The painfully familiar bickering of a traditional Jewish family meets a sexy yet clueless striving-to-be Hollywood starlet in Deborah Zoe Laufer’s play, “The Last Schwartz,” which returns to the Zephyr Theatre on Melrose Avenue Jan. 4, after a hiatus.
Italian set designer Giulio Cesare Perrone makes optimum use of the intimate 74-seat theater’s minimalist stage through simple styling, furniture placement and an entrancing lighting scheme designed by Kathi O’Donohue, particularly toward the end of the show.
Director Lee Sankowich said it took months to find the perfect props, including branches to adorn the set’s back walls, which mimic New York’s Catskills. After being banned from picking up fallen tree branches in Griffith Park, Perrone and Sankowich moved on to Pasadena’s 127-acre Arboretum and Botanic Gardens, where they found the perfect-sized branches for the set.
The play, which opened at the Manalapan Florida Stage in 2003, appealed to Sankowich because of its eclectic amalgam of humor and tragedy. While casting for the production, Sankowich sought emotional human elements in the actors, not necessarily Jewish elements, although, he said, “It didn’t hurt that three out of the six performers were Jewish.” Having an innate knowledge of and background in Judaism helped the actors grasp the roles with more ease, he added.
Norma (Valerie Perri), who performed in one of the first productions Sankowich put on at the Zephyr when it opened in 1978, displays an array of human elements, presenting vulnerability despite her hard outer shell. Perri, who is almost unrecognizable outside her black bob wig and conservative wardrobe is stunning, looking younger, more beautiful and refreshed off-set. One would not guess she could transform into such an embittered, stern woman who struggles so turbulently to let go of an ancient past, although her concern for wanting to maintain family and tradition is understandable.
Laufer inserts humor at timely intervals to meld the play into a dramedy instead of mere tragedy, said Sankowich. Greeks, Italians and Jews who visit the theater can all relate to the play, he said, because “people connect with the family dynamic and similar issues showcased here.” Themes of loss, betrayal, closure—and lack thereof—arise throughout the play.
Gathering in the Schwartz family home in the New York countryside, the four Schwartz siblings unite for their father’s yarzheit on the one-year anniversary of his death. The reunion quickly goes awry when younger brother Gene (Roy Abramsohn) brings home his non-Jewish girlfriend, a wide-eyed blonde stumbling in their home wearing a short, hot-pink dress and knee-high white leather pointy-toed boots.
This family with many secrets opens up after meeting scantily clad Kia (scene-stealer Steffany Huckaby), a girl who seems to harbor none. Although Gene’s controlling older sister Norma is appalled by the girl’s lack of knowledge about Judaism, overtly flirtatious mannerisms and visible lingerie, Kia provides the perfect spice to heat up the family meeting and brings their festering boils to the surface. In the midst of debating whether or not to sell the family estate, Kia unveils a secret that will be sure to affect everyone.
Herb (Alan Safier), another Schwartz sibling, is a disenchanted man whose wife Bonnie (Pamela Gaye Walker) desperately pines for his affection and approval. Bonnie takes some attention away from Huckaby, challenging the core of Kia’s being, but not quite penetrating the young woman’s impermeable, cheerful spirit.
While Bonnie exposes some of her insecurities, reminiscing about the past and reflecting on her current “short, fat and frumpy” stature, Kia responds innocently saying, “You’re not frumpy.”
Universal humor is displayed through off-the-wall younger brother Simon (brilliantly performed by Tim Cummings, who will be replaced in the cast when the show reopens) who is going blind, believes space travel is possible and that the apocalypse is looming—and maybe for the Schwartzes it is. Because Simon’s brothers and sister don’t understand how to deal with their high-functioning autistic brother, he is left to his own devices and ignored by his family, but never by the audience. Simon does not participate in the family squabbles, but strangely enough provides an outlet for each character to unload their frustrations, and oftentimes receives unwelcoming responses.
Laufer, a Westchester, N.Y. native, spent a year writing the play during her studies at the Julliard School’s playwriting program. Based partly on personal experience, yet mostly fictionalized, Laufer said there were moments when she struggled writing the script.
The play leaves many questions unanswered, she said, which in turn spikes audience members’ intellectual curiosity. Although she doesn’t necessarily write to be funny, humor is interwoven in the script.
“It’s about the melting pot of America and the price of assimilation. It’s emotionally involved and deadly serious,” she said. “People need to see it to understand.”
For tickets and show times visit http://www.plays411.com/newsite/show/play_info.asp?show_id=1278.
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