Mark Lonow ran The Improv Comedy Club for over thirty years and has a distinction that few of us may have. Not only did The Improv see the rise of some of the world's best stand up comics, but his granduncle Yakov Sverdlov was influential in the Russian Revolution of 1905. He was the guy who signed the death warrant for Czar Nicholas II and led the firing squad! The first president of Stalin's Russia!
That said, how a kid with such a notorious family past wound up in comedy is a story. Part of that story takes place in 1966 Brighton Beach, New York (these characters are real). It unfolds as might have been told had Herb Gardner sat down with Neil Simon and with a bottle of Manscheviz to discuss the early days of being Jewish kids. Of course, those writers have nothing on Clifford Odets, who in AWAKE AND SING! painted a scene that floats on pathos and strong characters. Though Lonow is considerably younger than these celebrated playwrights.. the schtick that has come to visit is not much of a gift. The title alone is a little frightening: JEWS, CHRISTIANS AND SCREWING STALIN! It bumps along on Joel Daavid's gorgeous set and has all the grace of a struggling sitcom. Had Minka not had the wall between the kitchen and the "sitting room" removed, it could almost be the home of Edith and Archie Bunker!
|Zayda/John Pleshette Photo by Ed Krieger|
We get off to a fine start with Murray (very casual John Pleshette), the now deceased husband of Minka (Cathy Ladman) who runs the rooming house where the two of them raised their son, David (Travis York) and their son's son, Joey (Hunter Milano) aka Joseph. The characters come on loud and strong. The interesting contrast that we see in Pleshette's bringing Murray gently to 'life' and the others is a mish mash of acting that flaunts stereotypes left and right. All that's missing is a side man with snare drum and cymbals to punctuate the patter with rim shots.
Following Simon, Gardner and Odets, authors Lonow and Jo Anne Astrow bring the past to life in 1966. It's hard not to make a comparison. It may have been problematic for Lonow to have directed his own work as the predictable schtick prevails over the somewhat touching story that may have emerged without all the shouting. Louder is not better. The sticky plot puts Bubby/Minka center stage sometimes observed by Murray who has discovered that even as a hard core atheist (He got more Jewish as time was short) that he's in Paradise with all of his Russian heros, Trotsky, Lenin and even Harpo Marx accompanying some of the exposition with his harp. "Minnie should have taught you to play accordion ... " Rim shot!
Stock characters include the nosy roomer, Feinstein (oy such a yenta Laura Julian) and totally superfluous brief encounters with bent over Mr. Goldman (Marty Ross) and poor Miss Koppelson (Sally Schaub) who farts! It's tsuris mit der tsimmes.
Aspiring actor, Joey, brings his red headed Irish/Catholic/Presbyterian intended (completely over the top Sammi Jack-Martincak) to the family Yom Kippur seder. (Thanks to my editor, I learn that this is a holiday nor a fish: "kipper!") Joey has no idea that Bubby has invited his dad, David, the alcoholic ne'er-do-well wheeler dealer who abandoned Joey when Joey's mother died, leaving him in the care of Murray and Minka. Anger and hate foment but it's the Day of Atonement, so after a few rough spots, we see the inevitable unfold.
Director Lonow has allowed eight actors to pretty much do their own thing as the story evolves. The prime directive must have been to "PROJECT!" The cast pretty much did just that, with the exception of Pleshette whose relaxed and down to earth exposition from Paradise is a marked contrast to the shouts from some of the other actors. Hamlet's advice to the players might be required reading for these folks. Why shouting and wild exclamations were encouraged or allowed with literally no room for building their characters made the play more of a farce than it was probably intended. What must have looked great on the page became schtick for schtick's sake leaving the arc of the play predictable though there are moments of pathos and some funny stuff. This includes Minka's confession that she did 'you know' with Joseph Stalin.. and most of the other guys as well as a little hanky panky with Emma Goldman, when, as a girl, she was footloose and fancy free in Moscow!
JEWS, CHRISTIANS AND SCREWING STALIN!
A world premiere by Mark Lonow and Jo Anne Astrow
7657 Melrose Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90046
Through September 23, 2018
Tickets and Information
353 960 4412