Ovation Award-winning director Andy Fickman (“Reefer Madness”) is an acknowledged master of wild, way-out humor, and he shows his skill again in the world premiere production “Jewtopia,” at the Coast Playhouse. Entertaining but overlong, it’s an uneven ride that lurches from hilarity to hectic excess. With sharp editing and a more coherent meshing of plotlines, the show could catch on with regional theaters and attract interest as a TV series.
The lively premise centers on Jewish pals Adam (Sam Wolfson) and Chris (Bryan Fogel), searching for Jewish dates at a singles mixer. Adam realizes that Chris, who is eager to find a Jewish girl that makes all the decisions for him, is actually a gentile in disguise. After initial shock, he teaches his friend how to pass, enlightening him on Jewish customs, dating rituals, synagogue membership and, of course, mothers.
Some of the situations arising from this ethnic crash course are memorable, particularly when Marcy (Lin Shaye), mother of the girl Chris desires, grills him grimly about his height, weight, college, salary and past dating experience. When Adam coaches Chris on subjects to avoid in front of Jewish parents, such as Republican politics, NASCAR, Garth Brooks, Roe vs. Wade, military talk and use of power tools, the satirical truth of the exchange is certain to hit home with all observers, whatever their religion. Fickman’s deft interpolation of Jewish standards ranging from “Hava Nagilah” to Streisand’s “Papa, Can You Hear Me?” heighten the authentic flavor, abetted by John Zalewski’s crystal-clear sound.
As long as the plot focuses on Adam’s attempts to train Chris, it maintains a comfortable clarity. Things go awry when Adam’s relationships grab the upper hand. A long set of vignettes in act two, teaming him with prospective Jewish mates, bring unnecessary baggage to the story, and the girls themselves (all limned by Jackie Tohn) are such garish cartoons that they lack any shred of reality.
Playing Adam and Chris, Wolfson and Fogel (who co-wrote the script) fill the stage with overwhelming energy. Aptly outfitted in goofy, grungy costumes by Ann Closs-Farley, they come across as natural clowns, alternately vulnerable, charming and animated. Their raucous responses when accessing names of women from the titular Jewtopia Web site (JDate) are among the production’s highlights. Both portrayals would have even more dimension if nonstop gestures and manic mugging were minimized.
Alan Charoff, as a loudmouthed rabbi and a lewdly sexual grandfather, also provokes laughter despite an overwrought approach to his roles. Shaye, by contrast, keeps her quips bright and balanced, superbly capturing the idiosyncrasies of the two Jewish moms she plays. In Desma Murphy’s expertly detailed Seder sequence, she moans to Adam, “Wasn’t I a good mother to you?” and “Take a knife and kill me,” touching a nerve as comic shtick and cultural statement. Tohn shines as Adam’s hostile sister, and Lorry Goldman is believable as his nervous father. Irina Pantaeva creates a blessedly sane, original character as Adam’s Asian girlfriend, who sends his mother into spasms explaining her Buddhist background, then gains points by revealing she’s (what else?) a doctor.
Final twists are contrived, even for farce, and the resolution suddenly erupts into hyperactivity, as though to conceal that the climax isn’t sufficiently satisfying. Show’s ending is partially redeemed by an amusing piece of special musical material, performed by the entire ensemble, notably Wolfson (voice and guitar) and Fogel, in which Fogel’s Chris learns to sing out and set his repressed emotions free.