Stage Struck Review

Reviews for theater within the greater Los Angeles area.

Tag Archives: Joel Daavid

The Comedy is Too Closed a Circle: “Jews, Christians and Screwing Stalin”

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Front: Sammi-Jack Martincak, Travis York and Hunter Milano, Rear: Laura Julian, Cathy Ladman in a silly scene near the end of “Jews, Christians, and Screwing Stalin”, a guest production at The Matrix [Photo: Ed Krieger}

The trick in writing a play highlighting the idiosyncrasies of a single cultural group is finding a way to celebrate those specific aspects while finding avenues toward the universal. This is the art of plays by the likes of Neil Simon, Lorraine Hansberry, or Joe DiPietro: they manage nostalgia, a ferocious sense of identity, and culturally specific humor, but scoop up the rest of the audience for the ride too. Without that ability to cross barriers a play becomes as isolated as, say, the famed Yiddish theater of New York, which faded away as its patrons Americanized over generations.

Which brings me to Mark Lonow and Jo Anne Astrow’s new play, “Jews, Christians and Screwing Stalin.” Deeply nostalgic, and admittedly only slightly exaggerated from Lonow’s very real grandparents, it follows the antics in a Brighton Beach boarding house filled with Jewish former Russian revolutionaries, and the grandson from Hollywood who brings a surprise – his very Christian girlfriend – when requested to come home for Rosh Hashanah. There is a lot of potential, and there are some fascinating comic types among the characters, but it is only marginally humorous to anyone not intimate with the cultural details of these people in this setting, that is until the very funny last 10 minutes. In the end, it’s just too long a wait.

Minka Grazonsky has pulled both her son and her grandson back to celebrate the high holy days in order to honor the request of her late husband Murray that they reconcile. Murray watches over the results from his celestial bedroom, in-between moments sharing cocktails with Trotsky and others, over and over, with whom he is supposedly hanging out in the afterlife. The son, David, who long ago abandoned his wife and young son, and Joseph, the grandson, have not spoken in years and do not know the other is coming. And then there is that girlfriend.

Minka’s borders, struggling with age, include an amusingly theatrical gossip named Lillie who makes sure that everyone knows everyone else’s business. Much of their dialogue is in Yiddish, particularly in the first half, which either Murray, whose entire part consists of asides to the audience, or the girlfriend Caitlin (dictionary in hand, to try to fit in) has to translate for those who don’t get it. It’s a construct that doesn’t quite do that work of inclusion, and mutes the potential comic value of moments along the way.

Lonow, who also directs, has assembled just about as good a cast as one could possibly get to try to make this work. John Pleshette makes as much as he can of the repetitive bits, and inessential asides Murray is limited to. Cathy Ladman, as the quirky, grumpy Minka, injects her character with enough innate humanity to avoid becoming a cartoon. Laura Julian’s Lillie is a cartoon and is supposed to be one – including finessing some of the more humorous lines in the play.

Hunter Milano, as the comparatively hip young Joseph, resonates with the generational shifts which balance tradition – even offbeat tradition, in this case – with the larger, more inclusive world. As his father David, Travis York vibrates with character flaws in a way which makes him more stereotypically tragic than humorous. As Caitlin, the obviously token non-Jewish person in the cast, Sammi-Jack Martincak spends the entire play looking like she’s trying too hard, which may be in character, but becomes generally uncomfortable.

Still, the largest discomfort is left for those in the audience who are not instantly connected to the cultural references of the play. By the end, there are some very funny moments for which the entire play has been a set-up, but this bit of silliness and slap-stick does not make up for the insular nature of the rest. Despite the remarkable set by Joel Daavid, Lonow and Astrow need to go back and look at cultural nostalgia which has worked better, start to finish, and get out the editor’s pen.

