Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Diego

A Jewish Joke
The Roustabouts Theatre Company
Review by David Dixon | Season Schedule

Phil Johnson
Photo by Eric Woosley
People who are critical of celebrities expressing their political opinions in public sometimes act as if it's a recent and growing trend in the entertainment world. What they tend to forget is that many actors, writers and directors have been willing to share their political beliefs with the public, at least since the birth of motion pictures. An infamous period where people's lives were ruined for their political beliefs was the Hollywood blacklist of the 1950s. In the era of the Cold War, those accused of being Communist, or having Communist ties, found themselves unemployed or worse. The Roustabouts Theatre Company's production of the one-man show A Jewish Joke focuses on a more than stressful day in 1950, after the blacklist had begun.

When Bernie Lutz (Founding Producer Phil Johnson) is introduced, everything seems to be going his way. He is a respected Jewish comedy writer at MGM Studios, has a wonderful marriage, and is about to go to the premiere of a movie he co-wrote with his close friend Morris Frumsky, The Big Casbah. Bernie isn't very political and doesn't believe there is any way his career can ever be jeopardized because of any beliefs he holds. However, when he is in an MGM writer's bungalow, he finds out that his and Morris' names are listed in the anti-Communist booklet, "Red Channels: the Report of Communist Influence in Radio and Television." Surprised by this information, he decides to find out whether Morris is a member of the Communist Party.

Johnson and Marni Freedman's script mixes comedy and drama in equal measure. Bernie loves being the funniest man in the room and shares plenty of his jokes with the audience at the Moxie Theatre. A lot of his gags are hilarious and a few of them, especially ones involving Jewish mothers, authentically reflect the type of very funny, but today politically incorrect, humor of the time. Another amusing aspect of the script is how Bernie generally answers his phone using comical aliases. These moments further show that Bernie doesn't take life too seriously. Unfortunately, he is forced to make grave decisions that end up determining his character. A lot of the dramatic conflict comes from the decision to will follow his conscience, or be pressured into another course of action. There are enough sequences that give the impression that Bernie could go either way and, in the process, demonstrate his strength or weakness. Because of his complicated personality and past, the audience is never fully sure what he is going to do as the evening builds to a tense climax.

Johnson (who looks like he's straight from the time period, because of Jordyn Smiley's brown suit) is the primary reason why theatregoers are able to get emotionally invested in the material. Through his skills as a comedy performer, it doesn't take long to be won over by Johnson's confident charisma and quick-witted intelligence. His joyous energy is felt whenever Bernie temporarily solves various conflicts. We slowly feel Bernie's growing anxiety through Johnson's vivid depiction of heated phone conversations with people who may pose a threat to his triumphs. The moments when Bernie loses his temper are effectively startling, as he doesn't come across as an angry man.

Contributing to the funny and apprehensive atmosphere is director David Ellenstein. The manner in which he incorporates Bonnie Durben's props, such as Bernie's phone and typewriter, into the production helps move the action forward. Ellenstein blocks Johnson very carefully, so the story never comes across as stiff. As far as the work from Ellenstein's crew goes, Matt Lescault-Wood's sound and Chloe Oliana M Clark's lighting are intentionally restrained. The audio sound clips from the last century add some historical context to the opening moments.

Speaking of historical context, Johnson and Freeman do feature several references to people from that era, including Hedda Hopper and the Marx Brothers. While some of these may not be understood by everyone, what really matters is that the main plot is extremely accessible. The issues that Bernie faces don't feel dated, and are often very relatable. He's a bit of an everyman who just happens to be very good at what he does. As mentioned before, Bernie is not a politically motivated wordsmith, and this allows him to connect with San Diegans, regardless of their political affiliations or religious background.

Anchored by Johnson's passionate performance, the evening is a tremendous beginning to The Roustabouts' second season. A Jewish Joke is going to be playing Off-Broadway at The Lion Theatre in February 2019, and it deserves a successful run next year.

A Jewish Joke, through April 8, 2018, at The Roustabouts Theatre Company, 6663 El Cajon Blvd, San Diego CA. Performances are Sundays through Saturdays. Tickets are $38.00 and can be purchased online at or by phone at 619-728-7820.