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A Jewish Joke
by Phil Johnson and Marni Freedman
Directed by David Ellenstein
New Jewish Theatre
December 2, 2017

Phil Johnson
Photo by Eric Woolsey
New Jewish Theatre

New Jewish Theatre’s latest production, A Jewish Joke, is advertised with the tagline “A Drama About Comedy”. A one-man show starring one of the show’s playwrights, Phil Johnson, it’s a compelling drama. Looking at an important historical subject through the very personal lens of one comedy writer’s perspective, this show has an important story to tell, and for the most part, it tells it well.

The show takes place in the office of LA-based comedy writer Bernie Lutz (Johnson), who is getting ready for a the star-studded premiere of a new movie he’s written with his writing partner, Morris. Bernie and Morris have been on a roll of impending success lately, working on scripts for NBC as well as movies for stars Danny Kaye and the Marx Brothers. Bernie tells us stories about how he got into show business and about how he met Morris, as well as stories about his wife, Ellie, and various other writers including one he refers to as “Jimmy the Nice Guy”. He also talks about, and demonstrates with his jokes, the Jewish influence on American comedy writing. The atmosphere in Hollywood is hopeful for Bernie, but also somewhat tense, as suspicions abound concerning associations–either real or perceived–with the Communist party and related political movements. It’s the height of the “Red Scare” era of history, and merely being implicated as having Communist leanings is enough to ruin a career. In the midst of Bernie’s stories and jokes that he reads off of cards from a file box, we find out through a series of telephone calls that Bernie’s and Morris’s names have turned up on a list of suspected Communist sympathizers, which quickly puts their upcoming projects, including the glitzy premiere, in jeopardy. Through a series of phone calls and stories, we learn more and more of Bernie’s situation, and Morris’s, and the difficult and scary dilemma with which Bernie is confronted.

The show is presented well, with good production values and direction from David Ellenstein, costumes by Peter Herman, lighting by Nathan Schroeder, props by Laura Skroska, sound by Matt Lescault-Wood, and an engaging  performance from Johnson as Bernie. Mostly, this play functions as a personalized form of something many watching will only have read about. It’s a topic that still resonates today in several ways, but essentially as presented here, this is an intriguing period piece.

One-person shows depend so much on their central performance, and also a script that fleshes out the off-stage characters in a way that makes the audience “see” them even when they don’t actually appear. The biggest issue with this story is that I don’t feel satisfied hearing about these people solely from Bernie. The structure of the show revolves so much around telephone calls that a lot of the time is spent just waiting for the next one as Bernie rattles off more jokes, some of which are funny and some of which fall flat (maybe because I’ve heard them before). Johnson gives a fine, if sometimes overly flustered, performance as Bernie, but I kept wanting to see more characters than just him. I especially wanted to see his writing partner, Morris, make an appearance. In one way, that’s a good thing since the characters and situations are so well-defined by the script, but in another I’m not so sure because in a one-person show, the lead actor should be able to carry the stage without having the audience wish for more characters to appear.

A Jewish Joke tells a story that’s important not to forget. It anchors that story around its key central performance, and for the most part, that works, although I do find myself wondering if perhaps a different actor could make this story even more compelling. Still, Johnson introduces us to Bernie and makes this story personal in a convincing way. There’s only one more weekend to see it, and it’s worth checking out.

Phil Johnson
Photo by Eric Woolsey
New Jewish Theatre

New Jewish Theatre is presenting A Jewish Joke at the Marvin & Harlene Wool Studio Theatre at the JCC’s Staenberg Family Complex until December 10, 2017.

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