Family – just because you love them, doesn’t mean you have to like them. Theater J’s alternately side-splitting and emotional production of The Last Schwartz follows the dysfunctional Schwartz family as they struggle against the current of ever-changing values, priorities, and geography. It asks a tough question: What holds a family together, when shared traditions and homes fall away?
In their huge old house in the Catskills, the Schwartz clan gathers on the anniversary of their father’s passing to mark the Jewish ceremony of Yahrzeit. Things are not great for the four siblings, to put it mildly. Norma’s husband has left her, and her son has stopped speaking to her after a dramatic falling out. Herb and his wife Bonnie are drifting apart after years of fruitlessly trying for children. Gene is grappling with the decision to depart for the west coast with flighty actress Kia. Meanwhile, Simon is a literal space case, staring off into the stars and dreaming of becoming an astronaut for hours on end.
Playwright Deborah Zoe Laufer writes each personality with affection – it feels like she’s mined scenes from her own awkward family reunions. Director Adam Immerwahr nurtures her characters into portrayals that feel truly real. Barbara Pinolini plays the moralizing Norma with imperious scorn and tough love, concealing deep hurt at her own failings.
As middle brother Herb, local stage vet Sasha Olinick proves Norma’s most frequent combatant, grumbling over the future of the house while deflecting from his own failing marriage with food. Classic youngest sibling Gene, played by the affable Billy Finn, charts his own path while refusing to take sides. Meanwhile, Andrew Wassenich’s immersive performance as near-sighted astronomer Simon blends notes of black sheep and loner with a startlingly clear-eyed view above the fog of everyday concerns.
In the role of Bonnie, the terrific Anne Bowles establishes herself early as the emotional center of the play. Nearly a decade after marrying into the close-knit family, Bonnie still struggles to feel accepted. Over the course of the play, Bowles unfurls a sad commentary on wanting and rejection in a flurry of sarcastic barbs, hilarious rants, and crying jags. On the other end of the spectrum, the magnetic Emily Kester proves an unexpected emotional outlet for the troubled family as the free-spirited Kia. Kester channels a valley girl charm and awareness as each family member graces her makeshift therapist couch. After convincing the audience for 90 minutes of Kia’s seemingly inch-deep personality, Kester artfully reveals surprising depth and backbone in a pivotal late scene.
The Last Schwartz
closes October 2, 2016
Details and tickets
The one gripe with all this terrific character work is that between Kia and Simon, Laufer created two outsider foils who are oblivious and unconcerned with family squabbles. They both seem to exist solely as reflecting pools in which the others can judge their own foibles. As Kia grabs the role of sounding board for Gene, Bonnie, Herb, and even Norma, Simon’s continued joyless presence, sitting just off to the side, seems increasingly unclear. At least Laufer gives him one big moment in the sun in the play’s closing scene.
Scenic designer James Fouchard and lighting designer Nancy Schertler work in tandem to create a warm environment in the well-appointed home – all curved wood, well-loved furniture, and gentle lighting. In the play’s closing minute, Fouchard and Schertler, along with Costume Designer Kelsey Hunt, craft a dramatic reveal that blends Simon’s backstory and clever production design into an astonishing visual. It may not be totally clear how their closing image ties into the play’s themes, but it’s unforgettable nonetheless.
Laufer’s refusal to settle for easy tropes creates an authentic, lived-in experience full of real humor and poignancy. The Last Schwartz offers few real answers beyond the idea that family isn’t a place or a religion – it’s about accepting others for exactly who they are.
The Last Schwartz by Deborah Zoe Laufer . Directed by Adam Immerwahr . Produced by Theater J . Featuring: Anne Bowles, Sasha Olinick, Andrew Wassenich, Barbara Pinolini, Emily Kester, and Billy Finn . Scenic Design by James Fouchard . Costume Design by Kelsey Hunt . Lighting Design by Nancy Schertler . Props Design by Kevin Laughon . Produced by Theater J . Reviewed by Ben Demers.