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The Last Schwartz

Grown Jewish siblings hashing over old wounds in their late parents' home, reflecting on their distance from both family and cultural traditions ... From its general contours, you might anticipate Deborah Zoe Laufer's first professionally produced play could as well be titled "The Last Snore." Turns out, however, there's nary a dull moment.

With:
Gene - Darren Bridgett Bonnie - Jill Eikenberry Norma - Sharon Lockwood Simon - Mark Phillips Kia - Megan Towle Herb - Michael Tucker

Grown Jewish siblings hashing over old wounds in their late parents’ home, reflecting on their distance from both family and cultural traditions … From its general contours, you might anticipate Deborah Zoe Laufer’s first professionally produced play could as well be titled “The Last Snore.” Turns out, however, there’s nary a dull moment in this crisp, often very funny X-ray of hereditary dysfunctionality, particularly as showcased via Lee Sankowich’s sterling Marin Theater Co. production.

Gathered in Steve Colman’s handsome living-room interior, the Schwartz sibs have slogged upstate from NYC — where they all live but seldom see each other — to honor the first anniversary of their father’s death.

This occasion is held sacred only by eldest Norma (Sharon Lockwood), though she’s perhaps a less-than-ideal spokeswoman for tribal unity: So fanatically does she fly the flag of time-tested morality that her own husband and son are now estranged. (In a camel’s-back-breaking incident, it seems Norma discovered junior’s pot stash … then called the police.) Nonetheless, she casts herself as a domestic gorgon, haranguing the others toward honor-thy-father gestures that are half-hearted on their part and delusional on hers. Dad, we soon glean, was not the most beloved of patriarchs.

But Norma aside, the Schwartz “kids” (ranging from 35-ish to 50-ish) don’t dwell on the past. They’ve got trouble enough in the here-and-now. Reducing the value of everything to dollars and cents, businessman Herb (Michael Tucker) effectively tunes out the emotional neediness emanating in waves from prattlesome wife Bonnie (Jill Eikenberry), a formerly scandalous shiksa fiancee whom years of spousal neglect, in-law hostility and childlessness have turned as stereotypically oy-vey neurotic as anyone in the Woody Allen oeuvre.

Often caught in the crossfire between Norma and Herb, TV commercial director Gene (Darren Bridgett) does what he’s always done: Duck and cover, hoping neutrality will render him invisible.

Much better at that trick is astronomer Simon (Mark Phillips), a science-dweeb Poindexter turned near-alien life form by dint of myriad mystery afflictions and severe social withdrawal. He spends all his time bent over a telescope, even though he’s going blind. Convinced Earth’s expiration date is nigh, he figures ending up on a lunar research station because “I don’t see any other options for me.”

Wild card in this no-win deck is Kia (Megan Towle), the hard-bodied, barely clad blond “friend” Gene has brought along unannounced. She’s an actress whose big break so far has been as the “Fat No More” girl in his latest commercial — and as the child of California hippies, she’s the definitive nightmare of contemporary rootlessness for anyone (like Norma, or the deceased elder Schwartzes) who prefers dividing the world into Jewish, Not Jewish and/or Anti-Semitic camps.

During a long, bumpy night complicated by alcoholism (Bonnie’s), good dope (Kia’s), infidelity past (Bonnie & Gene) and potentially present (randy Herb & ever-willing Kia), any remaining Schwartz clan illusions are shattered along with Norma’s ability to dominate weaker wills.

“The Last Schwartz” consistently makes more of its superficially familiar, borderline-sitcomish character dynamics than one might expect. The slapstick “Glass Menagerie” miniature of Kia’s cozying up to skittish Simon, or her wee-hours bonding with forlorn “rival” Bonnie, are good examples of potentially pat situations that hit unexpected notes.

Laufer is an astute writer of individual scenes, though her larger effects sometimes fall short. Simon, in particular, is too obvious an attempt to add poetic dimension via ye olde idiot-savant device (complete with spacey internal monologues). Still, on a moment-to-moment basis “Schwartz” is so satisfying that its slight sum-of-parts letdown barely registers.

At perf caught, Sankowich’s cast had arrived at a perfection of ensemble timing not tipped in the least by offstage marrieds Tucker and Eikenberry’s marquee value. Exceptionally strong all around, the players were nonetheless topped — in terms of laughs wrung, at least — by Bridgett’s jittery Gene and Towle’s jaw-droppingly tactless Kia.

The Last Schwartz

Marin Theater Co. - Mill Valley, Calif. ; 237 seats; $45 top

Production: A Marin Theater Co. presentation of a play in two acts by Deborah Zoe Laufer. Directed by Lee Sankowich.

Creative: Set, Steve Coleman; costumes, Cassandra Carpenter; lighting, York Kennedy; sound, Norman Kern; stage manager, Dick Daley. Artistic director, Sankowich. Opened Jan. 13, 2004. Reviewed Feb. 15. Running time: 2 HOURS

Cast: Gene - Darren Bridgett Bonnie - Jill Eikenberry Norma - Sharon Lockwood Simon - Mark Phillips Kia - Megan Towle Herb - Michael Tucker

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