Impresario Irwin Parnes recently told a newspaper interviewer that he decided only a month ago to jot down some of the jokes and stories he had been hearing over a lengthy lifetime and put them into a show called “Jokes, Kosher & Traif,” which opened at the Westwood Tuesday. The jokes are indeed very old. Even if you haven’t heard them before, they sound old, or at least moribund, like the one (attributed to Steve Allen) that notes April 9 as the anniversary of Joan of Arc’s decision to quit smoking.
Coupled with such a short lead and rehearsal time in which to find a fresh format or angle of attack on a lot of old groaners, the combination is theatrically deadly.
From the first moment Ray Victor, a graying-at-the temples-leading man type, comes out to sing the overture chorus from “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” over a canned musical score, you know that this show doesn’t belong in a theater like the Westwood. The Westside Jewish Community Center would be more appropriate (at one point Victor sings “Hava Nagila”). Sheila Rogers and Dave Barry sit at a table and read jokes out of big black binders like members of the Royal Shakespeare Company parsing themes from the Bard (Barry’s concession to levity is to wear the C&R; Clothiers logo on the back of his vest).
Most of the jokes are Jewish--the first category is “Yiddishe Mama,” followed by “Meet the Rabbis,” “Israel,” “Famous Storytellers” “Sex Education” and “Human Frailties.”
One of them goes like this:
Barry: Why is Eve curvy?
Rogers: So you should like her.
Barry: Why is Eve stupid?
Rogers: So she should like you.
The program fondly plays up Jewish stereotypes, such as Jewish envy and cleverness, joyless and sexually hostile marriage, and a preoccupation with money and success (late in the show we hear, “A fetus doesn’t become a human being until it enrolls in medical school,” and we also hear of Georgie Jessel’s displeasure at being asked to eulogize a dead dog until he’s offered $50,000 for the job, at which point it becomes “a nice Jewish dog”).
Jackie Mason has run through the same thematic material, protesting that he’s only telling the truth. At numerous points throughout “Jokes, Kosher & Traif,” someone will stop to remind us of how heroic the Jews have been through millennia of persecution, and that’s all true too. But the frequent editorializing doesn’t do anything to ennoble the show or make it any less dated and dreary, and Parnes’ static, academic direction bestows the kiss of death on whatever half-life some of these jokes have left by treating them reverently, as though they’d been passed along in entablature. (Parnes’ career has been in the musical concert hall--the program tells us he staged Bela Bartok’s last piano recital).
After intermission, Sheila Rogers comes out to do impressions of people such as ZaSu Pitts and Zsa Zsa Gabor, and spends the bulk of her act telling quaint tales about her elderly mother. Then Barry comes on with tales of his family, including a son so dumb that, when informed his wife is sleeping with his best friend, he runs home and shoots his dog (we’ve heard that one too, haven’t we? Or is it deja vu all over again?).
Things pick up during Barry’s segment however because he cuts loose into a Vegas lounge rhythm and attitude that is the perfect indicator of just what this show’s been lacking all along, a swift pick-up rhythm, unsympathetic to straggling and sentimentality. When he’s not tacitly apologizing for the show or over-explaining the significance of humor in our lives, Barry’s catarrhal edge gives the evening a desperately needed lift. But it’s too little too late.
The observance of whatever it is that makes up good comedy--including a healthy dose of rudeness--has been made in the breach, and the evening is no fun at all.
* “Jokes, Kosher & Traif,” Westwood Playhouse, 10886 LeConte Ave., Westwood. Tonight-Saturday, 8 p.m. Sunday, 3 and 7:30 p.m. Ends Sunday. $20-$15; (213) 410-1062.