Holidays tend to bring out the drama in families, sometimes even to the point where one person ends up beating another with a thawed chicken. In Jews, Christians, and Screwing Stalin, a world premiere comedy by Mark Lonow and Jo Anne Astrow currently playing at the Matrix Theatre in Hollywood, it’s the eve of Rosh Hashanah in 1967 and a boarding house in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn is the site for a family showdown for the ages, inspired by religious differences and the controversial wishes of a deceased patriarch.
Presented by Took a Cab Productions and the world-famous Improv comedy club, the story begins with Murray Grazonsky (John Pleshette) informing the audience that he is, in fact, dead. He watches the action that unfolds amongst the living members of his family from “paradise,” where he always has a cocktail in his hand. Due to various grudges and good old-fashioned misogyny, he left his Brighton Beach rooming house to his grandson, Joey (Hunter Milano) in his will, despite the fact that his wife, Minka (Cathy Ladman) continues to devote her entire life to maintaining the house and renting its extra rooms. Joey has moved to Los Angeles to pursue an acting career, but returns home for Rosh Hashanah with his new pregnant fiancé, Caitlin (Sammi-Jack Martincak) who, to Minka’s initial horror, is redheaded, Christian, and, worst of all, part-German.
Minka has a surprise of her own in store—Joey’s estranged father, David (Travis York) is also going to be home for the holiday. David is an alcoholic and a deadbeat, but he is in desperate need of money, and hopes that if his son can be convinced to turn the house over to Minka that she will then be able to give him a loan. Rounding out the cast of characters are the rooming house’s colorful and nosy residents, Lillie Feinstein (Laura Julian), Mister Goldman (Marty Ross), and Miss Koppelson (Sally Schaub). Ultimately, Caitlin’s arrival and vivacious personality becomes a catalyst for the family to share some long-kept secrets and, hopefully, take steps towards making amends. If you are wondering how Stalin figures into any of this, Minka’s brother was the first president of Stalin’s Soviet Union and let’s just say, she herself had a memorable interaction with Stalin as well.
Directed by Mark Lonow, the action unfolds on an impressively detailed set (Joel Daavid), complete with an upstairs room that serves as the afterlife from which Murray often watches the drama unfold. Lonow and Astrow drew inspiration from their own lives and upbringings in conceiving the quirky characters. The script is full of Yiddish expressions and jokes specific to Jewish culture that will ring very true to those who are Jewish or have spent a lot of time around Jewish families. In general, the style of humor is broad and slapstick—physical comedy bits such as the aforementioned beating someone with a chicken and various gags regarding slamming doors and plumbing problems in the house are alternated with occasional fart jokes and references to the size of certain body parts. The most unique element is the continued presence of the late Murray in the house, but he is sadly underused, popping in to punctuate moments rather than actively taking part in them. The ending feels a bit too neat and tied up with a bow, undermining the messiness of the family situation that makes the story relatable. In the end, Jews, Christians and Screwing Stalin feels a bit like a 60s sitcom—it’s only missing a laugh track. Fans of this style of humor will find plenty to chuckle at, but it is ultimately not a very memorable holiday dinner.
Jews, Christians and Screwing Stalin runs through September 23rd at the Matrix Theatre. The running time is two hours, including one intermission. Performances are Mondays and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 3pm. Tickets are $35 and can be purchased here.