What: “Jews, Christians, and Screwing Stalin”. When: through September 17, 8 p.m. Saturdays and Mondays, 3 p.m. Sundays. Where: A guest production at the Matrix Theatre, 7657 Melrose Ave. in Los Angeles. How Much: $35. Info: (323) 960-4412 or http://www.Plays411.com/Matzoballs

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Hollywood Drama/Human Face: “Stoneface” reintroduces Buster Keaton

French Stewart as Buster Keaton waiting for the house to fall in "Stoneface" [photo: Jim Cox]

French Stewart as Buster Keaton waiting for the house to fall in “Stoneface” [photo: Jim Cox]

The story of early Hollywood offers a host of human dramas. The switch from silent to sound, the development of the monolithic studio system, the pressures on actors and others to live up to their publicity – all of this can be grist for the novelist or playwright’s mill. The trick is to avoid melodrama – to stay real to the people behind the celluloid. When that happens, the window on this fascinating, artistic and insular world can be a revelation.

Take as a uniquely framed, fascinating example “Stoneface,” Vanessa Claire Stewart’s tale of silent star Buster Keaton, which has just expanded from the Sacred Fools Theater Company to the Pasadena Playhouse. The play was written for, and stars, the playwright’s husband French Stewart, who has long been an aficionado of Keaton and his work. As such, his moves echo the man on the screen. It adds to the sense of convoluted but engrossing authenticity which makes the play work.

Keaton, for the uninitiated, was a comic genius of the silent screen comparable to (though vastly different from) Charlie Chaplin. His stunt work was amazing, although it led to the breaking of virtually every bone in his body at one time or another. His ability to weather – on screen – all sorts of physical disaster without changing expression became his hallmark – hence the nickname Stoneface.

Off screen, of course, everything was more complex. Fame swept him away, as did a glamorous but not necessarily heart-based marriage. Keaton’s deep friendship with Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle contributed not only to his alcoholism but, as the power of the big studios grew and sound appeared, his disaffection with Hollywood itself. That he would resurrect himself before the end is both surprising and sincerely satisfying.

Stewart is impressive, but this is not a one-man show by any means. Some of his best work plays off of others, especially Joe Fria as Keaton’s younger self, with whom the older man has significant arguments. Scott Leggett gives a touchingly real portrait of Keaton’s close friend Arbuckle, seen mostly in that period after false accusations ruined his career. And this is only the start, as a well-defined ensemble cast creates Keaton’s world.

Worthy of note are Jake Broder as his agent-manager, Tegan Ashton Cohan as his first wife, and Rena Strober in the dual role of Norma Talmadge – that wife’s sister, and as Eleanor, Keaton’s last, more enduring spouse. Pat Towne makes an appropriately bombastic Louis B. Mayer, Conor Duffy and Daisy Eagan fill in the story, and Guy Picot delivers a brief but brilliant turn as Charlie Chaplin. A special nod goes to Ryan Johnson, who accompanies the play live, just as one would watch (or film) a silent movie.

Still, this cast and this script become the magic that is “Stoneface” thanks to director Jaime Robledo’s vision, which seamlessly moves from film to live action to film, taking a story told in vignettes and giving it a sense of wholeness, and occasionally of magic. Joel Daavid’s angular and facile set, with its built-in moments of Keaton sight gags, and Ben Rock and Anthony Backman’s excellent projection design give the story both teeth and the underlying, innate fascination.

According to “Stoneface” (and other reading seems to back this up), Keaton was a whipcrack smart, inventive artist whose vision was obscured by changing times, personal dramas, and power struggles he was ill-equipped to fight. Yet, in the end of the play what one remembers is the underlying rumble of resilience which, if Stewart is to be believed, gave him an ability to bounce back few could equal.

Word of advice: go early, and go in to sit in the theater. You’ll see much, if not all, of one of Keaton’s comic films – a film referenced throughout the play. Also, just for fun, go find a copy of “The General,” the comparatively subtle piece once reviled and now considered his greatest work. In the process, marvel at what he does with his body, all the while keeping that signature stone face.

What: “Stoneface” When: Through June 29, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays Where: Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave. in Pasadena How Much: $34 – $74 Info: (626) 356-7529 or http://www.pasadenaplayhouse.org

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