Theater Review: JEWS, CHRISTIANS AND SCREWING STALIN (Matrix Theatre in Los Angeles)

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by Samuel Garza Bernstein on August 20, 2018

in Theater-Los Angeles


I was at a dinner party in New York once and met a 97-year-old woman who embodied a kind of Upper West Side left-wing glamour I find intoxicating. She had grown up in a family of Jewish intellectuals and recounted terrible tensions at the dinner table.

“I was a socialist,” she said. “But my brother was an anarchist. Every meal was a debate about the fate of the world. Indigestion and agita. But we believed. Oh, how we believed. My brother tried to convert me. He brought home his friend Boris, another anarchist. I married him. Still, I stayed a good socialist. Husbands come and go, but your politics, your values — those are forever.”

In Jews, Christians and Screwing Stalin, Cathy Ladman brings a version of that woman to life. She is passionate, droll, unfussy, wry, and real as Minka Grazonsky, a grandmother trying to fulfill her late husband’s dying wish to reunite her son and grandson on Rosh Hashanah.

Minka was once a revolutionary communist in Russia, and it shows. In other words, she ain’t your bubbe’s bubbe. Yet though the character has a loud voice and lacks vanity, when the phone rings she has an elaborate primping ritual — eyebrows, boobs, ass — and then answers in the weak voice of a little old lady. It works every time, and the audience adores her. Everything about this woman we need to know is communicated, and Ladman makes it feel fresh each time, getting bigger and bigger laughs in the process. Ladman loves Minka — so we love her too.

Minka’s dead Communist husband Murray (John Pleshette) is swilling cocktails and narrating as their estranged alcoholic son David (Travis York) arrives needing a bailout, and grandson Joseph (Hunter Milano) brings home his pregnant, red-haired, half-Irish/half-German fiancée Caitlin McCarthy-Heitler (Sammi-Jack Martincak). The family grapples over ownership of their Brooklyn rooming house, Minka unsuccessfully tries to keep her boarders from prying too deeply into her private affairs, and the titular liaison with Stalin is revealed.

This is a personal show for its husband and wife creative team, director/playwright Mark Lonow and playwright Jo Anne Astrow, bringing to life characters based on Lonow’s own family. Their affection for these people is obvious, and the central story of family reconciliation is a topic that resonates for most people. Yet the show never quite gets off the ground, and I’m not sure why — whether it’s the text or the production itself. Certainly, Ladman makes a triumph of the evening, so perhaps the material is stronger than it appears.

The staging is haphazard; people make a lot of noise on one side of the stage but then “sneak up” on people and surprise them. The geography of Joel Daavid’s set doesn’t feel like an actual building in New York. The physical comedy is labored, with unfunny toilet humor, mocked physical ailments, hyperventilating under tables, and father/son penis comparisons. It’s like Lonow and Astrow don’t trust the material enough so they’ve added schtick. The characters themselves are pretty funny. Gilding the lily undercuts rather than enhances that humor.

Ladman’s Eastern European-cum-New York accent is on target and consistent, but the other actors flounder — whether its Brooklyn, New Orleans, or Russia they try to evoke. There’s a strange moment early on with David launching into a non-specific Southern accent though the character grew up in Brooklyn. The actor is from Texas, and I wondered if it was opening night jitters, but then in the second act it is mentioned as just something the character does sometimes. Huh? Boarders lurk about, some with only one or two scenes, like characters out of You Can’t Take It with You. One farts her way up the stairs, the other is stooped at a permanent 90-degree angle. Neither situation is particularly funny.

A big point is made that this is taking place on September 13, 1966. Joseph is all excited about a potential acting job on Ironside — a show that didn’t start airing until a year later in 1967. Caitlin casually mentions she has a gay brother. Never mind that the word “gay” wasn’t widely used for homosexuals in 1966, it wasn’t something a young woman would have likely revealed upon first meeting her future grandmother-in-law. There is a worrying lack of attention to detail throughout.

Usually, when eccentric characters are based on real people, the fictional characters are fascinating, but if you meet the real ones, they are tiresome. It is backwards here. I have no doubt whatsoever that dinner with the Lonow family would have been a gas. Dinner with their fictional counterparts is more hit or miss.

photos by Ed Krieger

Jews, Christians and Screwing Stalin
Took A Cab Productions and Improv comedy club
Matrix Theatre, 7657 Melrose Ave.
Sat and Mon at 8; Sun at 3
ends on September 23, 2018
for tickets, call 323.960.4412 or visit Matzoballs

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