- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 15, 2003

While “Bright Ideas” manages to be lots of good, plain fun, “The Last Schwartz,” directed by Lucie Tiberghien, goes it one better by managing, in the end, to be almost metaphysically profound. Taking place in the drafty and decaying Schwartz ancestral summer home someplace in upstate New York, this is a play that is loaded with laughs but also has a deep undercurrent of sadness running through it. An American Jewish family, the Schwartzes, are on the verge of ceasing to be as they celebrate the anniversary of their father’s grimly comic death by getting together in the ramshackle old place.

All but the eldest sibling have ceased to care about their religion, and she has permanently alienated her son by getting him sent to jail over a trivial matter. One brother has married a gentile and another is shacking up with one. Yet a third brother, a brilliant astronomer, is becoming blind and schizophrenic, retreating into a future world where only travelers to outer space will survive. None of the brothers has sired any children, nor are children likely in the future. So this generation of Schwartzes is likely to be the end of the line.

There is much to make light of in this situation, but there is also grim business afoot as a dark family secret is hiding in the wings that will bring this drama to its astonishing conclusion.

“The Last Schwartz” is that increasingly rare phenomenon in American theater: It has a discernible plot. And that plot revolves around real characters who learn and grow and break things and fix them and compel the audience to care about them. As Norma, the domineering older sister, Carolyn Swift is brittle, crabbed, introverted, compulsive about her religion and pathologically defensive about the memory of her father whom she alone seems to regard as a saint.

Two of her brothers, however, are her polar opposites. They have little use for their ancestors, haven’t seen the inside of a synagogue in years, and date and marry outside the faith. Herb (Lee Sellars) is a loudmouthed cutup who resents his sister’s piety and resists it with his every breath. However, he has a soft spot in his heart for his nervous wife, Bonnie (Jennifer Mudge), a gentile who has converted for the sake of family peace but who has not been able to produce an heir for her husband.

On the other hand, brother Gene (Daniel Cantor) is a media type who jumps from relationship to relationship, a typical Big Apple glad-hander who lives for the enthusiasm of the moment. He has discovered his current paramour, Kia (Coleen Sexton), while doing publicity for a diet product. Pert, perky, and svelte, California Kia was not always that way. She has achieved instant celebrity by losing pounds to become the “Fat-No-More” girl, and Gene is more than happy to cohabit with her as long as things are working for them.

It is around Kia, ironically, that the play pivots. Her Valley Girl cluelessness, an unwitting gift of her hippie parents, is screamingly funny, and Miss Sexton has a killer comic touch with this role. Yet in her very ditziness, Miss Sexton’s Kia begins, subtly and unintentionally, to undermine the Schwartz family neuroses. And one of her more impolitic throwaway remarks leads the increasingly brittle Bonnie, in a nicely modulated performance by Miss Mudge, to confront and overcome her worst inner demon.

All the while, the ethereal Simon (Aaron Kliner) gazes through his telescope in the background. Blind, distant, unable to bear the touch of another human being, he lives in another world and plans to go there as soon as he has determined that this planet is doomed. Functionally, he gives the play its philosophical underpinning as he confronts the universality of mortality. Comedically, he is hilarious, particularly in a scene where the promiscuous Kia tried to loosen him up for a quick tryst on the couch. As Mr. Kliner portrays him, Simon is the soul of this play while Kia, oddly, is its heart.

“The Last Schwartz” is rollicking, sad, shocking, goofy, and thoughtful. It is comic drama firing on all cylinders, a superb work of theater by a playwright in full command of her considerable gift for character and dialogue. It’s the hit of the festival and an absolute must-see, a funny, wonderful, rewarding evening of theater.



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