Like Frasier with a twist of Reality Bites, The Last Schwartz is a two-hour sitcom, without commercial interruption.The play welcomes its audience into the home of the Schwartz family as they celebrate their papa's unveiling, the tradition of honoring the dead and unveiling the tombstone. Doesn't seem like a terribly funny situation, right? But it's when Gene (Ross Amstey), a Schwartz brother, arrives with his definitively shiksa girlfriend that the hilarity ensues.
The show opens with Bonnie (Tamara Farias Kraus) relating an episode of Oprah that featured conjoined twins. Her demeanor initially saccharin sweet, Bonnie illustrates the hopefulness of these women who will forever drag each other around by the skull. As she describes the twins' desire to be mothers, Bonnie begins to spin into a manic tantrum of epic proportions, screaming that she is "totally normal" and deserves to have a baby, not those Siamese "freaks." You see, Bonnie and her husband, Herb, the eldest Schwartz boy, have been reproductively unsuccessful. Kraus plays this scene to the hilt, beautifully building the energy to a frenetic pace.
Desperate for attention, Bonnie is completely ignored, especially by her sister-in-law, Norma. Played by Davita Bloom, Norma is a stern, formidable woman who has taken on the role as Schwartz matriarch. Her stringent beliefs have cost her dearly: "When you do what you know is right, sometimes there's a very heavy price to pay," Norma explains.
Norma bosses her brother Simon about as if he is a child, not an accomplished astronomer. David Jason Kyle takes on the difficult role of Simon, a high-functioning autistic man who is quickly losing his vision. Simon is physically separate from the family, his eye slammed against a telescope lens, replaying the star clusters of his youth and contemplating man's inhumanity toward Mother Earth. Kyle touches the character with a Rain Man quality, hesitant speech and stiff physicality. His Ferris Bueller-style monologues add poignancy to the mirth.
The star of the show is Elizabeth Winslow as Kia, the aforementioned shiksa. Kia is comparable to Anna Nicole Smith, without the dead billionaire octogenarian hubby. As the "Fat No More" campaign girl, Kia is famous for her newly transformed body. Winslow lives up to Anna Nicole's post Trimspa looks, but Marilyn Goldberg, the show's wardrobe manager, dresses Winslow in an unflattering empire-waisted shirt, forcing the audience to question the authenticity of her lauded bod.
Ironically, it's when the play digs in to serious issues such as divorce, drug use, abortion, and miscarriage that the hilarity grows. Kia, having been raised by members of a hippy commune, is completely without history or boundaries and, at times, completely inappropriate. In the second act, Kia runs the show, taking on each member of the Schwartz family in turn, forcing each to step out of his or her circle of comfort and face complicated issues.
Despite the fact that it was opening night, Director Ruth Childs had her cast working like a well oiled machine. And even with the heavy topics tackled by playwright Deborah ZoeLaufer, the audience never feels overwhelmed.
The set, designed by David Meyer and equal in quality to any at Geva, is filled with family pictures and heirlooms. Well worn rugs and a beautiful bay window turn the set into a home.
The audience is left without a clear message or moral. Is this a play about family traditions clashing with a changing world? There may be some hidden message about the consequences of choices made, but the theme isn't clear. After two hours of laughter, who cares?
The Last Schwartz through May 20 | JCCentersage, Jewish Community Center, 1200 Edgewood Avenue | $22 | 461-2000 ext. 235, www.jccrochester.org