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BWW Review: Amusing THE LAST SCHWARTZ at Theater J

"The Last Schwartz," a play that's perfectly suited for Theater J, is certainly a familiar trope for its audience: Somebody brings home a non-Jewish women to a solemn family occasion fraught with religious underpinnings.

She's a shiksa, in other words, though that somewhat derisive Yiddish term is not used.

Her cluelessness is so gleefully generalized that it could be more about blonde jokes than lapses of the goyim.

As a subject matter, it's served writers from Philip Roth to Joshua Harmon of "Bad Jews" fame to Neil Simon; Deborah Zoe Laufer's script largely aims for the latter. That means for the most part a splendid night of laughs at the D.C. Jewish Community Center in a solid production with some very good performances.

Yet it jerks to a halt once it tries to become more than that, injecting quite late the kind of drama that may be more unwelcome than the guest.

The occasion at the old Schwartz estate in upstate New York is a yahrzeit - the first anniversary of the patriarch's death, in which, among other things, they remember and light a candle.

One daughter, Norma (Barbara Pinolini) is doing her best to uphold the traditions of her late father, while her brother Herb (Sasha Olinick) would just as soon put his foot up on the furniture and sell the house. Another brother, Simon (Andrew Wassenich), has some unnamed malady that keeps him at his telescope and requiring some oversight. A younger brother Gene (Billy Finn) in the show business brings home the flashy female guest in thigh-high boots, Kia (Emily Kester).

Kia is as exotic a thing that's been in the Schwartz household for a whole and is an object of fascination for them, and the audience. She is cheerfully uninformed about all things (including the reason for the gathering), uses the yahrzeit candle to light a joint and even tries to seduce both of Gene's brothers before the night is over. In the role, Kester dazzles.

The drama comes mainly through the character of Herb's wife, Bonnie (Anne Bowles), who begins the play with a brash and quite funny monologue about something she saw on "Oprah" about Siamese Twins. Before long, she's quite worked up about it because, we learn, they have been unable to have children. She also had an unlikely one-nighter with Gene and takes over act two with quite a serious proposition to Kia. Bowles does a good job in a thankless role.

The changing of gears is a tough one for a play that had been bouncing along so lightly.

"The Last Schwartz" has had an unusual history, written in 1999 and premiering in Florida, where it was a it, it was withdrawn from circulation for a Broadway run that never materialized and forgotten when licensing for regional productions were available again.

As such, it shows its age a bit. People aren't so cavalier about things like twins conjoined at the head, or people on the autistic spectrum, as the character Simon seems to be. His dreamy boy-child is the most outdated in the way he is written, good for a throwaway laugh or some cosmic insight.

Theater J Artistic director Adam Immerwahr claims the play "asks us to think about the very future of Judaism and humanity itself," yet it never comes close. Bonnie wants a baby that will carry on the family name, but her inability doesn't mean Judaism will die.

As much as we hear about some family members, we do not learn much about Norma's estrangement from her family, get no prognosis on Simon whatsoever (everybody tends to ignore him); and never get much at all about Gene and what he was thinking about bringing this young woman home (or messing around with his sister-in-law). Such are the casualties of comedy.

Immerwahr is making his Theater J directoral debut with "The Last Schwartz," the first play to be selected in his position as artistic director. And technically, he succeeds in keeping the play fast-moving and creating characters that for the most part seem authentic.

With another strong design team that includes James Fouchard's scenic design, Kelsey Hunt's costumes and lighting by Nancy Shertler, "The Last Schwartz" is the first of a season that will eventually include some Neil Simon as well as a holiday production called "Oy Vey in a Manger."

Running time: Two hours.

Photo credit: Emily Kester and Andrew Wassenich in "The Last Schwartz." Photo by C. Stanley Photography

"The Last Schwartz" continues through Oct. 2 at Theater J at the Ediavitch DC JCC's Aaron & Cecile Goldman Theater, 1529 16th Street NW. 202-777-3210 or online.

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From This Author Roger Catlin