By Myra Chanin
A Jewish Joke is an extraordinary solo show, beautifully performed by Phil Johnson and equally well written by him and Marni Freedman about Albert “Bernie” Lutz, a 50-something, good-enough-to-be-the-less-talented half of the comedy screenwriting team of Lutz and Frumsky. Frumsky according to Lutz is “the funniest man alive aside from Milton Berle.” Lutz is a finagler with a file full of old Jewish jokes that he adds to their scripts and delivers from time to time during the performance to cut the tension.
Meet the unseen players. First there’s Lutz’s parents: the famous lunatic father who got fired again and again and again for “standing up for his principals,” and the shrieking mother who sends the 13-year-old Lutz out to find work with the phrase that becomes his subconscious mantra. “When there is no mensch, BE THE MENSCH.”
Lutz’s job search ends when he becomes 13-year-old Morris Frumsky’s assistant at a Newark Nickelodeon. They move on to vaudeville, then to the Catskills, perform next in New York’s Yiddish Theater and finally arrive in sunny LA where they supply scripts to the Marx Brothers and Danny Kaye and have future projects lined up with NBC. In addition, that night they’re attending the fancy big Hollywood premiere for their latest movie, The Big Casbah! What could be wrong?
A fox has snuck into their henhouse in the form of a letter from Senator Joseph McCarthy’s committee to which Lutz has to respond by 5 p.m. Lutz considers himself apolitical. He writes westerns. He writes musicals. “A joke is too political – I cut it five minutes ago.” He tore up the letter and threw it away and is looking for the scraps when Variety calls, not to talk about The Big Casbah, but to ask why he and Morris had their names published “in a crazy magazine that says we’re pinkos,” after they attended a party (which Red Channels call a meeting) in the Hollywood Hills.”
Lutz calls the FBI. They refer him to someone who can help him but only if he reveals who was at the party. They threaten to bring up a factory fire his father was supposed to have started many years ago. In the meantime, work disappears. The Marx Brothers project and the Danny Kaye script wave goodbye. The studio is holding back his paycheck. Lutz is at the end of his rope. What will he do? Try to save Morris by destroying himself. Be the mench where there is no mench?
It’s an absorbing question, and the answer is even more intriguing inasmuch as it connects all the loose strings dropped earlier in the play.
I usually run from solo performances because I find them static and self-serving. Not this one. No sirree! Here there are only two active objects on stage. Lutz (Phil Johnson) and the old-fashioned telephone he dials or answers to communicate with the dozen or so characters he wants something from or who want something from him. The characters may be unseen but audience members know everything about each one of them, including Lutz’s position in the relationship, because Johnson the actor brings the words of Johnson the playwright to life so brilliantly.
A Jewish Joke never makes you feel you’re trapped in a room with a single character. It allows you to share a complex life.
United Solo Festival – Saturday, September 17 @4pm at The Studio Theatre (on Theatre Row)