BWW Review: THE LAST SCHWARTZ in New England Premiere at Gloucester Stage
The Last Schwartz
Written by Deborah Zoe Laufer, Directed by Paula Plum; Costume Design, Elisabetta Polito; Properties Design/Assistant Set Design, Mary Sader; Set Design, Jon Savage; Lighting Design, Russ Swift; Sound Design, Andrew Duncan Will; Stage Manager, Jenna Worden
Performances through July 30 at Gloucester Stage Company, 267 East Main Street, Gloucester, MA; Box Office 978-281-4433 or www.gloucesterstage.com
Let's hope that The Last Schwartz is not the last we'll see of The Combined works of Deborah Zoe Laufer and Paula Plum. Following the success of the pairing of playwright and director in last summer's hilarious hit Out of Sterno, Gloucester Stage Company reunites the talented tandem for a pleasure ride to the dilapidated country home of the dysfunctional Schwartz family in Lake Huntington, New York. It may not make you appreciate your own relatives, but you're very likely to recognize someone you know or, God forbid, a situation that happened in your own family.
Laufer's witty, insightful writing is given its three-dimensional due by a crackerjack cast who look like they've been performing together for months, not days. Plum's nimble fingerprints are all over the amazingly-controlled human chaos playing out on Jon Savage's set. Partial walls constructed of wooden slats allow us to peek into the rooms beyond the dining/living area where most of the action occurs, suggesting that it is only a matter of time before the family secrets will spill into the open and wreak havoc. As their ancestral home disintegrates around them and their connection to the past and each other crumbles, the Schwartz siblings face their looming futures in various shades of fear, freedom, and flight.
Here's the rundown of the family constellation: Eldest sister Norma (Veronica Anastasio Wiseman) is the keeper of the flame, struggling to maintain Jewish tradition and unity; Herb (Gabriel Kuttner) is the eldest son whose focus is on his finances and his hysterical wife; Bonnie (Brianne Beatrice) feels out of place as a convert in her husband's family and wants nothing more than to have a child, even if by unorthodox means; baby brother Gene (Glen Moore) is a career-driven TV director who brings his actress/model shiksa girlfriend Kia (Andrea Goldman) along for the weekend, providing eye candy and complications; and Simon (Paul Melendy), who has his head in the stars (although his failing eyesight prevents his seeing them) and pins his survival hopes on a trip to the moon.
If the basis for a good story is conflict, The Last Schwartz has it in spades. Each character has an agenda that is diametrically opposed to all other agendas and they talk at or over each other, often devolving into shouting matches. When Norma laments this state of affairs and wonders why they can't be a family, Herb dryly retorts, "This is what a real family is, Norma." Despite the divergent opinions and clashes over what to do with the house and its contents a year after their father's death, there is a comfort level among the siblings, well-portrayed by the actors, that allows them to express themselves without filters. By contrast, Kia doesn't know who or where she came from and seems fascinated by the Schwartz family dynamics. Bonnie is almost a nonentity and her efforts to be seen and heard are heart-rending. Eventually, the two outsiders bond in a bizarre set of circumstances.
Laufer's script and the situations she dreams up are very funny and very true, but also poignant. Plum's perfect pacing and deft handling of the various scenes gives the actors the time and space they need to inhabit their characters and find greater depth as the play proceeds. Without giving away too much, suffice to say that most of the characters leave you feeling differently about them at the end of the play than first impressions would foretell. A few that appear to be stereotypical or one-dimensional reveal qualities or traits that are surprising, but evolve from interesting back stories.
Across the board, each member of the ensemble gets inside the skin of their roles and pulls their oars together rhythmically like a championship crew. Wiseman conveys both strength and vulnerability, letting us find something to like about Norma even as she tries to bully everybody. Herb is alternately distracted and attentive, and Kuttner makes the most of playing his different responses to his wife, his sister, and the provocative Kia. Goldman is a hoot as this sassy, sexy mermaid out of water, who parlays her dumb bunny routine into opportunity. Much of Gene's role calls for him to react to things going on around him, but Moore's demeanor evokes the baby of the family and he capitalizes on Gene's frustration and powerlessness.
Beatrice and Melendy draw the most sympathetic characters in roles at opposite ends of the spectrum. Bonnie may be the most humane person on stage, but receives very little in return. In her own mind, she is defined by her inability to have a child, to fulfill her lifelong desire to be a mother. However, we learn that some members of the family define her differently in a very hurtful disclosure, and Beatrice turns on a dime from the woeful sad sack to someone with a plan. She is, in a word, marvelous. Melendy brings sweetness, dignity, and humor to Simon, who is probably autistic, even though "he's never been diagnosed." Seated downstage with one eye glued to a telescope for most of the play, Simon is somewhat of an afterthought for his siblings, but he seems perfectly happy in his own world, or universe. Melendy makes sure that Simon is not an afterthought for the audience as his silent tics are hard to ignore and his satisfaction with the limits of his life are to be admired.
In addition to Savage's set design, the world of the play features lighting by Russ Swift, costumes by Elisabetta Polito, sound by Andrew Duncan Will, properties by Mary Sader, and Jenna Worden is the stage manager. It is clear that Plum, her design team, and the cast understand what Laufer is saying and how she wants her story to look on the stage. She wants us to see the humor and the heartbreak, the wackiness and the gravity, and that, at its center, The Last Schwartz is a play about one family that represents us all. As Simon says, we might want to start preparing for the end and practice moonwalking.