Exposition is leaky, Johnson is excellent in good ‘Jewish Joke’

If you think life’s messy for Bernie Lutz (Phil Johnson) now . . . Photo by Eric Woolsey

Bernie Lutz wonders if you’re aware that Jews bounce. He’s not kidding, either. His people hail their exemplary resolve amid centuries of war, ugliness and unspeakable travail — when he says they’ve garnered their rubbery hide through “lots and lots of trouble,” you can take it as the Jewish equivalent of gospel.

It stands to reason, then, that a little thing like the country’s House Un-American Activities Committee hearings, wherein Wisconsin Republican Sen. Joseph McCarthy alleged in 1950 that hundreds of Communist party members had infiltrated the State Department and other federal agencies, shouldn’t leave so much as a bruise on that colossally thick skin.

But the immediacy of the moment brought waves of distress to so-called Jewish Hollywood, whose operatives lost livelihoods and esteem amid allegations they perpetrated the spread of communist ideology — and a brittle McCarthy, armed with a nationful of postwar paranoia, blithely attempted to slit their throats.

The Roustabouts Theatre Company’s A Jewish Joke, a look at one Hollywood figure’s personal struggle in the fray, is a pretty good depiction of the era’s angst. Co-writer and sole performer Phil Johnson is spot-on as Bernie, a skittish Jewish screenwriter who spouts tired one-liners and otherwise caved to Louis B. Mayer’s crowd at the dim prospect of a glimpse from the top of the ladder. Helmer David Ellenstein, artistic director at North Coast Repertory Theatre, wisely plays to Johnson’s physicality and clearly embraces the cadence within each layer of the story.

Meanwhile, be reminded that life is not a destination but a journey . . .

By all means, please do see this nicely synchronized piece of one-act stagecraft, which scored Best Drama at 2016’s United Solo Theatre Festival in New York and is due off-Broadway in February of next year.

Meanwhile, be reminded that life is not a destination but a journey — similarly, perhaps Johnson and fellow writer Marni Freedman can shore up the script’s blatantly threadbare aspects in the meantime.

Bernie is fuzzy and avuncular, desperately in love with his wife, faithful companion to a stray cat and awestruck at the level of his station at MGM’s Hollywood digs. He retreats into his joke file at every prompting, delighted at life’s irony and out of his skin at the prospects of the coming premiere that will seal his career.

Slowly and inexorably, the McCarthy hearings will spin their tangled web, enveloping Bernie and his co-writer Morris following the publication of their names in an anti-communist magazine. Suddenly, “subversive” Bernie’s at a crossroads; he has less than 24 hours to either submit to baseless government demands or support his and Morris’ Hollywood standing.

A dramatic twist dictates his conclusion and illustrates the best — and, most assuredly, the worst — of human resolve in singular circumstances.

Think of what even a little speculation on Hollywood’s future would have meant to the development of Bernie’s chanracter . . .

Bernie has occasion to reference the Hollywood Ten, imprisoned in 1950 for refusing to tell the committee they were members of the Communist party — they were also fined and blacklisted, and their records seriously hobbled their efforts at finding work in Hollywood. Their plight had legs, as the blacklisting lasted into the 1960s and touched nearly 200 careers.

Think of what even a little speculation on Hollywood’s future would have meant to the development of Bernie’s character (he of the genteel, receptive sensibilities) — but after the initial mention, the script virtually abandons hard history, content to fuel Johnson’s performance.

Johnson is outstanding as he adapts to each layer of Bernie’s descent; but without factual foundation, Bernie becomes far less sympathetic.

Quips like “a social disease from Betty Grabel” and “(tipping) a rabbi for giving a short sermon” are gold in Johnson’s hands. The metal tarnishes, however, once he’s on a roll — the phone rings exponentially as the story unravels, nearly upending Bernie’s character development in favor of finally reaching the conclusion.

The timing’s off here — and the lack of exposition rears its head anew, as the frenzied tone lacks justification.

Some may say that Sen. Joseph McCarthy, who died at 47 in 1957, had cast his eyes heavenward so often that he was of no further earthly good. Public domain image.

I’m sitting here sounding like a contrarian for this heavily hyped piece, and I really don’t mean to. There are some wonderful moments to the show, eminently on par with its award-winning status (the dowdy set doesn’t hurt, either); Johnson and Ellenstein are true professionals and illustrate an according level of care.

But scriptural oversights don’t repair on their own; in fact, against Johnson’s excellence, they tend to become more apparent. A relook by the playwrights is certainly in order — in its wake, A Jewish Joke stands to crush off-Broadway and then some.

This review is based on the opening-night performance of March 18. A Jewish Joke runs through April 8 at MOXIE Theatre, 6663 El Cajon Blvd. in the College Area. $38.00. (619) 728-7820, theroustabouts.org.

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