“A Jewish Joke” At New Jewish Is Another Look At McCarthyism

A one man show starring the co-author is the latest at New Jewish Theatre. “A Jewish Joke” by Marni Freedman and Phil Johnson stars Mr. Johnson as the fictitious Bernie Lutz- a comedy writer from the early 50’s who soon gets swept up in the Red Scare. His fate and that whole world of McCarthyism appears to be one of the many problems sweeping the country again in the malevolence of our current administration. So the play is relevant on many levels- both as history and as history perhaps repeating itself.

Since Phil Johnson co-wrote the play it seemed odd that he had a lot of problems on opening night including some technical snafu’s that appeared to throw off his timing. Bernie has several projects in the works including those for the Marx Brothers, Danny Kaye and NBC. Over the course of this 90 minute one act, he takes and makes about 30 to 40 phone calls and the old problem of picking up a phone that still rings became the first in a line of anticipation of such a faux pas happening again and seemed to cause some trepidation on his part about when to pick up the ringing phone.

We know he’s a comedy writer but the premise of the play has him grabbing jokes out of his files whenever he gets nervous or frustrated and reading them aloud to himself? and thus to the audience. His timing was really off on a few of them- even though most are chestnuts from the period and many we’ve heard over the years. One other problem with the play is the appearance of a non-existent cat that he feeds and talks to. Since it has little to do with the plot- why introduce or, if you do, have him walk slightly off stage to do this little bit of business.

Director David Ellenstein keeps the pace moving and you can see the growing concern on Bernie’s face as he continues to take increasingly stressful phone calls about his involvement in the Communist party. So there is drama and we do have concern for his character knowing how these atrocities were carried out before Senator Joseph McCarthy was finally brought down with the stunning Senate speech- “After all of this time, Senator, have you no sense of decency?” Words that are ringing in our ears today.

No credit for the simple set but it is functional as a small office for a 1950’s comedy writer and Nathan Schroeder’s lighting design is equally effective. Peter Herman’s costuming for Mr. Johnson is fine and to the point.

This is a transplant from the Roustabouts Theatre Company in San Diego where it won a lot of awards. “A Jewish Joke” will no doubt overcome some of the problems it encountered on opening night and should be a satisfying entry into the many projects already out there about this period in history. Perhaps a look at “Trumbo” about the effects of McCarthyism on screenwriter Dalton Trumbo might be something you might want to see or the truly inspired “The Front” by Woody Allen.

jewishA little side note, a few of us were discussing the play at another play in our town and several ladies in front of us piped up and said they didn’t enjoy this play last time at New Jewish and probably wouldn’t go see it again. We finally discovered they were mixing it up with a delightful comedy they produced a few years back, “Old Jews Telling Jokes.” We encouraged them to see this one as it is something completely different. “A Jewish Joke” plays at New Jewish Theatre through December 10th. Give them a call at 314-442-3283 for tickets or more information.

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