Everything was at stake for Bryan Fogel before “Jewtopia,” the comedy he wrote and starred in with Sam Wolfson, opened at the Coast Playhouse in May 2003 and became a runaway hit.
The then-28-year-old actor racked up charges on his credit cards for the $80,000 production about two guys on the Jewish singles scene. If the effort bombed, Fogel promised himself and his concerned Jewish parents, he was going to quit show business.
“At the time, ‘Jewtopia’ was about trying to get an agent or a manager, because no one was having me,” he said while preparing to direct a new version of the show, opening July 15 at the Greenway Court Theatre. “It was an all-or-nothing, no-guts-no-glory kind of moment of trying to catch a break. But I couldn’t have begun to imagine that it would turn into what transpired.”
The eight-week run stretched into 17 months, becoming the longest-running original comedy in Los Angeles theater history. An off-Broadway production recouped its $625,000 investment within 20 weeks, prompting a story in Crain’s New York Business, and sold out many of its 1,100 shows in a two-and-a-half year run. Warner published a coffee-table book, “Jewtopia,” inspired by the play; more than 40 productions ensued around North America; and a movie adaptation is in the works, with Fogel attached to direct. Joan Rivers and other celebrities attended performances — as did Salmon Rushdie, who shmoozed with the playwrights over dinner after the show.
Seven years after its auspicious beginnings, Fogel is bringing “Jewtopia” back to Los Angeles to raise support for the film and to hone his own directing skills, as he has never officially directed the play. He is also welcoming the break from other Hollywood endeavors, especially “the development world, which is enough to make anyone want to kill themselves,” he quipped. “In the theater, the playwright really is king.” (Wolfson, who is not involved with the Greenway endeavor, has a new show, “Play Dates,” opening at The Elephant Theatre on July 10.)
The new Los Angeles “Jewtopia” production is “radically different” from the original, Fogel said: The script, published by Samuel French last year, is 40 minutes shorter, the result of tweaking over several thousand drafts. “We wanted to make it quicker, faster, funnier,” Fogel said. “A lot of moments in the old show were sweet or philosophical, especially at the end when the characters spoke about God and faith. But any time we’d see any kind of seriousness, we realized this isn’t the show for that.”
The play still opens as childhood friends Adam Lipschitz and Chris O’Connell bump into each other at an Inter-Temple Rockin’ Young Singles Mixer: “I love Jewish girls,” the Irish Catholic Chris proclaims. “Why?” Adam incredulously replies.
Chris explains that he wants to marry a Jew so he “never has to make another decision”; Lipschitz says he’s attending the event only to satisfy his mother, who forwards him the phone numbers of dozens of “nice Jewish girls” daily. And so the two men strike a deal: Chris will teach the socially awkward Adam how to pick up women, and Adam will show Chris how to come off as an MOT so he can land his dream girl. Broad, and at times raunchy, comedy ensues, including riffs on stereotypes such as cheesy Purim carnivals, inept rabbis, nightmare dates, and Jewish women and their mothers.
“Jewtopia” received criticism early on for what some perceived as unpleasant images of the Tribe, especially Jewish women; the new version still “skewers everyone,” Fogel said. “I believe the success of the comedy is that it’s an equal-opportunity satire,” he added. “Jewish men, for instance, come off as needy, health-obsessed, whining, complaining and unable to make decisions on their own.”
Even so, Fogel acknowledged some of the early jokes did go too far: The writers nixed a scene in which one of Lipschitz’s Jewish dates, a performance artist, urinates on him, and another in which Adam’s mom attempts to elicit guilt by citing the Holocaust.
“But everything in the show comes from a place of love,” Fogel insisted. Even the stereotypes. Like the fictional Adam, Fogel talks to his own mother at least seven times a day and begins each morning with an antacid and a puff on his asthma inhaler. His direction aims to play up the fun: “It will be very campy, very ‘Saturday Night Live,’ ” he said.
While seven or eight viewers used to walk out of early productions, Fogel believes audiences at the Greenway will stay put. “At this point, people know they’re coming to a comedy — a ridiculous comedy — not ‘A Shayna Mai-del,’ ” he said, referring to Barbara Lebow’s 1985 Holocaust drama.
And he attributes the show’s success — with audiences that have been about 65 percent Jewish and the rest non-Jewish — to its universal themes.
“We all know parents who nudge and children who rebel,” he said. “People recognize their own families, and themselves.”
“Jewtopia” is playing at the Greenway Court Theatre, 544 N. Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles. Previews are running now through July 11; the play officially opens July 15 and runs at least until Sept. 19. For tickets and information, visit www.jewtopiaplay.com or call (800) 595-4849.