The Last Schwartz – Written by Deborah Zoe Laufer; Directed by Paula Plum; Set Design by Jon Savage; Lighting Design, Russ Swift; Sound Design, Andrew Duncan Will; Costume Design by Elisabetta Polito; Presented by the Gloucester Stage Company at 267 East Main St., Gloucester, through July 30th.
When it comes to family gatherings, nothing quite ensures the probability of a miserable time being had by all as a domineering control freak – especially one that sees herself as the matriarch of said clan. Fortify that controlling behavior with the kind of self-righteousness that only a blind allegiance to an orthodox religion can provide, and you’ve got the makings of a holiday dinner/wedding/funeral with all the serenity of a Trump rally at a Jack Daniels factory.
So when the Schwartzes gather at the family’s summer home in the Catskills for the yahrzeit (a Jewish religious ritual recognizing the one-year anniversary of their father’s death), oldest (and only) daughter Norma is ready with an iron fist to make sure that everything and everyone honors dear old dad in the manner that she sees fit. Such an occasion is trying even for the healthiest of families, but with a family unit teeming with varying levels of dysfunction and trauma, the stage is set for a potential family explosion. And when an unexpected guest shows up for the weekend, the detonator that will blow the lid off this uptight bunch is provided in this dark and very funny comic drama.
Gloucester Stage has again paired playwright Deborah Zoe Laufer and director Paula Plum, the same duo that brought us the outstanding production of “Out of Sterno” on the same stage last year, and they again craft a gem. Unlike “Sterno’s” surreally dark “Pee-Wee’s Playhouse” feel, however, The Last Schwartz is more grounded in “traditional” family problems like money, infidelity, and failure to live up to expectations.
The play opens with Norma, her brother Herb, his wife Bonnie, and Simon, the autistic brother, awaiting the arrival of Gene, the freest spirit of the siblings. The family dynamics are quickly established as Norma repeatedly chides Herb for putting his feet on a beaten up old coffee table, while Bonnie prattles on about an episode of Oprah featuring “Siamese twins” co-joined at the head while Herb ignores her. Simon, an astronomer who is losing his eyesight, sits quietly in a corner, “looking” through a telescope. Within minutes, Norma’s brow-beating causes Herb to explode, and the recounting of the Oprah episode has triggered Bonnie into a hysterical memory of her five miscarriages and stillborn death of her son. This is every horrible Thanksgiving story we’ve ever seen on stage or screen, and just as things begin to cool, Gene shows up with his latest girlfriend Kia – a ditzy, suggestively dressed bombshell who is appearing in a commercial as the spokesmodel for the “Fat No More” weight loss product.
The unexpected guest is a huge surprise – both pleasant and horrifying – to everyone but the seemingly oblivious Simon. Norma is appalled at the perceived breach of etiquette for the solemn occasion, and makes it clear that if Kia stays, she’ll be sleeping on the couch. Herb is delighted, obsessively fawning over every inane utterance by the California beauty, while Bonnie fades (temporarily) into the background. Party girl Kia has absolutely no filters, bringing a new meaning to the phrase “out of the mouths of babes”. Her clueless observations are not only the source of a ton of laughs, they also frack the family structure wide open as the play unfolds. And while the first act is largely a comic setup, the second act is much weightier (while still hilarious), and that’s what separates “The Last Schwartz” from standard comic fare.
Laufer has a great ear for unconventional dialogue (primarily by Kia and Simon), and really knows how to deliver a joke in the context of the overall work. She also knows how to temper her comedy with the right dose of pathos, as we see early on, when Norma makes a desperate plea to Simon to come live with her, after she has driven away everyone else in her life. Plum extracts good performances from a solid cast, and the pacing is very good, especially in the comic scenes.
Veronica Anastasio Wiseman does a nice job of keeping Norma from devolving into a caricature, and we genuinely feel for her as she pays the price for her sometimes ruthless behavior. Andrea Goldman looks every bit the part of the lingerie model – all legs and boobs – and is a riot as the gaffe-prone Kia. Paul Melendy evokes a more comic version of Dustin Hoffman’s Rain Man as Simon, and the rest of the cast is solid as well. Set designer Jon Savage makes an interesting and imaginative choice with the set, with the walls of the summer home stripped down to its lathing (bare wooden slats), which may be a harbinger of what is to come following an explosive revelation late in the story.
Gloucester Stage’s ‘The Last Schwartz’ is more than just an entertaining comedy. It delves deeper into the twisted dynamics of ordinary appearing families than most dramas, while still providing plenty of laughs. It’s well worth the (scenic) drive) to Gloucester. For more info, go to: http://gloucesterstage.com/the-last-schwartz/