Los Angeles Theater Review: JEWTOPIA (Greenway Court Theatre in West Hollywood)

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by Tony Frankel on July 29, 2010

in Theater-Los Angeles

DON’T JEW HAVE ANYTHING BETTER TO DO?

Before Jewtopia began at the Greenway Court Theatre, actors entered the audience and began interacting with theatergoers. I got schpilkas when one actress hovered above my seat and said (in a Brooklyn accent), “I just saved a marriage.” That’s when I knew—I felt it immediately all the way down in my matzo balls: Tony, you are really going to have to lower your standards to get a kick out of this thing.

The play starts. Within minutes we are at a singles’ dance and a gentile brags about a Jewish girl that he adores, “I fingered her…behind the Ark!” Then an older, paunchy Jew comes into the room, stuffs a banana down his pants, and screams, “Here comes Arnie Goldmaaaaaaaan!” and exits stage left (waka-waka).

At this point in Jewtopia, if you don’t understand what you’re in for, then you’re a) not Jewish, b) not a reviewer, c) not willing to say anything bad about it because you just shelled out $49.50.

Pardon the brashness, but these producers don’t really need good reviews to bring in their target audience. Spread the Red Sea, for here they come. The Red Hat Society-type clubs and non-discerning theater party groups who can relate to the dysfunctional Jewish family: “Oh, my God, Myrtle, this play is talking about us!” Even with some truly funny bits, the self-deprecatory, wink-wink, nudge-nudge, Jewish jokes are what define Jewtopia; it’s a series of gags strung together by the thinnest of premises. It’s Borsht Belt without the belt. And, as it is with stand-up or comedy improv, when a joke flies, it soars; when it falls flat, it’s unbearable.

Ultimately, watching Jewtopia is like chewing on a delicious piece of Pastrami, only to pull a huge chunk of stringy fat out of your throat so you don’t choke.

The premise? Jew on this: Adam Lipschitz (Adam Korson) is looking for a gentile girl that doesn’t remind him of his mother, preferably one who will “cook, clean, and swallow.” (I’m curious already, how does Adam know whether his Mom swallows or not?) Chris O’Connell (Conor Dubin) is looking for a Jewish girl as a mate so that he won’t have to make a decision ever again (but then Chris incongruently thrives on being a decision maker throughout the play). When they meet, Chris decides that he will help Adam by introducing him to the world of Jewish on-line dating (get it..? Jewtopia!). In return, Adam teaches non-Jew Chris the ways of the Jew. This idea serves up a few great chuckles, especially when we learn how a Jew orders food at a restaurant, or when Adam brings a Mongolian girl (Kari Lee Cartwright) home to his mother (Cheryl David) at a Passover Seder.

Dubin and Korson are pleasant enough, and Miss David triumphs with her over-the-top Jewish mother. In fact, all of the actors are charming and hard-working—perhaps too much so, for they are left to push for laughter with a storyline that lays barren of plausibility. Jewtopia is what it is, and it’s doubtful that Molly Picon or Zero Mostel themselves could make this a satisfying experience.

Rewarding comedy occurs when characters, no matter how screwy, are based in reality (such as The Odd Couple); when common people are thrown into uncommon circumstances (Born Yesterday); or when extraordinary people are thrust into an ordinary situation (The Man Who Came to Dinner). The most satisfying laughter in Jewtopia came not from he script but when Mr. Korson’s devil costume got tangled around his shmekele; he fidgeted with his schmuck while Mr. Dubin was left to get his lines out. We howled as the two broke character and ad-libbed lines because we have ordinary characters in an ordinary play spouting ordinary jokes in an extraordinary circumstance. (Think Korman and Conway on The Carol Burnett Show.)

As one who longs for Los Angeles theater to reach its potential, it’s frustrating that outings such as Jewtopia have such pulkes (legs). Playwright/Director Bryan Fogel admits in the program that all he ever wanted to do was create something that would make people laugh and keep him from having to do something else with his life (co-author Sam Wolfson is mysteriously omitted in the bios). Seven years after Jewtopia’s premiere in L.A., with a subsequent successful run in New York, there is a Jewtopia book, Jewtopia stand-up act, and a Jewtopia movie that Fogel plans to direct (no doubt with financing from you Jewtopia lovers).

So, in the tradition of long-running shoulder-shrugging entertainments like Tobacco Road, Mamma Mia, Oh, Calcutta!, and Katz (oops … sorry, Cats), who am I to say what audiences want? You may enjoy it, but shows which use a doltish excuse of a book to get to the next laugh don’t pull the yarmulke over my eyes—it just feels cheap. So, if people are laughing, why should they care about a cheap premise, cheap shots, and a cheap show with cheap sets? A woman leaving the theater afterward said loudly, “I loved it. I absolutely LOVED it!” And my belief is that she did. There is a succah born every minute.

photos by Ed Kreiger

Jewtopia
Greenway Court Theatre
544 N. Fairfax Ave. in West Hollywood
Thurs and Fri at 8; Sat at 3 & 8; Sun at 3:30
ends on September 19, 2010 EXTENDED to February 26, 2012
for tickets ($50.00 to $62.50), call 800.595.4849 or visit Plays411

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