“A JEWISH JOKE” by MARNI FREEDMAN and PHIL JOHNSON, directed by DAVID ELLENSTEIN, and Starring PHIL JOHNSON opened, officially on March 13th at THE LION THEATRE ON THEATRE ROW-42ND ST. (9th Ave-Dyer). It was presented by the Roustabouts Theatre from San Diego, California.
“SCOUNDREL TIME”- Such was the designation of the era given by one of its most celebrated victims, playwright and screenwriter, Lillian Hellman. The time of America’s Blacklist, roughly from 1946-1962, ranks with such shameful chapters in our history, as the Dred Scott Decision, Plessy vs, Ferguson, as well as another Supreme Court decision which upheld the contempt of Congress charges against The Hollywood Ten, the screenwriters, producers and directors, who’d been incarcerated and heavily fined by the HUAC (House of Un American Activities Committee) in 1947. These artists, six of whom were Jewish, which is a major concern in the play being reviewed here, were: Herbert J. Biberman, Lester Cole, Edward Dmytryk, Ring Lardner Jr., John Howard Lawson, Albert Maltz, Samuel Ornitz, Adrian Scott, Dalton Trumbo, and Alvah Bessie.
It is shortly after these influential voices in our film capital were stripped of their freedom and livelihoods, with the exception of the one who recanted his testimony and chose to name names, Edward Dmytryk, that we find one Bernie Lutz, portrayed with gusto, guts, and a controlled schmeering of schmaltz by the co-writer of this one-man play, Phil Johnson.
The setting is his office in his writer’s bungalow, MGM Studios. The year is1950. This play functions within the Aristotelian Unities of Time, Place, and Action (the time about 90 minutes), and the action of Bernie addressing the audience directly in classical fashion, “I talk to myself’.
We learn that this is expected to be a big day for Bernie and his writing partner. Their recent feature of a farce is premiering that night and he’s picked up tuxes for himself and his colleague, as well as a surprise mink jacket for his beloved wife to attend in style. In view for the audience to behold are three screen treatments one marked for NBC, another for a feature for Lana Turner, and the one closest to Bernie’s heart, a project for his all-time comedic gods, The Marx Bros.
Bernie tells the audience of his history coming from New Jersey, growing up Jewish with an idealistic union organizing father and highly pragmatic adorable mother; how he met his writing partner when they were both 13 and started trading jokes from the get- go, particularly Jewish Jokes, which as Bernie explains, is a fundamental element in the survival of their people: “Making sense of the senseless.”
During Bernie’s solo discourse, as a sort of punctuation to each ensuing development of his story, the telling of one classic Jewish joke falls upon another, usually preceded by
Lutz’s uttering, “This calls for a joke!” The jokes are invariably funny, even though most are familiar. However, the reason for their being required to get through this day is the incessant ringing of his office phone and his dealing with the slowly growing realization that his and his partner’s career is quickly moving toward mortal jeopardy.
This very day of their film’s MGM premiere, the publication, Red Channels, has listed their names as being suspected Communist! This news is at first difficult to process for Bernie, who protests that “he hasn’t a political bone in his body!” As we watch this quite clever humorist think on his feet and manage through a seemingly endless series of phone calls to various personages of authority, as well as trusted loved ones, and most significantly his partner who is supposed to BE HERE ALREADY, we witness the deterioration of a cocky, glib, self -taught wordsmith, to a very Jewish man desperately clinging for survival.
The playwright’s device of a one-person play reflected by a series of phone calls is hardly novel: Bertold Brecht’s, “The Jewish Wife” and Jean Cocteau’s, “The Human Voice”, immediately come to mind, I was also reminded of a live television presentation in the 50’s starring Art Carney called, “Operator, Operator”, that astonished me as a child when I could barley believe that the man I merely knew as Ed Norton, had been transformed into a raving drunk calling up ex-wives and children across the country as his life unraveled. Such is the tradition of “A Jewish Joke” which opened to a considerable ovation by the audience on the evening preview that my companion and I witnessed last Saturday night.
The subject of the Blacklist is vast, complicated, and often confusing. It’s been the subject of scores of books, several movies, such as “The Way We Were”, and “The Front”, as well as a superb Made for TV film, “Fear On Trial” which starred William Devane as John Henry Faulk and George C. Scott as Louis Nizer and told the story of the beginning of the dismantling of the scourge.
“A Jewish Joke”, which won Best Drama – United Solo Award here on Theatre Row in 2016, is a worthy addition to the aforementioned illustrations that attempt to convey a part of our nation’s history when in a state of madness…..a state too close to our present time to be remotely comfortable.
Tickets, NOW ON SALE, are priced at $37.25 -$47.25 and may be purchased through TeleCharge.com/212-239-6200 and in person at the Theatre Row box office (410 West 42nd Street) Mon-Sun from 12noon to 8pm (7pm on Sunday).
Photo credit: Clay Anderson