Recently accorded the prestigious Margaret Harford Award for Sustained Excellence in Theater by the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle, the ever-unpredictable legit scripter Murray Mednick is certainly living up to his laurels. His 70- minute pseudo-autobiographical one act is a thoroughly involving amalgam of familial angst and Jewish literary history featuring Mednick sitting onstage reading from his own script.
The theatrical pizzazz is provided by Lynnda Ferguson and Christopher Allport, who stand upstage at a single microphone, constantly strutting and preening like Vegas backup singers. Helmer Guy Zimmerman utilizes the duo to great effect as a kind of surrealistic Greek chorus that wends its way in and out of the text, sometimes merely echoing Mednick’s narrative, other times taking over the action completely.
Inspired by a collection of family photographs given him by an uncle, Mednick’s text roams through the meditations of alter ego Emile (Mednick) the 60-year-old-plus son of grotesquely dysfunctional Jewish-American parents, immortalized two years ago in Mednick’s acclaimed “Joe and Betty.” Mednick introduces a new member to the family dynamic, Uncle Saul, Joe’s half-brother, who fled his siblings to live a solitary existence in Las Vegas.
Mednick then delves more deeply and darkly into Emile’s family history to unveil the lascivious presence of grandfather Louis, a rampant womanizer who eventually acquired five wives and any number of lady friends, who imbedded the deep-rooted seeds of sorrow that permeated the lives of his progeny.
As Mednick cautiously, almost timidly, relates Emile’s tale, he is not merely offering a family album, he is methodically stripping away the layers of his own psyche, offering a cathartic examination of the emotionally devastating forces that have shaped his life and his creativity, including his own harrowing excursion into substance abuse.
What is revealed are the naked wounds of sorrow and guilt that manifest themselves in the forms of two great Jewish writers and Holocaust victims, Primo Levi (1919-1987) and Paul Celan (1920-1970). Both survived the camps only to die later at their own hands. Mednick also conjures up the presence of Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), the renowned German philosopher who became a Nazi in 1933.
To utilize a musical metaphor, if Mednick is providing the melody line, then all the harmony, counterpoint and jazz licks are being riffed by the magnificent duo of Allport and Ferguson, who co-starred in Mednick’s award-winning 2001 production of “Mrs. Feuerstein.”
As the author progresses relentlessly forward with his narrative, Allport’s Jack and Ferguson’s Cleo are called upon to act out such personalities as Joe and Betty, Paul Celan and his wife and Primo Levi. One devastating enactment has life-anguished Celan (Ferguson) confronting an unrepentant Heidegger (Allport) at Heidegger’s Black Forest hovel of a home sometime after World War II.
Through all the role playing, the main responsibility of the onstage presence of Jack and Cleo is to force Emile forward with life, utilize his memories and experiences and not be shut down by the ongoing pain of reliving them. At one point, they force Emile off the stage and make him sit in a corner as they take over the chronicle. It is a hauntingly fragile moment when a still doubting Emile reluctantly allows himself to be brought back onstage and into the action.
The production is punctuated with the actual photographs of Mednick as a child as well as the real life parents who inspired the characters of Joe and Betty, projected as part of Jeffrey Atherton’s sparse but effective setting. The atmosphere is also enhanced by evocative original music and sound design of Robert Oriol.