BWW Review: Hilarious and Heart-Breaking A JEWISH JOKE at the New Jewish Theatre
You'll find plenty of humor and drama in playwrights Marni Freedman and Phil Johnson's A JEWISH JOKE, which is now playing at the New Jewish Theatre. Set during the McCarthy "red scare" hearings during the early 1950's, the play offers up an examination of a Jewish comedy writer named Bernie Lutz who, along with his partner Morris, suddenly finds out about his name appearing in "Red Channels," which published the names of individuals who had been implicated, or in any way affiliated, with groups that promoted Socialism or Communism. For most, the results, if true (and even when it wasn't), resulted in an immediate blacklisting. That was it. Your career was over. But some survived, and under other names continued to work on films and TV, while others named names and slipped off the hook to continue working as themselves. This is an excellent examination of how quickly a career could fly off the rails during that period, and here, taking place in a single afternoon. It's powerful and relevant material, laced with great helpings of humor, and thoroughly deserving of a hearty recommendation.
Co-Writer Phil Johnson plays Bernie, and does splendid work, delivering insights and amusement as we watch Bernie struggle with the sudden realization that the big premier he was scheduled to attend, for the new picture he and his partner wrote for L.B. Mayer, is about to be scrubbed. In fact, all of their gigs, whether writing for NBC, a movie for Danny Kaye, or a movie for the Marx Bros., are suddenly being rescinded. It's a frustrating thing to see happen, and it reminds you of how quickly people are to jump to conclusions. This is especially true now with the immediacy of social media. But, here one has to rely on an the antiquated workings of an actual telephone (you know, the one with a dial you turn?) to receive information on your fate in life. Johnson sweats, answers the phone a lot, breaks the fourth wall to address us directly, and peppers his ups and downs with hilarious jokes pulled from a seemingly endless stack. More than anything, you believe Johnson as Lutz, and you feel his pain. It all comes down to being faced with a no-win proposition, rat out your partner and continue your work, or don't, and lose everything. In Bernie's mother's words, "When there is no mensch, be the mensch!"
David Ellenstein's direction is smoothly worked out so that there's never a static moment. In concert with a script that has the phone constantly ringing to announce a new wrinkle in the proceedings, there's a nature flow of movement within this animated and frustrating writer we're witnessing in his direst hour. In just enough space to suggest a writing room, with a desk and typewriter, scripts, bits and scraps of paper, a radio, a pitcher of water, and a coat rack, a mental image is easily conjured. Nathan Schroeder's lighting is on point, and the costume by Peter Herman fits the period, and so do the props of Laura Skroska. The sound design by Matt Lencault-Wood pieces together funny musical selections that represent our rather peculiar tastes at the time as pre-show, with actual quotes from a number of famous/infamous people during that chilling time in our history that bookend the proceedings.
This kind of stuff doesn't happen today, right? Wrong. And, that's what makes it just as important today as it was then. The New Jewish Theatre's hilarious and heart-breaking presentation of A JEWISH JOKE continues through December 10, 2017.