note: entire contents copyright 2016 by Sheila Barth
Gloucester Stage Company audiences who overwhelmingly applauded playwright Deborah Zoe Laufer’s bizarrely funny play, “Out of Sterno,” last summer, will enjoy her comic drama, “The Last Schwartz,” appearing at the theater through July 30.
While “Out of Sterno” was a bittersweet story with weirdo characters, threaded through a maze of fantasy, this dysfunctional family offering, “The Last Schwartz,” screams with reality, zinging identifiable chords with everyone.
As with most true-to-life plays, Laufer balances sadness and grief with a comic underpinning. She also tackles the family’s eroding traditionalism vs. contemporary lifestyle.
Set in Lake Huntington, NY, in the Catskills, in 2007, the fictitious Jewish Schwartz family gathers for their father’s yahrzeit, the anniversary of his death, to recite prayers and decide what to do with the family’s ramshackle homestead.
Laufer makes sure her play isn’t mundane. She incorporates unexpected turns and twists to keep theatergoers guessing. That’s her goal.
In a telephone interview from her home in Mt. Kisco, NY, Laufer said the title of this two-act, two-hour play, refers to carrying on the family name and family traditions, but there’s much more here.
“...There are layers this play is about. There’s more in it than I can quantify. I like people to walk away pondering their own family and relationships...I don’t like going to theater and being told what to think. I like going to theaters and being provoked,” she said.
“I don’t know why I wrote ‘The Last Schwartz,’ but everyone writes a family play, and this is mine. It’s about a Jewish family, but people [Jewish and non-Jewish] say it reminds them of their own family.”
Laufer’s also delighted to return to Gloucester Stage and work again with Lynn native multi-award winning actress-director, Paula Plum.
Plum exacts exquisite timing from her fantastic cast: Veronica Anastasia Wiseman, deftly portrays eldest sibling Norma, who wants to hold onto tradition and keep the family homestead, and Gabriel Kuttner, superbly performs as eldest brother Herb, a successful businessman and pragmatist. Former Salem State University student-turned-professor-performer, Brianne Beatrice, is terrific as Herb’s overly-dramatic, frequently hysterical wife, Bonnie, who’s pitted against hilarious Andrea Goldman, portraying sexy, 23-year-old aspiring actress bimbo, Kia. Also effective is Glen Moore, portraying the Schwartz family’s estranged brother, Gene, who’s caught between lithe and lovely Kia, and Bonnie, with whom he carelessly had a one-night fling. Gene directed a commercial Kia’s in, and he’s promised to help her get bigger parts. They also have a secret bond that’s revealed, throwing the family into greater chaos.
Paul Melendy, former Salem State University student who has captured several big Boston roles and acting nominations, (you’ll recognize him as the naked guy in the TV Bernie and Phyl furniture commercials) portrays the Schwartzes’ youngest sibling Simon, who sits all day at a telescope, convinced he’s going blind and wants to save the world from a cosmic disaster.
Or so he says.
Melendy’s portrayal adds a new dimension to autism - or whatever Simon’s personality disorder is.
During a recent interview, Kuttner said, “There’s a lot going on. It’s an interesting play, with a nice balance. It has a nice window into a family, with its customs, and it survives enough of levity and dark comedy. Herb isn’t a practicing Jew and makes fun of it, but I wonder what that little bit of Jewishness is that’s left in him.
“Herb’s very savvy, He’s no dummy. He chooses to avoid anything that causes him pain. But Kia kinda sets him off.”
She sure does. Herb can’t take his eyes off Kia, but no worries. Bonnie has her shattering family secret, which surfaces.
Elisabetta Polito’s costumes wonderfully represent each character’s personality; Jon Savage’s ramshackle set symbolizes the family’s deteriorating relationship; Russ Swift’s lighting and Andrew Duncan Will’s special sound effects intensify the play’s poignancy.
“Come see it,” said Laufer. “It’s an incredibly funny, yet heartbreaking play. I think people will recognize perhaps someone in their own family.”