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Review: DO NOT REMOVE LABEL is a Hilarious, Brilliant Piece of Theatre

Review: DO NOT REMOVE LABEL is a Hilarious, Brilliant Piece of Theatre

This World Premiere Play by Jerome Elliott Moskowitz is Playing for One More Weekend at Desert Ensemble Theatre

Review: DO NOT REMOVE LABEL is a Hilarious, Brilliant Piece of Theatre
A Fuller Brush representative (actually an FBI agent),
played by Shawn Abramowitz, pays an unwelcome visit to
Tammy Tunz, played by Yo Younger.

The audience had one heckuva good time at the opening night of Desert Ensemble Theatre's (DET's) DO NOT REMOVE LABEL, a hilarious world-premiere farce that also includes serious elements and political satire. The play achieves a humor trifecta: Laughs from the clever script by DET's artistic director, Jerome Elliott Moskowitz; laughs from the great staging by director Michael Pacas; and laughs from the top-notch cast members' rubber facial expressions.

The play takes place in 1966. Tammy Tunz (Yo Younger), a Jewish New Jersey housewife widowed four months before by a shocking example of medical malpractice (that part isn't meant to be funny), is preparing for the first night of Chanukah. The law-abiding Mrs. Tunz, to her horror, discovers that her 12-year-old son, Bobby (Brayden Gravdahl), has torn the label off the sofa - the label that reads, "Do not remove under penalty of law." This is not the first time that Bobby has done something that violates societal norms. Specifically, he carries facial tissues with him and sews; according to his teacher, 12-year-old boys should not be doing such things. Into the mix comes an FBI agent (Shawn Abramowitz) masquerading as a Fuller Brush salesperson. Why does the FBI care so much about a torn label, and how did they know about it? It seems that the Tunz family has landed in the fire even before the first latke is out of the frying pan.

Given the Coachella Valley A-list actors and director in this play, it is unsurprising that the performances are superb - more about that later. What is always a question mark regarding a world premiere is whether the script will hold up. This one certainly does. Most of us who are frequent theatregoers in this area are familiar with Jerome Elliott Moskowitz's many talents as an actor, singer, and director, although we probably know him by his first and middle names - Jerome Elliott. Thanks to this play, his many admirers can add brilliant and witty playwright to his list of accomplishments.

Review: DO NOT REMOVE LABEL is a Hilarious, Brilliant Piece of Theatre
L-R, Tammy and her son, Bobby (Brayden Gravdahl)
with nutty neighbor Cookie Balinsky (Melanie Blue).

From the first moment, the humor grabs the audience as Tammy engages in a telephone conversation in which she tries to assuage the anger of a distant relative whom Tammy forgot to notify about the death. We see Tammy's accommodating nature as she apologizes for her oversight to the relative who has called to yell at her for not telling her about Mr. Tunz's demise. Later, we see Tammy in far more serious conversations, as a tigress who will go to any lengths to protect her cub.

Yo Younger is the only cast member whose role switches back and forth between comedy and drama, with more drama than comedy. She is thoroughly believable as a new widow trying to cope with the sudden loss of a happy marriage and the societal attacks on her adored son, whom she realizes is probably gay. Twelve-year-old Brayden Gravdahl also turns in a fine dramatic performance as a mature young man trying to comfort his mother while navigating the difficult world of preadolescence at a time when his interests and personality cause him to be demeaned.

The other three members of the ensemble cast perform comic roles. These three actors, Shawn Abramowitz (DET's executive director) and Richard Marlow as the two FBI agents, and Melanie Blue as kooky Cookie Balinsky, an intrusive neighbor, are also fabulous, generating laugh after laugh. Director Michael Pacas, no stranger to performing comic roles himself, knows how to coax humorous facial expressions from his actors as well as humor from ridiculous stage movements. It would be hard to choose which actor is "best" in this cast, because all five are fabulous.

Review: DO NOT REMOVE LABEL is a Hilarious, Brilliant Piece of Theatre
FBI Agent O'Hara (Richard Marlow) terrorizes Tammy.

