Theater Review OY! in the Family: The Lonow Ranger, The Personal, the Political, the Proletariat and Pleasantries

Director/co-playwright/red diaper baby (of sorts) Mark Lonow’s semi-autobiographical Jews, Christians and Screwing Stalin cleverly interweaves the comic and the tragic, the personal and the political. Lonow claims that his grand-uncle Yakov Sverdlov had the distinct honor and pleasure of shooting Czar Nicholas II, and this two-acter has leftwing allusions galore, amidst Turgenev caliber father-son conflicts. Borscht Belt banter is interspersed with socialist shtick.

 

Co-written with his wife, comedy veteran Jo Anne Astrow, their turf deals with members of Mark’s Marxist meshugenah family, including his grandmother Minka Grazonsky (Cathy Ladman who, appropriately appeared on TV’s Scandal and Mad Men series), who purports to have schtupped Joseph Stalin during the heady days of the Bolshevik Revolution. 

 

Wearing a sort of Mao (or was is it a Lenin?) cap adorned by what appeared to be a red star, Minka’s dearly departed husband, Murray Grazonsky, looks down from the great workers’ paradise in the sky upon the earthly happenings with ironic detachment, as a barista drolly named “Trotsky” serves him tropical drinks. Murray is played by John Pleshette, who also portrays Larry David’s shrink on HBO’s hilarious Curb Your Enthusiasm and played the title character in the ABC mini-series The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald. (Where are you now that we really need you?)

 

The action doesn’t take place in Red Square, but rather at the boardinghouse (scenic designer Joel Daavid’s set captures the ambiance) the Grazonskys established near Coney Island and Brighton Beach after they emigrated to America. Maybe I’m dense, but the script wasn’t clear that the reason (as explained to me by Lonow during the reception) why the Grazonskys were no longer back in the USSR was because of their growing disenchantment with Stalin (you know, the despot who butchered Lenin’s central committee and played footsy with Hitler with a pact some deluded “leftists” still feel compelled to defend). Press notes indicate that in real life Lonow’s granny was a “Trotskyite” - an erroneous use of a derogatory term. (For the crucial difference between “Trotskyist” and “Trotskyite” made by a cretinous writer in The Nation, scroll down to see my letter to the editor at: https://www.thenation.com/article/letters-from-the-august-31-september-7-2015-issue/ .)

 

While the Grazonskys were Bolshie in their wayward youths, they seemed to have gone Kulak and become capitalist roaders in America, as proprietors and landlords of said boardinghouse in Brooklyn, with its kooky inhabitants straight out of sitcom central casting, including the eavesdropping buttinsky Lillie Feinstein (stage/TV actress Laura Julian), a fellow Russian Jew who conducts more surveillance than the NSA.

 

Marx may have dubbed religion “the opiate of the masses,” but the Americanized Grazonskys remain somewhat observant Jews. This becomes an issue when Minka’s grandson, Joseph (Hunter Milano) - an aspiring actor (inspired by Lonow’s own career background with many acting credits, including All in the Family) - brings his Christian fiancé Caitlin McCarthy-Heitier (Sammi-Jack Martincak, who played Jim Carrey’s daughter in her movie debut I Love You Phillip Morris) back to the Brooklyn homestead for a Rosh Hashanah dinner. Not only is Caitlin a red-haired shiksa, but she’s a Southern belle to boot - not to mention part-German, too. And to make matters worse for the lefty Jews, her last name is reminiscent of witch-hunter Sen. Joe McCarthy (may he unrest in perpetual misery) and, but of course, Hitler. Cue the conflict with granny - how will Caitlin and Minka get along (or not)?

 

To complicate the whole megillah, enter Joseph’s estranged, ne’er-do-well father, David (Texan Travis York plays the New Yorker). Again, maybe I’m a schmendrick, but I didn’t understand why Murray would keep his son David from raising his grandson (which Murray and Minka do instead), but in any case it causes a rift and sets that Jewish New Year’s supper on a comic collision course. Will David and Joseph get along? (Where is Rodney King now that we need him?)

 

Set in 1966 (Wendell C. Carmichael’s period grab evokes the hippie-ish era - dig them bell bottoms!), the whole shmear of a plot - which is enough to make you plotz! - is made even more problematic by Murray’s last will and testament, because he was a male chauvinist. Complications ensue, since the onetime Red did not exactly following the pro-feminist Bolshevik party line re: the “woman’s question.”

 

Speaking of which, the most interesting part of Screwing Stalin is when Minka whimsically, rhapsodically reminisces about the October Revolution, when she was only a teenager. The 66 year old fondly recalls her youthful enthusiasm, idealism and yes, promiscuity (which led to Minka dancing the eponymous horizontal Hopak with Uncle Joe). She describes her youthful self and her Bolshie comrades as “wild animals” in a lyrical sense that put me in mind of the Soviet poet Sergei Esenin, who married dancer Isadora Duncan. Minka is the latest incarnation of how the #MeToo and #TimesUp female empowerment movement is affecting the L.A. stage.

 

Overall I enjoyed this comedy which mixes Groucho with Karl Marx - Lonow’s background in sitcoms, producer of Lewis Black cable TV specials and as longtime co-owner of the Improv comedy clubs shines through. The play, which is subtitled A Light Comedy About Dark Jews, is more than fun than a barrel of schnorrers. You don’t have to be Jewish to love Jews, Christians and Screwing Stalin - a real Jewish comedy.

 

Jews, Christians and Screwing Stalin is a guest production of the Matrix Theatre being performed Mondays and Saturdays at 8:00 pm and Sundays at 3:00 pm through Sept. 23 at the Matrix Theatre, 7657 Melrose Avenue, Los Angeles 90048. For info: (323) 960-4412. For tickets: www.Plays411.com/matzoballs.

 

L.A.-based reviewer Ed Rampell is co-presenting the docu-play TOWARDS THE MOUNTAINTOP: COMMEMORATING DR. KING AND THE 55th ANNIVERSARY OF THE MARCH ON WASHINGTON, at 3:00 p.m., Aug. 26 at the end of the Left Coast Forum (details at: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/towards-the-mountaintop-commemorating-dr-king-tickets-48460147606). Rampell is also moderating this panel at the Forum: https://www.leftcoastforum.org/what-is-marxism-is-marxism-still-relevant/  

 

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