Having watched Citizen Cohn in my younger years, I always marveled at how McCarthyism took root in our country. “That would never be able to happen in our country now, not with me around.” Well here we are 60 years later and once again the Russians are having a hand in dismantling our country. While times are different, the game remains the same. Discord, misinformation, and accusations of anti-nationalism abound with everyone talking and nobody listening.
In A Jewish Joke—now playing at The New Jewish Theatre—Bernie Lutz (Phil Johnson) and his partner Morris are preparing to celebrate the opening night of their new movie, The Big Casbah. Bernie and Morris are successful comedy writers who have gigs with The Danny Kaye Show, NBC, and even the Marx Brothers. (Keep in mind, this story is set in the 1950s.)
Bernie is getting ready for the night’s festivities while he is desperately looking for a letter from Senator Joseph McCarthy’s committee to which he was supposed to respond but he didn’t. As he finds parts of the letter, he starts getting phone calls that he thinks is about his big movie premiere, but are actually questions about whether he and Morris are pinkos.
Pinkos? Bernie is flabbergasted, but this is just the beginning of a very long—and stressful—day for the writer. He starts getting more calls saying that he and Morris were named in a publication called “Red Channels.” The publication named individuals who were alleged Communist sympathizers. The calls come in fast and furious as studios and agents start dissociating themselves with the writing duo. Comments about Bernie and Morris attending a Communist meeting cause a panic as all their projects start to disappear. Stop orders and “change of creatives” cause The Danny Kaye Show, NBC, and the Marx Brothers movie to vanish into thin air.
Bernie eventually gets in contact with the FBI and things take a turn for the worse as he is forced to make an unconscionable decision: turn in Morris or his own father, who was accused of starting a fire in a factory over a decade ago. Bernie is morally tormented as he will be forced to turn on someone he loves just to save his own skin. Spiraling out of control, Bernie is forced to determine his own fate by cooperating with the FBI or becoming a mensch—a lesson he learned from his own father who told him, “When there is no mensch—be the mensch.”
Playwrights’ Phil Johnson (who also plays Bernie) and Marni Freedman’s story is highly engaging and gut-wrenchingly authentic. They truly captured the manic panic of being named a Communist in 1950s America. Director David Ellenstein and Phil Johnson worked in perfect harmony, creating a world in which the audience was submerged in the hysteria and self-preservation of the Red Scare. While a one-man show is normally a challenge in itself, A Jewish Joke takes it to another level as the audience watches a man fight for his life with only a telephone to serve as his lifeline to the outside world.
Johnson’s performance as Bernie was exceptional. His ability to cope with his world crashing around him while delivering clever and entertaining jokes (via 3×5 note cards) was outstanding. The show is tagged as a “drama about comedy” and Johnson did both extremely well: his dramatic performances were sincere and his comedic delivery was top notch. His ability to deliver a 90-minute monologue without losing his passion and focus was inspiring.
Another high point of this production was the combination of Laura Skroska’s props and Matt Lescault-Wood’s sound design. With Nathan Schroeder manning the soundboard, the telephone on the set was its own character. It was one of those older phones with a top cradle that is perfect for slamming the receiver on when you are mad. I believe the phone was actually ringing—or at least the crew made it appear it ring. Rather than using an obvious sound effect, the effect of a telephone “jingle ring” took me back to my youth. Also, watching Johnson having to wait for the rotary dial to end its rotation reminded me of how long it took to actually make a phone call. Along with the phone, the entire set was dressed exactly how I would imagine that a writer’s room in the 1950’s would appear.
While A Jewish Joke may not be your typical holiday show, it is a show that reminds us that the ties that bind us are what make us unique. A gripping drama mixed with a healthy dose of comedy make this production a must-see of the NJT’s season. Throw in Johnson’s superb performance and The New Jewish Theatre just gave St. Louis an early (theatrical) holiday gift. │ Jim Ryan
A Jewish Joke plays The New Jewish Theatre through Dec. 10. For show times and ticket prices, please visit https://jccstl.com/arts-ideas/new-jewish-theatre/