The technical aspects of the show are also top-notch. The set depicts a simple, middle-class, haimish home from the mid-1960's. Designer Tom O'Brien clearly put a great deal of thought into the set; he borrowed a front door from Warner pictures that includes three rectangular windows set in a diagonal line - the kind of door frequently seen in mid-century suburbs, but that does not appear on 21st century houses. The two portraits hanging on the wall are actually self-portraits painted by Doris Moskowitz, the playwright's mother. The wigs (by Lynda Shaeps) and costumes (designed by Frank Cazares) do a great job of evoking the 1960's, when women usually wore dresses and men wore skinny ties. The sound and lighting, designed by Gus Sanchez and Kevin O'Shaughnessy, respectively, are also terrific. Tessa Gregory-Walker's props - especially the terrifying guns -- and Nick Wass's projections are fabulous. Whoever thought of the doorbell that plays the beginning of "Hava Nagila," is to be congratulated or excoriated, depending on someone's tolerance level for a truly annoying ring tone. The doorbell is definitely a sophisticated substitute for a knock knock joke. The rest of the terrific production team consists of stage manager Sierra Barrick, set construction lead Ron Newhouse, and set construction crew Alijah McGrail, Kelly Newhouse, Alexandra Ottoson, and Zoe Sanchez.

Review: DO NOT REMOVE LABEL is a Hilarious, Brilliant Piece of Theatre A word of explanation is in order for those who don't know what the word "schmaltz" means. Although many people think of it as something overly sweet or emotional, like a movie that tries too hard to tug at heartstrings, "schmaltz" is actually a cooking term meaning fat made from poultry - usually chicken. Jewish audience members who grew up with their Bubbe's cooking will surely cringe at the thought of using it in sweets, as opposed to matzoh balls. The characters who taste Cookie's rugelach seem to agree.

Another term that deserves explanation is "shivah," which is similar to a wake, albeit with a prayer service and lots of food. It occurs in a mourner's home and takes place after the burial.

The term "briss" also comes up at the beginning of the play. That is the Yiddish pronunciation for "brit," which means covenant. A "brit milah" is the covenant of circumcision performed on the eighth day of a boy's life, usually during a large celebration. (Cue the jokes about the queasy men who stand back from the proceedings looking pale, with their hands clasped in front of them at fly level).

Despite my explanation of these three terms, DO NOT REMOVE LABEL is readily comprehensible to non-Jewish audience members. Jewish people will definitely want to attend simply because we don't get too many chances to see plays centered around our holidays. Non-Jewish people will want to attend because they, like Jewish audience members, will laugh their heads off. LGBTQ+ people will want to attend because of the warmth the mother feels towards her son, even though she realizes he is probably gay. Canadians will want to attend for reasons that I don't want to give away. So go already. You'll laugh. You may even cry. You'll get hungry for latkes. Just stay away from rugelach made with schmaltz. Pfui!

DO NOT REMOVE LABEL will run for one more weekend, from Friday, December 9th through Sunday, December 1th, on Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m. Performances take place at the Palm Springs Cultural Center (the Camelot Theaters), 2300 East Baristo Road, Palm Springs, CA. 92262 (across Baristo Road from Palm Springs High School. Tickets are $38.59 with service fee. Contact the theatre by email at DETCTheatre@gmail.com, call 760-565-2476 for tickets or more information, or consult the web site, www.desertensembletheatre.org. The snail mail address is PO Box 2885, Palm Springs, CA 92262.

The rest of DET's 2022-23 offerings, all of which are recent plays by West Coast residents, are:

KILL THE EDITOR, by Aren Haun (January 27-29, February 3-5, 2023) -- Ben, a young editor, has just landed his dream job to edit a documentary at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival. The catch is that he only has one week to cut a five-hour version down to size and the filmmaker doesn't want to touch a frame.

KAFKA'S JOKE, by Rich Rubin (world premiere, March 10-12, 17-19, 2023) -- Who owns Franz Kafka's work? A true story based on a 2016 Israeli Supreme Court case. Max Brod, Kafka's friend, despite Kafka's dying instructions to burn his unpublished manuscripts, escapes from Nazi Germany to Palestine, bringing Kafka's works with him. At the time of Brod's death in 1968, he leaves the manuscripts to his secretary. Who owns Kafka's work under the ambiguous will?

FUTURE THINKING, by Eliza Clark (April 14-16, 21-23, 2023) -- Middle-aged super fan Peter finds himself being held in Comic Con security after violating a restraining order filed by the show's young star, who is stuck in a hotel suite with her stage mom and bodyguard. Everyone has a fantasy, and soon they'll collide with each other, and with reality.

Photo Credit: Becky Glenn



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