Talkin' Broadway Regional Reviews: The Last Schwartz

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Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

The Last Schwartz
Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's reviews of ScapinOleannaI Come from Arizona and Irving Berlin's Holiday Inn

  Heidi Fellner and Emily Dussault   Photo by Sarah Whiting

Heidi Fellner and Emily Dussault
Photo by Sarah Whiting

Ritual gatherings to commemorate family milestones are often fraught with emotions that strain family ties. Such events have a way of reinforcing old roles and strictures that, in the rest of their lives, family members have left behind. For some families these are the only times the entire group gets together. The unveiling service commonly practiced by American Jews is such an occasion. It marks the installation of a memorial stone at the departed family member's gravesite, held any time after the sheloshim, or thirty-day mourning period until the yahrzeit, or anniversary of the death. An unveiling is a far less ritualized event than a funeral, with only immediate family and the closest friends typically present, and has no set liturgy. Ritual without structure.

The Last Schwartz, Deborah Zoe Laufer's play impressively mounted by Minnesota Jewish Theater Company, is set on the occasion of the unveiling for Emanuel Schwartz. Manny's four grown children gather in their childhood home, a house built by their grandparents in rural upstate New York. Norma assumes the position of family head and keeper of traditions. Among them, she alone still practices Judaism with any fidelity. She is also self-appointed guardian of their parents' home, constantly barking things like "get your feet off Mama's table." She takes charge of organizing the unveiling service, assuming none of the others care. She is right, but her presumptions still grate on the others.

Brother Herb is a financier, who doesn't seem to have strong feelings about much, except a desire to keep things low key and keep Norma off his back. Herb's weepy wife Bonnie can never do anything to suit Norma. Bonnie's dream of having children has gone unmet after several miscarriages. Youngest brother Gene is an aspiring director whose career thus far has taken him to TV commercials. He arrives in the unexpected company of Kia, an air-headed, well-endowed model he cast in a recent ad campaign.

The fourth Schwartz sibling, Simon, sits silently, dressed in white and peering through a telescope. Eventually, we realize that he is possibly autistic. He was never diagnosed and is high functioning—in fact, he is an astronomer and had been working at an observatory in Australia—but none the less, his mind marches to its own beat. He is also going blind and is developing intolerance to tactile stimulation.

As in most such plays, an array of issues surface during the family's brief time together, including the future of the ancestral house itself. Norma wants to keep the house and pass it on to the children. Herb wants to sell it, a burdensome expense they will never use, and besides, he points out, "what children?," noting the absence of a new generation of Schwartzes. This launches Norma on a harangue about the survival of the Jewish people. Simon calmly interjects that not only Jews, but the entire human race, are not much longer for this earth. Other issues course among them, as secrets and long ago hurts spill out. Amid this brood, Kia is a loose cannon, stirring a mix of clueless indelicacy and cunning mischief.

In the early going, The Last Schwartz feels like a well-written domestic comedy, with frequent laugh lines and the personality of each character quickly established so that we can catch the humor in their true-to-form responses to each other. As we get deeper into the collective Schwartz psyche, we are shown that a residue of pain is part of their family inheritance. Laufer's adept writing handles this transition with tenderness, while keeping the play aloft with humor so that it never bogs down in maudlin excess.

It is also extremely smart. For example, when Gene begins to be embarrassed by Kia's non-stop, vapid chatter, he tells her "you seem different to me here than in the city." She assures him she's the same person, and he realizes she is right—it is he that is different. The vestiges of his family have rekindled standards he has allowed to lapse. In spite of himself, he is still the youngest son of the Schwartz family, at least in the presence of their company.

Warren Bowles directs with an affectionate hand for these people, all well-meaning, given the roles and circumstances life has handed them. Their flaws which could easily cause us to turn away, yet each Schwartz family member—even brittle, judgmental Norma—reveals a deep core of humanity that asks us to care about them. There is something of an enduring Schwartz family essence, even without any of them knowing what that is. But it is rapidly fraying, and one of them may well be the last Schwartz.

Laufer gives the female actors in more to work with than the males. Laura Stearns Adams is superb as Norma, a fireball of angry righteousness who sees it as her duty to uphold family and Jewish identity, keeping the shadows of her own heartache well hidden. She is calling Kia and Bonnie back to their assigned table-setting tasks, disgusted by their dereliction of duty. Later she reveals the deep hurt that she carries with her and draws us to her side, even after it has been so easy to hate her. Heidi Fellner plays Bonnie, impressing early on as a whimpering, needy and dependent woman, but revealing depth and strength as we learn more about the path she has traveled. Emily Dussault is hilarious as totally self-absorbed Kia, whose belief system is based on having fun and whose lack of boundaries is shockingly genuine. When a moment arises for Kia to show actual feelings for someone else's plight, Dussault makes palpable Kia's mighty effort to attain a semblance of empathy.

