Stage Struck Review

Reviews for theater within the greater Los Angeles area.

Tag Archives: Travis York

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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