care of aging Jewish parents by caring middle-aged children. In “Fiddler's” case, it's Miriam Kennedy (played by Diana Carver) who's hired by Sarah Haver-Lewis (Anna Koehler) to help her father around the house. The father is world-famous violinist Nathan Haver (Elliot Eisenberg) -- a character modeled after Itzhak Perlman -- and he's been grieving the loss of his wife for two years. Nathan is, of course, resistant to Miriam's assistance. Cultures clash, barbs fly and animosity eventually gives way to understanding and friendship.
Criswell bolsters this basic scenario with flashbacks in which we see the main characters with their spouses in earlier years, an up-and-coming Nathan (Chris Yarbrough) and his wife, Annie (also played by Koehler), and young nurse, Miriam (Deirdre Jones), with her husband, Solomon (Akin Smith). These scenes have some moments of discovery, excitement and sadness. But they also serve to highlight how relatively static and rote the rest of the show is.
As the chief antagonists, Eisenberg and Carver only occasionally seem natural in their interactions. Their characterizations lack subtlety and they get little assistance from stretches of simplistic dialogue, such as Miriam urging, “Let go of all that sorrow!” while Nathan complains, “What is the point?” At times, Carver seems to struggle to recall her lines on opening night. Koehler has a couple of charming soliloquies while the rest of the cast members get precious little stage time to prove themselves.
The fiddler's house itself is nicely rendered, with a set designed by Eric Kinder to include pull-away panels to reveal tableaux for the flashback scenes. Gretta Daughtrey's lighting brightens as Nathan's depression lifts, but also goes oddly pitch black during transitions to the flashbacks.
Criswell turns the occasional nice phrase -- the Vietnam War is called “a bad case of acne on the face of humanity” -- but overall “The Fiddler's House” comes across as a less robust shadow of another work.
“The Fiddler's House” plays at Chamberlayne Actors Theatre, 319 N. Wilkinson Road, through Feb. 6. For information call 262-9760 or go to cattheatre.com. S