Review: ‘A Jewish Joke’ at Theatre Row

One of the darkest periods in modern American politics was the McCarthy Era of the mid-20th century. Fueled by the anti-Communist sentiment of the Cold War, the government issued a list of suspected Communists and sympathizers who became the subjects of heated investigations conducted by The House Un-American Activities Committee and led by the Republican Senator during the time of the so-called Red Menace. Among the most notorious of the HUAC initiatives was the targeting of the Hollywood film industry, when professionals were subpoenaed to testify about their own alleged involvement in the Communist Party, to name names, and to give statements against their accused colleagues.

After playing regional theaters around the country and receiving the award for Best Drama in the 2016 United Solo Theatre Festival, A Jewish Joke returns to New York for a limited Off-Broadway engagement in The Lion Theatre at Theatre Row. Produced by The Roustabouts Theatre Company and directed by David Ellenstein, the “drama about comedy” revisits the divisive paranoia and persecutions of McCarthyism and the impact the Red Scare and the resultant Hollywood blacklist had on film artists – mostly Jewish, raising the issue of latent anti-Semitism – of the mid-century.

Phil Johnson. Photo by Clay Anderson.
Phil Johnson. Photo by Clay Anderson.

Starring Phil Johnson, who co-wrote the dramedy with Marni Freedman, the solo show (inspired by real-life figures and events) considers the dilemma of Bernie Lutz, a fictional comedy screenwriter for MGM. When he is called to sign a statement about the pro-Communist activities of his longtime writing partner Morris Frumsky, Lutz must decide between saving himself, his family, and his own career by testifying, or taking a stand against taking the stand, and standing by his friend.

Set in Lutz’s cluttered office with a paper-strewn floor, a desk hung with scripts from the Marx Brothers, NBC, and Danny Kaye (who, in fact, actively opposed the blacklist), and a phone that rings non-stop, the story unfolds through segments of direct-address monologue and a series of revelatory phone calls, sprinkled with Yiddish expressions and interspersed with Lutz reading selections from his prized collection of jokes, written on index cards, from the great age of Jewish comedy.

Phil Johnson. Photo by Eric Woolsey.
Phil Johnson. Photo by Clay Anderson.

The character’s old-fashioned striped suit, with wide lapels and suspenders (costume design by Jordyn Smiley and Peter Herman), the set and props, with a manual typewriter, vintage radio, and rotary phone (production design by Aaron Rumley), and the soundscape of period music and newscasts (sound design by Matt Lescault-Wood), offer an authentic throwback to the 1950s, as do the traditional gender roles (the wife who loves shopping and does the baking and cooking; the female receptionists and secretaries versus the male power-players). Johnson’s delivery (though his New Jersey accent is off, sounding more Midwestern), too, embodies the period-style clichés, in the neurotic goofball shtick of the wisecracking writer’s cynical jokes and dated humor, then increasingly captures the man’s real emotional and psychological reactions to the slow-paced disclosures and looming threats, shifting from his elation at that night’s Hollywood premiere of his and Morris’s latest movie, to growing concern over the government’s campaign of political hysteria, to his panic-ridden meltdown, when in the course of a single day, his phone stops ringing, his world comes crashing down around him, and he’s forced by the authorities to make a fateful decision.

A Jewish Joke not only presents audiences with a flashback to the tastes of the mid-century and a personal perspective on a disturbing slice of American history, but also offers an implicit warning not to let it happen again, while raising the ever-relevant ethical question: What would YOU do? Could you “Be the mensch, when there is no mensch?”

Running Time: Approximately 95 minutes, without intermission.

A Jewish Joke plays through Sunday, March 31, 2019, at The Lion Theatre at Theatre Row – 410 West 42nd Street, NYC. For tickets, call (212) 239-6200, or purchase them online.

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Deb Miller
Deb has written reviews, interviews, and feature articles for Stage Magazine, theartblog, and Inferno, and is a lead writer for Phindie.com and the Philadelphia Arts and Culture Correspondent for Central Voice. She is a judge for Theatre Philadelphia's Barrymore Awards for Excellence in Theatre, and previously was a Voter for the awards under the former Theatre Alliance of Greater Philadelphia. Deb holds a PhD in Art History from the University of Delaware, has served as a Commonwealth Speaker for the Pennsylvania Humanities Council, and has taught at the U of D, Bryn Mawr, Rutgers-Camden, Hussian School of Art, and Rowan University.