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San Francisco by Richard Connema

The Last Schwartz is a Poignant Comedy Drama of a Disfunctional Jewish Family

Also see Richard's reviews of A Doll's House and Dreamgirls

The Marin Theatre Company's first presentation of the year is the west coast premiere of Deborah Zoe Laufer's The Last Schwartz. The play premiered at Florida Stage in 2002 and is set to play at the Shepherd College Festival in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, this summer.

The Last Schwartz features one of the most dysfunctional families I have seen in a long time. The poignant comedy drama is about the four surviving children of a Jewish businessman who gather for his "yahrzeit," the one year anniversary of his death, at their wooded home north of New York City. The survivors also bring their spouses and others, and soon it becomes a free for all. Nothing remains sacred as long held family secrets are unearthed.

The Last Schwartz
Kia (played by Megan Towle) is shocked by Simonís (played by Mark Phillips) lack of interest in her
Norma the eldest (Sharon Lockwood) is trying to keep this less than perfect family together to keep the Jewish faith alive, no matter who it hurts. Laid back brother Herb (Michael Tucker) comes to the woodland home with his wife Bonnie (Jill Eikenberry), who has a deep secret, while middle brother Gene (Darren Bridgett) brings his blond bimbo, TV ad starlet Kia (Megan Towle). The youngest is Simon (Mark Phillips), an autistic astronomy genius who spends his time looking through a telescope even though he is going blind. Throughout the weekend the siblings and their guests feel the anger and heartbreak of their struggles with the past. The production's ending is a complete surprise that I won't divulge.

Jill Eikenberry gives an outstanding performance, from her description of an Oprah show about Siamese twins at the beginning of the drama to the poignant soliloquy of her secret in the second act. She beautifully portrays both sides of the theatre faces of comedy and tragedy. Tucker adds rascally charm and a certain degree of long married feeling to his character. He delivers some great one-liners and physical comedy as well.

The Last Schwartz boasts a superb supporting cast of some of my favorite talented Bay Area actors. The ensemble interaction is marvelous due to fine acting and the spot on direction of Lee Sankowich. Sharon Lockwood (Nickel and Dimed, Spring Storm) is great as the pillar of self-righteousness who acts like she came straight out of the Old Testament. She frightens everyone as a stickler for family honor and keeping the old Jewish traditions. Her reciting of the Jewish prayer is beautiful.

Darren Bridgett (Blue Surge, Merry Wives of Windsor, Don Juan) gives a bravura performance as Gene, with his well projected blustering and tense fear as things progress in the roller coaster of a drama. Megan Towle (NCTC's Cloud Nine, In the Garden and Pins) as the bimbo Kia is amazing. The character could have been a caricature of a dumb blonde, but she and playwright Laufer give Kia distinctive depth. She has zest and wonderful naivety when asking so many uneducated questions about the Jewish religion that she becomes the center of attention in many of the scenes. Mark Phillips (Sockdology, Book of Days, Cannery Row) as the autistic Simon is incredible with few lines to speak. He speaks slowly, deliberate and almost in a dreamy fashion. He returns to his own world after each brief conversation. His moves as he simulates a "walk on the moon" are pure artistic motion. It is an extraordinary performance.

Steve Coleman's set is commendable and pretentiously dignified with a towering wooden door and window frames and a lack of walls in the background. The ending gives a surreal effect to whole production. Lee Sankowich's direction is fast and crisp. York Kennedy's lighting is great, especially when Simon is bathed in light during some sequences.

The Last Schwartz plays through February 8th at the Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. For tickets call 415-388-5208 or visit www.marintheatre.org. Their next production is Israel Horovitz's My Old Lady which opens on March 11.


Photo: Ed Smith


Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area


- Richard Connema



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