The Last Schwartz

Playwright: Deborah Zoe Laufer
Director: Linda Whitney
Producer: Harlequin Productions
Dates: Jan 27 – Feb 19, 2010

Loose endgame
“The Last Schwartz” is first-rate
Feb 2, 2011

Linda Whitney, director of the Harlequin production of The Last Schwartz, references Tolstoy in her director’s notes: “Happy families are all the same; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Yet it’s the work of another Russian writer that is stamped most indelibly here.

The Schwartz siblings have gathered in late winter in the Catskills to commemorate their father’s yahrzeit, the one-year anniversary of his death. We come to learn Manny Schwartz was a proud Jew but a difficult man. His DNA recurs most strongly in daughter Norma (Ann Flannigan), whose control freakishness exhausts her siblings and in-laws. Eldest son Herb (Scott C. Brown) is more subdued and financially successful, but weighed down by his inability to have children with his wife, Bonnie (Deya Ozburn). Gene (David Brown, no relation) has become a producer of music videos and infomercials and clearly dreads coming home. Compounding his anxiety is his over-sharing shiksa FB, Kia (Alison Monda), whose primary goal in life is to writhe in cages on MTV. And Simon (Casey Brown, also no relation), who suffers from one of those bizarre theater maladies whose symptoms encompass everything from fading vision to Asperger-style discomfort with physical contact, is an astronomer just back from Australia.

I’ve been eagerly awaiting this production, as it’s something of an End Days reunion. End Days, my favorite show of 2010, was also written by Deborah Zoe Laufer, directed by Linda Whitney and starred Scott C. Brown and Ann Flannigan. From the production side, my expectations were ably met, and the cast earned its standing ovation from a full house opening night. It was only as I walked to my car that I realized the script itself doesn’t quite stick the landing.

As for Whitney, she’s probably the most reliable director in town, and her richly detailed set design is a treat for the eyes. It’s beautifully lit throughout and serves as a stunning backdrop for Jill Carter’s poetic projections. A bluegrass score was an out-of-the-box choice that earned raves from audience members on all sides. Harlequin is so technically proficient that it’s actually most remarkable that it continues to surprise.

Scott Brown is in top form here, funny and commanding; his injury scene is a tiny masterpiece. David Brown is believably skittish, and Monda brings depth and energy to what’s written as a 2-D character. (Of course Kia confuses astronomy with astrology. Of course she has hot pants for every male on the stage. But would even Kia be that callous about an abortion?) Flannigan – not exactly a Jewish name! – is terrific as Norma. The audience loved to hate her, which surprised me and, probably, Flannigan. I’m not sure in which universe Deya Ozburn is either old, fat or frumpy, all qualities ascribed to Bonnie; but when much of Act II turns into a tragicomic two-hander, it’s a joy to watch her and Monda interact. And Casey Brown does fine, controlled work as Simon, despite the fact that his character seems awkwardly wedged into the story.

Which leads me to those nagging, post-show reflections. A major plot point, Gene’s history with Bonnie, is completely unresolved. We never find out why Simon keeps dropping ominous hints about “preparing” for moon colonies. And in lieu of a proper ending, Laufer cribs the end of Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard. Granted, most audience members won’t get the reference, but it’s hardly obscure. The Last Schwartz was written a few years before End Days, and it serves as an engaging prequel to that more satisfying effort. It’s only later that you realize the character of Simon is in the play primarily to help it fake a conclusion.

Impressive Harlequin ensemble cast brings ‘Schwartz’ to life
ALEC CLAYTON – Tacoma News Tribune / The Olympian
Feb 11, 2011

What do you get when you take a great play, perfect cast and spot-on set and lighting? The answer is “The Last Schwartz” by Deborah Zoe Laufer as produced by Harlequin Productions.

The set by Linda Whitney, who also directs this show, is the richly decorated living and dining room of an old country home in the Catskills. The muted colors are wonderful, and the lighting by Jill Carter goes from natural to dreamily supernatural when Simon (Casey Brown) steps out of his usual trance to speak directly to the audience (or whatever gods or alien beings he might be addressing). There also are transitional lighting effects between scenes that simulate the shadows and moving light created by the movement of clouds. These effects are worthy of a fine film.

I can’t say enough about the cast. As an ensemble, they become the Schwartz family. The group is as funny, spiteful, loving and dysfunctional as any family in recent literature.

Ann Flannigan is Norma, the eldest of the Schwartz siblings, who feels it is her duty to keep the family and its religious traditions intact. Flannigan plays her as controlling and uptight, but there’s a spark of something decent that makes you not so much dislike her as wish she would loosen up.

Herb, the oldest brother, is played by Scott C. Brown. His facial expressions are hilarious yet so subtle that he tends to lull you into complacency until he explodes with passion, jumping up on a coffee table, for instance, and defiantly claiming the beat-up and worthless piece of furniture as his personal property. Everybody is funny in this play, and he is the kind of funny that makes you want to slap your head and shout, “Wow! Where did that come from?” He makes Herb seem wonderfully ludicrous yet genuine.

Simon, the middle brother, is so shut down and otherworldly that playing him is a real challenge to an actor, and Casey Brown plays him beautifully. His movements and speech are excruciatingly slow. He conveys the idea that it is a major challenge for Simon to break out of his private world and react to anyone.

Deya Ozburn plays Herb’s wife, Bonnie. She is the most complex character in the play. She is confused, scared and burdened with secrets. The range of emotions both nuanced and dramatic that Ozburn conveys is huge and authentic.

The youngest brother, Gene, is played by David Brown. Like Bonnie, Gene often seems discombobulated. Brown plays him as down-to-earth and likeable in a fine bit of underplayed acting.

The one character who is not part of the family is Gene’s girlfriend, Kia, a small-time actress portrayed with unbridled joy and energy by Alison Monda. She lights up the stage with her physical antics. She just wants to have fun, and she is enjoyable to watch. Her outfits (costumes by Darren Mills) are wild and perfectly match her unbridled exuberance.

“The Last Schwartz” balances comedy and drama. We ache for the Schwartz family members. We love them and hate them and laugh all the way to the family patriarch’s grave and beyond.

Published on February 18, 2011 at 4:31 pm  Leave a Comment  

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