Remember “Bad Jews”? Joshua Harmon’s runaway comic hit at Studio Theatre featured a family gathering for an elder’s funeral, a handsome young son who popped in with a cute and clueless blonde, and a zealous cousin who insisted she was holier than the rest.
Oh, and the plot partly turned on a small object with outsize significance — a testament to the Jewish family’s history.
The parallels with the new Theater J show “The Last Schwartz” are uncanny, and possibly annoying to “Schwartz” playwright Deborah Zoe Laufer — not because she figures Harmon lifted her story (We’d have heard about that by now, right?) but because Laufer’s comedy was written in 1999. A year after a father has died, the adult kids gather at the Upstate New York house, a son comes home with a blow-dried bombshell and the strict oldest sister intimidates everyone else.
There’s even a little silver cup loaded with family lore.
“The Last Schwartz” was the hit at the 2003 Contemporary American Theater Festival in Shepherdstown, W.Va.: “Far and away the most intriguing play to emerge,” The Washington Post’s Peter Marks wrote. Theater J’s new artistic director, Adam Immerwahr, notes that the sprightly “Schwartz” inspired Broadway interest, which tied up regional rights for a while. By the time Broadway plans flopped, regional theaters had moved on.
Justice delayed may be justice denied for this belated D.C. premiere.
Immerwahr’s buoyant, indisputably funny production makes a nice case for “Schwartz,” but the asterisk now is the inevitable comparison with the “Bad Jews” phenomenon only a couple of blocks away the past two winters. The comic wickedness and serious late twist of Harmon’s play are hard to top.
Still, the gentler “Schwartz” will make you laugh, starting with a squabble over territory that seems minor (an old coffee table, where Herb rests his feet while sister Norma scolds him). The physical business is amusing as Sasha Olinick’s combustible Herb and Barbara Pinolini’s forbidding Norma drive each other crazy. This comes after a slightly unhinged monologue from Herb’s gentile wife, Bonnie (a comically fretful Anne Bowles), who can’t have children and is obsessing about an “Oprah” episode on Siamese twins.
The gift that never fails to give, though, seems to be the gorgeous shiksa whose every cheerful inanity dumbfounds the Schwartzes and mortifies Gene (a hip and pained Billy Finn), the young showbiz hotshot who brought her home. You can see where this is going the moment that actress Emily Kester enters as a hyper-sexy Kia; the arrestingly flimsy mini-dress and thigh-high suede boots by costume designer Kelsey Hunt give her away at a glance.
The inventive Laufer keeps the surprises coming, though, and the wide-eyed Kester does the bimbo thing extremely well, especially once the family goes to bed and she fires up a joint in the living room. Soon everyone’s back in the haze, guzzling liquor and eating pie as secrets tumble forth.
Who will carry on the family line? What’s the role of Judaism anymore? Laufer nimbly raises these questions, except perhaps in the form of the scientific Simon, who can’t bear to be touched and who gazes into a telescope though he’s going blind. Simon, touchingly played by Andrew Wassenich, seems stapled onto the play sideways (and he occupies his own little area on James Fouchard’s tasteful dining-room/living-room set), but he does provide Laufer with a somber “Cherry Orchard” finish.
Immerwahr brings a light touch to this first show for the troupe he now runs: Very quickly, the performance finds a comic rhythm that’s snappy and occasionally kooky yet never pushy.
The timing may induce deja vu, but at least the play’s years-in-the-making D.C. debut glides home painlessly.
Correction: The name of the actor who plays Gene — Billy Finn — was misspelled in previous versions. This version is correct.
The Last Schwartz by Deborah Zoe Laufer. Directed by Adam Immerwahr. Lights, Nancy Schertler. About two hours. Through Oct. 2 at Theater J, 1529 16th St. NW. Tickets: $37-$64. Call 202-777-3210 or visit theaterj.org.