Matt Sciple is rock solid as Herb, long suffering in abiding Bonnie's neediness, and long suffering in tolerating Norma's shrewish dominance over the clan. We feel his pain in listening to Bonnie's rehash of her suffering, even as he distractedly works on a crossword puzzle, as well as his anxious cringe every time he fears that Norma is about to lower the boom. Damian Leverett is charming as Gene, easygoing with everyone, then feeling sabotaged by the dormant clutches of family expectations and pecking order so that he begins to feel uncomfortable with himself. Corey DiNardo is especially affecting as Simon, using a lack of affect in his voice to draw all the more importance to what Simon says. At first we hear Simon as uttering nonsense, adrift in an interior world beyond reason, but little by little DiNardo reveals a logic in Simon's perception, until it holds as much logic as the tightly wound Jewish observance and reverence for imperfect parents that drives Norma's life.

Michael Hoover has designed a modest living-dining room for the Schwartz family home, with the cozy feel of a house that has served three generations and is full of the books, photos and tchotchkes acquired over that time span. Michael Wangen's lighting is especially effective as night descends, when the Schwartz family—unable to sleep—have their darkest exchanges.

Throughout The Last Schwartz's swiftly moving ninety minutes I kept wondering about Simon. The circumstances of his life are not clearly rolled out. How does he function away from his family? How did he make it so far in life in spite of being in an orbit outside the rest of the family, and for that matter the rest of society? The ending leaves that question as a puzzlement, suggesting that perhaps it is by being outside the orbits of familiar and societal norms that survival is possible. Laufer has crafted a play that is funny, moving, authentic and provocative, and Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company has given it an excellent production that is well worth seeing.

The Last Schwartz, through November 11, 2018, at the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company at the Highland Park Community Center, 1978 Ford Parkway, Saint Paul MN. Tickets: $23.00 - $38.00. For tickets call 651-647-4315 or go to mnjewishtheatre.org.

Written by Deborah Zoe Laufer; Director: Warren C. Bowles; Scenic Design: Michael Hoover; Costume: Barb Portinga; Lighting Design: Michael Wangen; Sound Design: Anita Kelling; Properties Design: Robert J. Smith; Stage manager: Mark Tietz

Cast: Laura Stearns Adams (Norma) Corey DiNardo (Simon), Emily Dussault (Kia), Heidi Fellner (Bonnie), Damien Leverett (Gene), Matt Sciple (Herb).

ORIGINAL SOURCE: https://www.talkinbroadway.com/page/regional/minn/minn784.html

Minnesota Jewish Theatre finds laughs in drama about a fractured family

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STAGE & ARTS
OCTOBER 24, 2018 — 11:20AM

 SARAH WHITING. Above: Heidi Fellner and Matt Sciple in “The Last Schwartz.”

SARAH WHITING. Above: Heidi Fellner and Matt Sciple in “The Last Schwartz.”

Rohan Preston@ROHANPRESTON

She lit one up, and then things got a lot more relaxed.

It's just a moment in "The Last Schwartz," the latest production from Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company, but the whole energy of the narrative shifts when a guest at a Jewish family's country home lights a joint from the candle burning in memory of the clan's patriarch.

This family, beset by sorrows and sordid secrets, could stand to lighten up.

Playwright Deborah Zoe Laufer's one-act comic drama is culturally specific: It takes place around the ­yahrzeit, a Jewish mourning ceremony marking the one-year anniversary of a death. But this well-acted production by director Warren Bowles is universal in that it contains struggles over identity and legacy that vex many families.

When we meet the Schwartzes, they are all in different worlds, each of them busily talking but none of them listening.

The eldest child, Norma (Laura Stearns Adams), is a disciplinarian and enforcer who once called the cops on her now estranged son and has taken on the role of trenchant memory preserver. The oldest of her three brothers, Herb (Matt Sciple), a financial whiz who thinks money is the solution to nearly everything, is accompanied by his ignored and ambivalent wife, Bonnie (Heidi Fellner). Gene (Damian Leverett), a hot TV director, has brought along his actor girlfriend, Kia (Emily Dussault). And Simon (Corey DiNardo), an autistic astronomer, dreams of ­settling on the moon — peering through a telescope even as he's losing his eyesight.

They remain on the outs through much of the show — especially about how to care for or even to keep the family place and the complicated character of their late father — until Kia unwittingly provides that moment of levity.

The action takes place in Michael Hoover's neat, small-scale set depicting the interior of a home in New York's Catskill Mountains. Because of the rural setting, some have likened "Schwartz" to Chekhov's "The Cherry Orchard." "Schwartz" is closer to comic soap opera than the great dramas of yore.

While Laufer's script includes sensitive dialogue about miscarriages and abortion, there are also misfires, including a cringe-inducing sequence of jokes about conjoined twins.

