This raucous first-time effort for co-playwrights Bryan Fogel and Sam Wolfson has thus far met with unexpected success. Premiering at West Hollywood’s Coast Playhouse in May 2003, “Jewtopia” ran for more than a year. Maintaining all but one of its original cast members en route to the New York stage, the production enlisted Broadway director John Tillinger (“Say Goodnight Gracie”), who helped reel in a plot steeped in nonstop Jewish cultural stereotypes that in nuance, specificity and outrageousness deserve to take center stage.
Adam Lipschitz (Wolfson) and Chris O’Connell (Fogel) run into each other at the Inter-Temple Rockin’ Young Jewish Singles Mixer. As the childhood friends get to talking, Sam’s memories of the O’Connell family having a father in the Marines and bacon frying in the kitchen lead him to suspect Chris is no Jew.
Chris admits that it’s true, but he longs to marry a Jewish woman, whom he assumes will make all his decisions in life. Sam, on the other hand, is weighed down by the burden of his heritage and hopes to get his mother off his back by settling down with a member of his tribe.
The two strike up a deal: Chris will introduce Sam to Jewtopia, “the mythical land of 500,000 single Jewish girls,” if Sam will help bring Chris into “the belly of the Jew” so he can pass for one.
Jewtopia, it turns out, refers to J-Date, the online personals site. Chris sets about creating various personae for Sam to maximize his appeal to different women.
Sam’s caricature dates are enacted by Jackie Tohn — from a feral club queen (screen-name Firetushy) to a Hasidic girl who prefers playing cards rather than the more X-rated “game” Sam proposes involving a sheet with a hole in it. If you weren’t sure before, it is time to check all sense of propriety at the door.
The play is a series of skits, supplying enough laughs to make the increasingly madcap plot forgivable and forgettable.
As co-writers and co-stars, Fogel and Wolfson are very comfortable with the material and playing off each other.
One of the funniest scenes finds Sam rigorously prepping Chris for dinner with his g.f. and her mother. He coaches him on how to appeal to his audience of high-maintenance Jewish women — from asking for menu alterations to requesting a draft-free table — and outfits him with a survival vest with everything from Pepto Bismol to tissues to SPF 45 sunscreen. Sam also suggests how to avoid tipping them off that he’s not really Jewish: discussing hunting and NASCAR or renting “The Passion of the Christ.”
“Jewtopia” doesn’t pretend to hold deeper meaning, spending its energy probing Jewish cultural stereotypes from an insider’s p.o.v.: never wasting food, complaining in restaurants, always having a health problem, motherly guilt trips, hourlong goodbyes and the more subtle tradition of adding salmon to everything.
The closest the work gets to addressing a more complex issue is in its examination of “how Jewish” one person is compared with another. In an early scene the two men have a Jewish trivia faceoff. Chris runs circles around Sam and exclaims, “I’m more Jewish as a gentile than your true-blue-Jew ass is ever gonna be!” However convoluted the manner, the point is raised that although one person can be more or less observant of or identified with Jewish ethnicity, Jewishness can’t be quantified.
In supporting roles, Cheryl David and Gerry Vichi go the distance in fleshing out the backdrop of Jewish cliches. David creates two separate and particular Jewish mothers; Vichi is droll as both the family rabbi and a pervy grandfather.
A true-to-life scene with the entire cast at the Passover Seder table displays the talents of Lorry Goldman as Adam’s well-intentioned father. Meanwhile, Sam’s younger sister Jill (the ubiquitous Tohn in her most hilarious scene) twitches with ripe teen angst at the kids table between verbal outbursts aimed at her impervious parents.
In the final scene, an unexpected musical number, Tohn riffs like a top-notch gospel choir soloist on the Seder’s closing phrase, “Next Year in Jerusalem.”
In a final lesson, Adam explains to Chris that it’s only an expression: No one’s actually going anywhere.