‘A Jewish Joke’ – a ‘Drama About Comedy’ – Had Zero Drama, and Sparse Comedy

 

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Bernie Lutz (Phil Johnson) in his one-man show about being blacklisted in 1950’s Hollywood.

Reviewed by Gregor Collins

Have you heard of the Jewish woman who was a kleptomaniac? One day she goes into a store and steals a can of peaches. On her way out, she’s caught, arrested, and brought before a judge. “What you did is disgraceful,” the judge reprimands her. “There were six peaches in that can… so I am giving you six days in jail, one for each peach.”

Suddenly the woman’s husband, seated in back, stands up and shouts: “She also stole a can of peas!”

There were a few of these jokes that really killed, read from notecards by headliner Bernie Lutz (Phil Johnson) at sporadic times throughout the evening when he’s feeling like he—or us—needs defibrillators. And that’s the problem here: For a “dramedy” that surely fancies itself more comedy than drama, having the majority of laughs coming from the occasional joke read off a notecard felt a little cheap.

In A Jewish Joke, Bernie Lutz (Phil Johnson) is a curmudgeonly Jewish comedy screenwriter from MGM, who comes up against the Communist blacklist in 1950’s Hollywood. The play—a one-person show set entirely in Lutz’s cramped, corner office somewhere on a Southern California studio lot—comes from the Roustabouts Theater Company, was written by Marni Freedman and Phil Johnson, directed by David Ellenstein, and runs through March 31st at the Lion Theater on Theater Row.

As far as I could tell, I was the only person in the theater under 50, maybe even 60. On one hand, AJJ isn’t exactly intended for my demographic, but on the other far stronger hand, a good story is a good story is a good story, and despite my being an old-souled millennial who was once a caregiver for a Jewish Holocaust survivor, I left the theater uninspired. Ultimately, AJJ—dubbed “A poignant dramedy about one American’s fight against one of the darkest moments of the mid-20th Century”—had no poignancy, hardly a fight, and no darkness; there was nothing that penetrated the skin, nothing that shed any new or different light on the blacklist movement. Music would have helped; a large screen with images playing concurrent to the action would have helped – how could a director of an Off-Broadway play, in the year 2019, not think to use either of these storytelling techniques? It would have added pennies to the budget, and the audience would have experienced a more affecting show.

But I’m only a reviewer.

In Phil Johnson’s defense, the cards were stacked against the play from the beginning, because the script itself gave a reasonably entertaining actor nothing to really work with aside from one-liners and empty pleas for us to care about his plight as a blacklisted Hollywood screenwriter. (Johnson also co-penned the script, so maybe I’m being kind here.)

The play is set in a high-strung, once-successful screenwriter’s dingy office, with scripts and papers strewn about, the phone ringing off the hook every two minutes from either a studio head rejecting his script or his secretary telling him they’ve got “so and so on the line”—with all this going on, Johnson, Freedman and Ellenstein would like you to believe you’re being entertained. But it’s hard to be entertained when you’re not simultaneously being moved.

All we’re getting here is a borderline unlikable comedy writer fumbling around his office answering phone calls for 90 minutes with no intermission. We don’t feel his pain as a blacklisted writer, as a Jew, as a human in crisis, or as any form that he is, because everything is going too fast and there are no moments of silence, empathy or reflection.

There is one touching moment—in the middle of the show when Lutz turns to the audience, for once not in the mood to try and amuse us, and tells us about the day he met his wife: “It was the best stroll of my life,” he says, taking a pause before returning to the chaos of his day.

Too bad there weren’t more of these.

See this show for the 2 or 3 zingers you can regift at the next cocktail party.

Performances begin Thursday, March 7, 2019 at 8:00pm for a limited run through Saturday, March 31, 2019 at The Lion Theater @ Theatre Row (410 West 42nd Street – between 9th & 10th Avenues).

Tickets: https://www.telecharge.com/Off-Broadway/A-Jewish-Joke/Overview

The Art of the Middle-Class White Couple Having a Sh*t Day

 

Caitlin Gallogly and Christopher M. Smith 2

Headliners Caitlin Gallogly (Julie) and Christopher Smith (Robert) hole themselves up in a hotel room to repair their marriage.

Reviewed by Gregor Collins

With 75% of the “indie” theater I review these days feeling like audacious millenials with zero budget cranking out some disturbing amalgam of dystopian-apocalyptic-sci-fi-hyper-realistic-political-satire-absurdist theater—and I say that not as a bad thing—it’s refreshing, in a way, to see a play wax old-school tradition like Fiercely Independent: Lights go up, said couple ambles into a hotel room, said couple endures emotional highs and lows, said couple comes out changed. It’s as if Neil Simon himself were alive and well and hunched over a typewriter.

But just because this felt refreshing, it doesn’t mean you should be forking out $59 to see it.

The plot: Julie and Robert have been married for four years. They are not getting along. They decide to spend 24 hours together in a hotel room with no television, no cellphones, no internet or computers, to see if they can work things out.

As a traditional “well-made” play that played it safe, it’s reasonably engaging. I never twiddled, I never checked my watch, and I was “with them” the whole way—but these days, at least for me, if an indie or Off-Broadway play doesn’t make the kind of bold choices that risk it falling flat on its nose, it’s not going to stick with me… Fiercely won’t give you any new or inspiring perspectives on life. It stays mildly interesting through changes in blocking, changes in time, bringing in a bellhop once in awhile, playing music—but it fails to challenge us, to make us feel anything we didn’t already feel going into it.

Those middle-class white couple notes it hits, we can relate to: We’ve had a relationship (or at least heard of one) teetering on collapse, like matchbox cars racing around a tenuous track; most (at least Western) males have felt what Robert (Christopher Smith) feels, confused by his own inscrutability while tilting at windmills to be the man the world wants him to be; feeling emasculated and living in fear that he won’t be able to keep a woman interested. And Julie (Caitlin Gallogly), frustrated by Robert’s inability to express his true feelings. These are age-old problems with the sexes that feel close to home.

Other things I appreciated: Not having an intermission and it only being 70 minutes; Actor Christopher Smith—after a few minutes of me wondering if he was nervous or just not a good actor—loosening up to give us glimpses of a mercurial Alpha Male cracking open his vulnerability; and Jordan Sobel (Bellman), despite being cast to literally bring props on and off stage, coming across overqualified, almost as if he should have been headlining the show. (later I saw in the playbill that he was Smith’s understudy, confirming my instincts.)

Julie (Gallogly) was, for me, the best part of the play. Maybe she reminded me of a girlfriend I had once. Or a girl I liked. Or a girl I want. But she had a tenderness to her sharp wit, a sensuality to her girl-next-door-ness; I found myself mostly watching her, not because Smith wasn’t interesting, but because she was MORE interesting; I cared about her and hoped she would find a man who could show his true feelings. At the end when the audience was clapping at each actor, the claps rained the hardest when Gallogly stepped forward. She seemed genuinely surprised, almost embarrassed. But we weren’t. We were just showing our appreciation for the actor we felt began, and ended, the story.

Written and directed by 3-time Tony-award winning producer Kathleen K. Johnson in what looks to be her first credit as a playwright—the evening—again, not that there’s anything wrong with this—felt written by a middle-class white woman. Of course, Middle-class white women can write a great play. And they have. But in this case you get what you pay for: A mildly-engaging middle-class white couple having a shit day.

FIERCELY INDEPENDENT will perform through April 7—Wednesdays through Fridays at 7 pm, Saturdays at 2 and 7 pm, and Sundays at 3 pm.

Tickets are $59 and can be purchased at https://www.fiercelysoho.com/

or call 212-691-1555.