Strong performances make this a show worth seeing. Dussault virtually steals the show as the breezy Kia, who snagged a part in a commercial directed by Gene and cares more about getting roles than anything else. Using physicality and phrasing, Dussault is casual but commanding as she fleshes out a thinly written beach-bum character into a full-blown deux ex machina.

Norma also is underwritten, but Adams finds some light in the grim personality of the family enforcer. As the gathering winds down, Norma seems to better understand her siblings, even if she believes they have let the family down. Sciple is a stitch as Herb (a name that may or may not be a pun), delivering stage business with expert timing and wit.

The acting company is fairly well-rounded. Fellner carries us on an emotional journey as she lays on the heart-tugging waterworks, while Leverett brings a touch of TV charisma as Gene and DiNardo imbues Simon with dreams and wonder. His character brings clarity to it all: Legacy may be important, but he would much rather look to the future.


The Last Schwartz

Who: By Deborah Zoe Laufer. Directed by Warren C. Bowles for the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company.

When: 7:30 p.m.-Thu. and Wed., 8 p.m. Sat., 1 p.m. Sun. Ends Nov. 11.

Where: Highland Park Community Center, 1978 Ford Pkwy., St. Paul.

Tickets: $23-$38. 651-647-4315, mnjewishtheatre.org.


Rohan Preston covers theater for the Star Tribune.

rpreston@startribune.com 612-673-4390 @rohanpreston

ORIGINAL SOURCE: http://www.startribune.com/minnesota-jewish-theatre-finds-laughs-in-drama-about-a-fractured-family/498428002/

Review: Strong story softens sharp family conflicts in ‘Last Schwartz’

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 Heidi Fellner and Emily Dussault in Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company’s “The Last Schwartz” (Photo Credit: Sarah Whiting)

Heidi Fellner and Emily Dussault in Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company’s “The Last Schwartz” (Photo Credit: Sarah Whiting)

By ROB HUBBARD | Special to the Pioneer Press

October 23, 2018 at 5:00 am 

As the holidays approach, many a mind turns with fear toward the family conflicts ahead. It’s the time of year when dormant divisions among relatives awaken from hibernation and spill out over the dining room table.

Comfort yourself knowing that your family probably doesn’t roil with as much hostility and stress as the Schwartzes. They’re the New York family that populates Deborah Zoe Laufer’s play, “The Last Schwartz,” currently receiving its Twin Cities premiere via Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company. Brothers are sleeping with one another’s partners (or are trying to), the oldest sister is fiercely protecting their parents’ memory (and the family’s Jewishness) and the brilliant brother astronomer with autism is going blind.

Oh, and … it’s a comedy. Of a sort. In her deliciously sharp-eared script, Laufer finds lots of humor in the absurd ways that siblings can communicate (or not), seemingly small matters building into verbal conflagrations. But before you think, “Why would I want to spend an evening with these people?” you should know that this is an excellent play that takes the kitchen-sink family drama structure, adds a lot of biting wit, and draws you into caring very much about these richly detailed characters.

Laufer once wrote a play called “The Three Sisters of Weehawken” that was clearly inspired by Anton Chekhov’s “The Three Sisters.” Similarly, “The Last Schwartz” feels much like an update of Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard,” in that a family is battling over what will happen to the land that is their legacy. In this case, it’s a cabin in the Catskill Mountains that the four New York City-based siblings only visit on holidays, or, in this case, to perform a memorial ritual for their father.

It’s oldest sister Norma who’s most attached to the place, while brother Herb espouses the practicality of selling it. Gene and Simon are concentrating on other worlds, in astronomer Simon’s case, literally. Driving the story forward are two women destined to be treated as interlopers by the anal and imperious Norma: Herb’s chatterbox wife, Bonnie, and Kia, the sweet but dim girlfriend Gene has brought along. As stories, seductions and confessions fly, the conflicts begin to center around what each wants in the way of a family.

Under Warren C. Bowles’ direction, the cast of six keeps the pace brisk on Michael Hoover’s set of ramshackle rusticity. Despite a limited playing space, there’s a lot of movement afoot. The play may be talky, but it’s never static, from a wrestling match atop a table to some awkward incomplete passes of the sexual sort.

It’s a strong production, but the characters are fleshed out with varying levels of success. Heidi Fellner stands out with her portrayal of the browbeaten and ultimately heartbroken Bonnie, who commands the stage as she grows wings while confronting the past. While playwright Laufer strains believability with Kia’s comical ditziness, Emily Dussault makes her the compassionate outsider we need for an expedition into this family’s dynamic. And Matt Sciple is excellent as Herb, a wing-tipped, money-clip-wielding businessman with a flair for fury.

