At the start of The Last Schwartz, Anne Bowles as Bonnie deftly sets the tone, relating how she saw Siamese twins on Oprah. They strike her as oddly optimistic in hoping to get married. Her cousin, after all, can’t find love, “and she’s pretty and smart and has only one head.” Moments later, she’s weeping for her miscarriage: “… if I could have had him for just one full day…” It’s a dark, sarcastic juxtaposition, and Bowles makes the transition with conviction.
Director Adam Immerwahr, the new Artistic Director at Theater J, sees this as the perfect beginning to his tenure. “Nothing is funnier than family dysfunction,” and playwright Deborah Zoe Laufer has packed in the dysfunction. Four Schwartz siblings have met to observe the yarzheit (anniversary of death) of their father. Miscarriage is only one of the woes that they will contend with: adultery, autism, disability, drugs, infertility, and the future of the Jewish people all make appearances.
Norma is the oldest sibling, intent on preserving the traditions of family even while squeezing the life out of the family members. Barbara Pinolini carries the role with charisma and gravitas. Bonnie’s husband Herb (Sasha Olinick) tries to ignore everything, just to get past Norma’s overbearing personality. Their brother Simon (Andrew Wassenich) is an astronomer who is losing his sight, yet maintains a vigilant focus on his telescope, silently but resolutely on stage through most of the play.
Into this somber home, youngest brother Gene (Billy Finn) brings Kia, played by Emily Kester. Kia is the Manic Pixie Dream Shiksa of the play, a tall, dizzy blonde in thigh-high lace-up stiletto heels. Kia gets all of the best and most outrageous jokes in the play, delivered expertly by Kester. She’s the one to shake everything up, to ask the questions everybody is too embarrassed to ask (because she’s too clueless not to know they shouldn’t be asked.) Her free spirit draws one revelation after another from the family, as it careens wildly between laughter and desolation. The highlight comes just after intermission, bringing Kester and Bowles together for a long, heartbreaking heart-to-heart, making a real, powerful, bittersweet connection.
The Schwartz family home sandwiches a model 1970’s living room and kitchen between a layer cake of overlapping circular stages and an abstract ceiling of swoops and molding. The furniture brought vivid memories of the homes of my own Jewish grandmothers… both of them. Set Designer James Fouchard has a deep understanding of the zeitgeist. Like the Schwartz family, the set also contains a few revelations of its own, with the assistance of Lighting Designer Nancy Schertier, a transcendent spectacle at the climax.
Laufer’s script feels leaden in places, with the characters often broadly stereotyped. The dysfunction is ladled on, cramming a lot of issues in without a lot of resolution. Its core is the parallels between the lack of continuity in the Schwartz family, and that of the Jewish people, rather a heavy weight to be carrying in a play that also tries to be a bedroom comedy. But Immerwahr brings out the very best in the script, handling the pathos with delicacy and the humor with precise timing. He has certainly brought a strong stamp to begin his tenure at Theater J. He’s designed his show with wonder and cast it very well. The audience found it both uproarious and heart-wrenching, and gave it a standing ovation.
Running Time: 2 hours and 15 minutes with one intermission
The Last Schwartz plays through October 2, 2016 at Theater J in residence at the Washington DCJCC’s Aaron & Cecile Goldman Theater— 1529 16th Street NW in Washington, DC. For tickets call the box office at (800) 494-8497 or purchase them online.