Despite a couple of roles that are more caricature than character and a seeming lift from the conclusion of Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard,” Deborah Zoe Laufer’s “The Last Schwartz” is an undeniably enjoyable comedy. Its dramatic elements are marginally less effective and yet its concepts are surprisingly deep as concerns about the childlessness of a particular family expand to the continuation of the Jewish people and finally humanity itself. The play receives a sterling production at the Zephyr Theater, where Lee Sankowich’s direction and a strong cast combine to create a thoroughly entertaining show.
The members of the Schwartz family have gathered in their deceased parents’ old home to observe Yarzheit (the one-year anniversary of a death) for their father. The controlling Norma (Valerie Perri) is attempting to run the event to her exacting standards, but her siblings aren’t obliging. Herb (Alan Safier) is happy to argue with her, and just as happy to ignore his talkative and suffering wife, Bonnie (Pamela Gaye Walker). The reclusive scientist Simon (Tim Cummings) is losing his sight but doesn’t feel the need to mention it. Finally, Gene (Roy Abramsohn) has offended Norma by bringing his shiksa girlfriend Kia (Steffany Huckaby) to the memorial. Kia is a disruption on many levels, but her inadvertent confession that she’s pregnant inspires some honesty that the family needs.
Perri succeeds in making Norma both a bullying virago and a sympathetic victim of her own righteousness, and her strong perf is the backbone of the show. As Bonnie, Walker’s emotions change like quicksilver on her beautifully expressive face. Cummings makes the most of a largely silent role, a man almost trying to elude himself, using the tone of his voice and his physical movements to create a complete character — a definitive response to Norma that is shocking in its intensity.
Huckaby steals the show with her charmingly funny perf, wearing a nonstop cheerfully vacant gaze and bright smile. Although her character couldn’t be more of a stereotype, she invests it with such winning positivity and high energy that Kia seems like a force of nature. Safier is bluntly amusing as the largely self-interested Herb, and Abramsohn brings subtlety to the ultimately underwritten role of Gene.
Sankowich’s seamless direction is notable both for the specificity of the characterizations and the perfectly judged pacing. His treatment of a few sequences focusing on Simon’s thoughts, in which the loud conversations of a moment before freeze and the thorough solitude of Simon is revealed, is powerfully evocative. Giullio Perrone’s bright, airy home set, with a wintry background and blond wood furniture warm in the foreground, is simple yet strikingly effective.