United Solo Festival
A Jewish Joke
(A Jewish Joke Website)
Written by Phil Johnson and Marni Freedman
Originally Presented at North Coast Rep, San Diego
Directed by David Ellenstein
(Theatre Row Website)
410 West 42nd Street
Press: Richard Hillman Public Relations
Dr. Roberta E. Zlokower
September 17, 2016
Phil Johnson is Bernie Lutz, an early 1950’s comedy screenwriter for MGM, with side commissions from Danny Kaye, NBC, and the Marx Brothers, who finds himself swirling in Hollywood’s circular firing squad, called the Red Channels list. Mr. Johnson, who co-wrote the one-act play with Marni Freedman, spends most of his 90 minutes onstage taking phone call after phone call, wiping his brow, and reciting Jewish jokes, pulled from a small, stuffed box, breaking the fourth wall. At times he caresses a new mink jacket, a gift for his offstage wife, who will soon join him on the red carpet for the premiere of an MGM film he wrote with his partner, Morris. Call after call, Bernie begs secretaries to be connected to colleagues and clients. Eventually, the only man who talks to him is “Agent” Wainwright, who wants Bernie’s signature to blacklist his partner. Morris’s recent “social get-together”, which Bernie attended for its cocktail weenies, had been a clandestine meeting, and Wainwright will surely hand Morris a federal subpoena. Those were the McCarthy “red” years, with congressional hearings and ruined careers.
A Jewish Joke, at first, weaves glimmers of hope amidst Bernie’s biographical rants about his father’s possible arson, involving his union activism, rants about his childhood hunger for food and for love, and rants about his need to pamper his loyal, beloved wife. Later, minute to minute, Bernie offers a secretary (on the phone of course) bribes of his wife’s kugel (egg noodle casserole), just to get phone contact to confirm his standing on various contracts and projects. The weight of 1950’s antisemitism, so prevalent then in Hollywood, in the guise of the fabricated theory that being Jewish was akin to being Communist, is consistently illustrated in the Johnson-Freedman narrative. The level of foreboding and pure existential terror that envelops Bernie, especially in the final ten minutes of the solo play, is certainly demonstrated. Just as Jews are known to have created humor and music in the worst of catastrophic times, to alleviate tension, personal and communal, Bernie, in the middle of feeling the vultures close, pulls joke after joke from his index card file: Click here to read more about Jewish humor.
The contrivance of a solo show using a telephone to propel a narrative is risky, especially when the actor almost never sits down. Most of the hour and one-half in the stark, small box Studio Theatre at Theatre Row, is spent listening to half of each of dozens upon dozens of brief phone conversations, with Bernie screaming, often at his lungs’ limit. He wipes his brow again and again, drinks water, paces about, and frantically pulls joke cards. The antic, feverish behavior does exemplify the mood of one who’s having his career pulled from under his feet. Yet, the audience needs relief too. As this was a one-time performance, perhaps workshopping a play, I have recommendations for Mr. Johnson, Ms. Freedman, and Director, David Ellenstein.
The one messy desk should be paired with additional furniture, so the actor shifts from one side of the stage to the other, sitting, standing, modulating his voice for contrast. In fact, the showcased moment of this play was a poignant reminiscence about the moment Bernie fell in love with the woman he married. She had comforted him after a robbery and exemplified uncommon generosity of spirit. I also recommend one or two additional actors, to add voices to multiple characters, a male actor for Morris, Mayer, Wainwright, a female actor for Bernie’s wife, Mayer’s secretary, Hedda Hopper. The use of a news radio adds some historical context, but I’d add bits of music and mainly projections, as I’ve seen in recent solo shows, for historical depth and visual impact. With the audience just a few feet from Mr. Johnson, directing him to persistently shout, along with the persistently ringing phone, is to create a nerve-wracking, noise-inflicting experience. The telling of the plight of Jewish writers and entertainers during the reign of Senator Joseph McCarthy, Chairman for Federal Investigations of Communists in the U.S. Government, is worthy of refining and expanding this play for larger audiences. Kudos to all the Bernie Lutzes.