San Diego Theater Review: A JEWISH JOKE (The Roustabouts Theatre Co. at MOXIE Theatre)

by Milo Shapiro on March 19, 2018

in Theater-Regional

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A JEWISH JOKE WAS
NO LAUGHING MATTER IN THE 1950s

When the nation went into Commie panic in the ‘40s and ‘50s, one of the first places to get hard hit was Hollywood. In 1947, Congress’s House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) announced the “Hollywood Ten,” the first wave of accusations against ten Tinseltown Americans for Communist activity. When appeals by the ten for freedom of speech were shut down, leading to legal convictions, the stage was set for Hollywood’s Red Scare. Beginning in 1950, HUAC began publishing The Red Channels – a public release of the names of people whose futures, often only by accusation or association, were soon to be destroyed.

Meet Bernie Lutz: comic writer, goofy guy, loyal husband, friend to the studios and stars. And a Jew. Never forget that because, as it becomes clear in the program, no one else ever quite does, no matter how many friends he seems to be making among the goyim (gentiles).

Bernie (Phil Johnson, in a solo performance of soliloquy and one-sided phone calls) is on top of the world. A big film that he co-scripted will be opening tonight to great fanfare, courtesy of Louis B. Mayer. Half-finished projects for the Marx Brothers, NBC, and Danny Kaye sit on his desk, and his star just keeps rising. Such a mensch! (This Yiddish word, which comes up many times in the show, means someone both reliable and able.) What a life for the son of a poor factory worker!

Except…

What Bernie doesn’t know is that a little social gathering that he attended some time ago (tempted mostly by the offering of cocktails and cocktail weenies) turned into a communist discussion group after he left. Together, Bernie and his writing partner Morris (whom we never see) find themselves on The Red Channels on the pinnacle day of their success to date. Morris does not show up at work, leaving sweet, unobtrusive Bernie (whose motto is “Keep your head down”) to both handle the barrage of phone calls and to make key calls himself to try to save his/their futures in the waning hours of this pivotal day. We learn along with Bernie just what has truly been going on around him for some time, as he has no other focus in life than to make people happy through laughter.

Keeping the energy going on this roller coaster of longing, triumph, discovery, and terror is no small task for one actor. In the wrong hands, this show could be disastrous and tedious, even at a mere 95 minutes. Fortunately, the script is in the perfect hands, co-written by Johnson himself and Marni Freedman. Johnson, in part due to his touching monologues directed at us, beautifully and tragically creates the Everyman. He causes us to feel every emotion along with him, praying for his release from this web he never spun. Through him, we find ourselves asking the same questions: How far would I go to save myself? Who is loyal to me? Who am I loyal to…and at what price? And in Bernie’s case: Who do I think of as simply a person but who thinks of me, first, as a Jew?

Ringing uncomfortably true in these days of white supremacists being included in “good people on both sides” and numerous minority groups feeling progress slipping away, including the Jewish community, this piece is a powerful reminder of where we’ve been as a rabid nation and how frighteningly easy it is to get there. Kicking off their second season, Roustabouts (of which Johnson is also a co-founder) once again digs deep and moves us between the laughs.

photos by Eric Woolsey

A Jewish Joke
The Roustabouts Theatre Co.
MOXIE Theatre, 6663 El Cajon Blvd.
ends on April 8, 2018
for tickets, call 619-728- 7820 or visit Roustabouts

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