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

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
Capsule: A rewarding comical journey into an offbeat family dynamic.

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