Alas, Laufer doesn’t allow Herb’s three siblings to expose their vulnerabilities enough to draw an audience’s sympathy, Laura Stearns Adams having the toughest row to hoe as exasperating control freak Norma. Yet “The Last Schwartz” is nevertheless so strong a script that I found myself wondering why it’s taken Minnesota Jewish Theatre so long to get around to this 2003 play.

Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company’s ‘The Last Schwartz’

What: Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company’s “The Last Schwartz”
When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. Sundays; through Nov. 11
Where: Highland Park Community Center, 1978 Ford Parkway, St. Paul
Tickets: $38-$23, available at 651-647-4315 or mnjewishtheatre.org
Capsule: A rewarding comical journey into an offbeat family dynamic.

Original Source: https://www.twincities.com/2018/10/23/review-strong-story-softens-sharp-family-conflicts-in-last-schwartz/

Minnesota Jewish Theatre’s ‘What I Thought I Knew’ is compelling, engaging​​​​​​​

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 Kim Kivens portrays 38 characters in “What I Thought I Knew.” Photo by Sarah Whiting

Kim Kivens portrays 38 characters in “What I Thought I Knew.” Photo by Sarah Whiting

By ROB HUBBARD | Special to the Pioneer Press

August 20, 2018 at 12:03 pm

In 1999, Alice Eve Cohen got a big surprise. The 44-year-old solo theater artist and teacher became ill, and the assessments of doctors ranged from typical menopause symptoms to the possibility of ovarian cancer. Not until she underwent a CAT scan was it revealed that what was inside her was not a tumor but a fetus entering its third trimester.

Her experience became an award-winning memoir that Cohen then adapted into a one-woman show, portraying 38 characters from her odyssey through the American health care system and the tough terrain of a high-risk pregnancy. Her play has also won awards, and now Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company is presenting the first production of “What I Thought I Knew” that doesn’t feature Cohen herself on stage.

Taking on this daunting task is Kim Kivens, an actor whose most memorable local performances have come while crafting uproariously funny characters. And Kivens’ comedic skills definitely come into play in “What I Thought I Knew,” but this is a performance of tremendous depth and breadth, taking the audience to Cohen’s most disarmingly intimate thoughts and vexing sorrows. Over the course of 95 intermission-less minutes, the story unfailingly engages, its pace and vivid characterizations making it the theatrical equivalent of a page turner.

While intensely personal, Cohen’s play also bears many a touchstone of commonality for audience members. Parents will offer knowing nods as Kivens describes the emotional peaks and plummets of pregnancy, and anyone who’s ever been exasperated by the American medical system will find that pot stirred within them. And seeking spiritual assistance through a difficult time will no doubt ring true for many, Cohen articulating well how her relatively dormant Judaism was activated during this process.

Director Jennie Ward has done a splendid job of helping shape Kivens’ characters, but may have erred in her decision to leave the house lights up throughout the performance, likely for the purpose of making the piece feel more like conversation than theater. If in darkness, I think the opening-night audience would have laughed a lot more and felt free to verbalize their reactions, thus increasing the energy level inside the Highland Park Community Center’s theater.

Yet there’s plenty of energy onstage, Kivens flowing fleetly through 28 chapters of this story, writing the titles of each on a chalkboard. The settings are only subtly suggested, all the better for quick changes between the New York apartment our protagonist shares with her fiancé and the young daughter they’ve previously adopted to the multifarious clinics she visits, never quite finding diagnostic skills and bedside manner in the same doctor. And Kivens really shows her versatility in the classroom in which Cohen is teaching solo theater skills, rapidly transforming into a disparate group of students, one of whom forges a very touching bond with the teacher.

The journey takes us through suicidal thoughts, internal debates about abortion and adoption, questions about having an intersex child or one with a disability, the harrowing “home stretch” of the pregnancy and beyond. In addition to crafting an endearing companion in Cohen, Kivens transforms into such colorful characters as her young daughter, the tough-talking older male doctor who lays out her options, a dancer designing her end-of-life experience, and a Borscht Belt comedian of a doula.

So fast-paced is the story that it wasn’t until afterward that I contemplated that Kivens and director Ward could have made more palpable Cohen’s crisis of faith about modern medicine, the words conveying a sense of crushing disappointment but genuine sadness kept at arm’s length. That might have made this rich experience even richer, but the story is so compelling, the performance so strong, that you’ll want to join her on this journey.

If You Go

  • What: Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company’s “What I Thought I Knew”

  • When: 1 p.m. Tuesday, 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 8 p.m. Saturday, 1 p.m. Sunday, 7:30 p.m. Aug. 28-30

  • Where: Highland Park Community Center, 1978 Ford Parkway, St. Paul

  • Tickets: $38-$23, available at 651-647-4315 or mnjewishtheatre.org

  • Capsule: A compelling one-woman show about a pregnancy and the American health care system.