Chicago Theater Review: A JEWISH JOKE (ShPIeL–Performing Identity at Victory Gardens)

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by Lawrence Bommer on July 9, 2016

in Theater-Chicago


Sometimes whistle-blowing can echo from the past. It’s never too late for a timely reminder that ignorance is no excuse. A 95-minute solo show by Phil Johnson and Marni Freedman, A Jewish Joke, now in a Midwest premiere by ShPIeL-Performing Identity, tellingly depicts a Jewish comedy writer on the crossroads—or caught in the crossfire—of history.

The setting is the cluttered Hollywood office of Bernie Lutz, a self-declared “pretzel” or all-purpose go-fer for the “Business,” as L.A. terms it. An expert at making lemonade from lemons, this gag-writing gadfly is suddenly fighting for his professional life: The F.B.I. is pressuring him into naming names—namely his partner Morris, suspected of taking orders from Moscow.

Phone lean shot

It’s the early 1950s, at the height (or depth) of the century’s second witch hunt (after the “Red Scare” of the 1920s under Attorney General Palmer). The House on Un-American Activities Committee, abetted by Senator Joseph McCarthy’s rabid search for disloyal Americans (as in Communists and, more specifically Jews), is in full persecution mode. Fueled by racism and xenophobia (sound familiar?), the purge employs divide-and-conquer intimidation to induce showbiz bigwigs like Elia Kazan to inform on their colleagues. Not just by invitation only, this not-so-exclusive “blacklist” could end careers, divide friends, and fuel panic and paranoia. But, of course, is it paranoia when the threat is real?

A master of Yiddish humor and surefire zingers, Bernie (played by co-author Johnson) lives to crack wise. He just wants to make people laugh. By temperament an affable goofball, he’s about to attend the red-carpet premiere of his latest screenplay The Big Casbah. On the rise, the M.G.M. scribe has projects in the works for NBC, Danny Kaye and the Marx Brothers. So the stakes mount as, taking phone call after phone call, Bernie discovers he’s on the “Red Channel.” Why did he tear up a government letter that he wrongly thought was full of idle bluster?


All his schemes to prove his patriotism–loyalty oaths, ads in Variety, an interview with Hedda Hopper, intercession from studio mogul Louis B. Mayer, lectures before the American Legion—won’t cut it. His calls aren’t being taken or returned. And an Agent Wainwright wants to meet with him about testifying against his comedy partner, suspected of being a Commie organizer. (Back then attending a now-suspicious meeting was enough to spark suspicion as in guilt by association.)

Amid this cascading chaos Bernie falls back on what comes naturally, reading awful jokes from file cards in a recipe box. (What did the beleaguered waiter say to the Jewish family? “Was anything all right with your dinner?”) As the unseen audience groans, Bernie remembers an arson fire in the past that fingered his union-organizing dad as a literal “firebrand.” Could this crime come home to roost? Slowly a funnyman turns tragic, his conscience crisis forcing him to take a stand and “be a mensch.” Will his anger against Morris for supposedly setting him up and his fear of the future get the worst of him? Can a little man win a big fight?

AJJ Desk

The dilemma is nothing if not dramatic. But by play’s end, if only to flesh out the outcome, you wish you knew a bit more about his lifelong link to Morris who he concedes is the better gagster. Because Morris isn’t just an unlucky La La Land jester: He represents many implicated victims, leftist liberals who had the bad luck to believe that, after defeating the likes of Hitler, Americans could enjoy freedom of association and speech. Jewish-Americans too.

What energizes the pathos of Bernie’s plight is the sweetness of this simple yuck-master. He just wants to trigger in strangers assorted guffaws, chortles, titters, snickers and belly laughs. That can’t be a crime against your country unless the land has gone loony, as in anti-Semitic. Johnson and Freedman’s multi-faceted monologue, impressively detonated by director David Y. Chack, reveals the unsung and unsuspected worth of a not-s0-mere jokester. Never has “he who laughs last” mattered more.


A Jewish Joke
ShPIeL–Performing Identity
Victory Gardens, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave.
Thurs-Sat at 7:30; Wed & Sun at 3:00
ends on July 31, 2016
for tickets, call 773.871.3000 or visit Victory Gardens
for more info, visit ShPIeL Theatre and A Jewish Joke

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Susan Stone July 14, 2016 at 2:50 pm

Hi Larry Bommer!!

Remember me from the Organic? I was so happy to see your name and read your great review. Many blessings…



Peter Piane July 15, 2016 at 7:12 am

I saw the performance of A Jewish Joke last night, and it had my wife, my daughter, and me talking about it for quite a while after the show. I also enjoyed the “talkback”, both participating and listening to what was said.

I knew I had seen a picture of Danny Kaye, along with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall attending the HUAC hearings in Washington during the period that the show takes place. I found it in the story at this website. I thought you might be interested in this.

Thank you again for a thought-provoking evening.


Lawrence Bommer July 18, 2016 at 12:19 pm

Glad you were taken in by the show–in the best way possible, of course.


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