Playwrights Mark Lonow, co-owner of the fabled Improv comedy club for 38 years, in concert with his comedian wife Jo Anne Astrow, worked together to pen JEWS, CHRISTIANS, AND SCREWING STALIN, a play immortalizing Lonow’s growing-up years in a Brooklyn Jewish home. Also directed by Mark Lonow – who better to know the ins and outs of this crazy clan? – JEWS, CHRISTIANS, AND SCREWING STALIN cleverly introduces the audience to the Grazonskys.
It is September 1966 in the Grazonsky rooming house in Brighton Beach, New York. The Grazonskys are getting ready for a Rosh Hashanah repast, where Grandma Minka Grazonsky (Cathy Ladman) hopes to smooth past family frictions and create a longed-for warm and loving home. All because of a death-bed promise she made to Zayda (Grandpa) Murray Grazonsky (John Pleshette), who, by the way, seems very much alive as he floats in and out of the present during short visits from paradise. All the while imbibing tasty libations, carrying on a one-sided conversation with Trotsky, and narrating things that all of us need to know.
Grandma Minka has deviously arranged to bring together her son David (Travis York) and her grandson Joseph (Hunter Milano), who have been on the outs since David took off for parts unknown when Joey was an infant. To add spice to the tale, it just so happens that Joey has invited his pregnant girlfriend Caitlin McCarthy-Heitler (Sammi-Jack Martincak) to the family event. Which would probably be fine for Grandma if Caitlin didn’t happen to be a Catholic-Presbyterian Irish redhead.
The Grazonskys are blue-collar Jews with deep ties to the Socialist/Communist icons of the day – and that’s where Stalin comes in to add to the family’s typical chaos. On top of that, a few denizens of the rooming house make comedic entrances – including flamboyant actress Lillie Feinstein (Laura Julian), who may have a few interesting secrets herself. JEWS, CHRISTIANS, AND SCREWING STALIN offers a peek at an era and a family whose hilarious moments occur simply because they are who they are. Grandma Minka is pretty pragmatic – but be sure to keep an eye on the ritual she goes through to make sure that she is presentable every time the phone rings.
Joel David’s scenic design is cozy and suggests the maze-like rooms in this 1966 boarding house. Donny Jackson’s lighting, Joseph Slawinski’s sound, and Wendell C. Carmichael’s costumes add a touch of authenticity to this moment in history. The cast – with special kudos to Cathy Ladman – do a bang-up job of bringing life to a time past.
This is very funny material – but, as the comedy moves into the second act, overworked, corny, and grossly sexualized jokes begin to emerge which appeared to detract from the overall impression of an outrageous but real family living a chaotic, unpredictable – and very funny – life. It almost seemed that a third author appeared and added tropes like penis size and promiscuity, possibly in a misguided effort to draw laughs. Suddenly the family became a comic stereotype far removed from reality. Still – until well into the production – the basic story was a poignant mixture of funny and sad, mixing laughter with tears effectively. Perhaps the writers didn’t trust their material quite enough.
JEWS, CHRISTIANS, AND SCREWING STALIN runs through 9/23/18, with performances at 8 p.m. on Saturdays and Mondays and at 3 p.m. on Sundays. The Matrix Theatre is located at 7657 Melrose Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90046. Tickets are $35. For information and reservations, call 323-960-4412 or go online.