Husband-and-wife writing team Mark Lonow and Jo Anne Astrow traipse down memory lane — and often stumble — in “Jews, Christians and Screwing Stalin,” having its premiere as a guest production at the Matrix Theatre.
According to the program notes, Lonow (who also directs) and Astrow based this comedy on their lives — Lonow the Brooklyn-raised Jew (who went on to become co-owner of the Improv), Astrow the “titular Christian.” Yiddish phrases inundate the play, while the setting — Brighton Beach in New York — is, intentionally or not, an hommage to Neil Simon, whose semi-autobiographical “Brighton Beach Memoirs” was a Jewish coming-of-age tale set during the Great Depression.
“Jews” is set in 1966, a time of great upheaval on the American scene. And, like “Memoirs,” the play concerns the domestic travails of an embattled Jewish family as its young male protagonist struggles to figure out his future within his colorfully dysfunctional family. Whereas Simon’s very human comedy was rooted in truth, however, Lonow and Astrow jettison emotional insight in their dogged pursuit of laughs.
The action, unraveling over Joel Daavid’s excellent set, begins with family patriarch Murray Grazonsky (John Pleshette), an atheistic Communist who survived the Russian Revolution, addressing us from beyond the grave. Now in Paradise, he enjoys regular happy hours with pal Leon Trotsky. Murray created his own revolution on Earth when he willed the family boarding house to his grandson, Joseph (Hunter Milano), much to the distress of Murray’s wife, Minka (Cathy Ladman), who feels dissed by the sexist disenfranchisement. It’s distressing also to Murray’s feckless, seriously estranged, alcoholic son David (Travis York), who needs to float a loan on that same house to get some leg-breakers off his case.
When that son arrives on the eve of Rosh Hashana with his pregnant Christian fiancée, Caitlin (Sammi-Jack Martincak), emotions run high and family secrets are spilled, with long-time boarder Lillie Feinstein (Laura Julian) hanging on every salacious disclosure.
Low points in the story include a character who appears out of nowhere, flatulates across the stage, then exits, never to be seen — or heard — again. (This is uproarious?) Also, strangely digressive dialogue about certain family members’ enormous, uh, endowments doesn’t quite measure up. Unless you’re doing a vaudeville sketch, even the broadest slapstick must be germane to the plot.
Subtler staging might have helped, but Lonow encourages excess at every turn. At least the droll and diverting cast — Pleshette as the patriarch, Ladman as his wife, Julian as the boarder — invest characters with a genuine humanity that transcends stereotypes and atones for much of the sophomoric silliness.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
‘Jews, Christians and Screwing Stalin’
Where: Matrix Theatre, 7657 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles
When: 8 p.m. Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays, 8 p.m. Mondays; ends Sept. 23.
Info: (323) 960-4412, www.Plays411.com/Matzoballs