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Entertainment & Arts

Review: In ‘Altman’s Last Stand,’ junk-shop owner hawks his prized possession: An unbelievable life story

‘Altman’s Last Stand’ at the Zephyr Theatre

Michael Laskin stars as Holocaust survivor and junk-shop proprietor Franz Altman in Charles Dennis’ play “Altman’s Last Stand” at Zephyr Theatre in Los Angeles.

(Ellen Giamportone)

Franz Altman, the fictional New York City junk-shop proprietor in Charles Dennis’ play “Altman’s Last Stand” now at Zephyr Theatre, may be 90 years old, but he’s in no hurry to retire. In fact, he’s recently become a celebrity, interviewed on “60 Minutes” for refusing to sell his store, King Solomon’s Treasure, to high-rise developers.

Now a reporter from People magazine, a Miss Carmichael, has come to hear Altman’s life story, which he is eager to recount, despite frequent interruptions from his ringing phone as he schemes against the unscrupulous developers.

Because this is a one-man show, the audience is obliged to stand in for Miss Carmichael, possibly the most passive and reticent reporter in the history of journalism. This setup may feel a bit gimmicky, but at least we don’t have to memorize any lines to play our role. We merely have to sit still and permit Michael Laskin’s Altman, an irreverent old macher with an irresistible twinkle, to charm us.

Altman has earned that twinkle and then some during a long, eventful life. He was born in Vienna in 1900 and experienced a joyous coming-of-age in the care of the open-minded governess Ingeborg — until his father caught them in the bath together, sent him to Sigmund Freud for analysis and replaced frisky Ingeborg with the hateful, enema-bag-wielding Fraulein Kurtz.

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Altman grew up to survive both world wars as well as several concentration camps — “My thirst for justice kept me alive,” he somewhat vaguely explains — then moved to Israel, where he fell in with Yitzhak Shamir and the Stern gang. He lived in Chicago, Buenos Aires and finally Manhattan, where now, in 1990, in his cozy shop surrounded by prized mementos, he stages his plucky last stand and sums up his many adventures.

They make a good story  — at moments too good. Altman is completely free of vice, vanity or small-mindedness, and the many symbolic parallels in his life strain credulity; Forrest Gump himself might quirk an eyebrow at this guy’s knack for being on the scene at major moments. Fraulein Kurtz is not just an unpleasant childhood memory but a Javert-like foil who dogs his every step and then allows him to exact a resonant revenge. 

Altman is obliged to embody the struggles and triumphs of the human spirit, but in 90 minutes he doesn’t have time to do more than run through the major bullet points, which can sound a little pat. The screen projections (like the set, credited to Yee Eun Nam) enhance the PowerPoint vibe; occasionally compelling, the images are often so generic as to seem condescending. (We know what pills look like, thank you.)  

But under the sensitive direction of Charles Haid, Laskin’s playful, wise, winning Altman shines through the manipulations of the script; it’s a pleasure to spend time with this obdurate, lovable character, even if he’s a little too good to be true.

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“Altman’s Last Stand,” Zephyr Theatre, 7456 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. Ends March 13. $25. Tickets: (323) 960-4412 or www.plays411.com/altman. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.


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