Two playwrights engage in a lengthy debate over the meaning and purpose of theater in Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company's "The Last Word." Trust me, this snappy, warmhearted comedy, which embodies a clash of cultures, viewpoints and generations in two characters joined by profession but divided by philosophy, is really a lot more fun than it sounds like it would be.
The elder of the two people in Oren Safdie's one-act is Henry Grunwald, a nearly blind 80-year old retired advertising executive pursuing his dream of a second career as a playwright. Len Artz, the younger character, has applied for the job of his assistant. As the job interview proceeds, Artz reveals that he too is an aspiring playwright. Any similarity between the two ends there.
Grunwald, played by Raye Birk, espouses well-made drama in the style of Ibsen, Shaw and Chekhov, playwrights whose portraits adorn the walls of his office. Anything more modern is disdained as "experimental," including Stanislavski, whom he dismisses as "a Russian Jew who made a fortune off of insecure actors". Opinionated, manipulative and self-absorbed, this character could easily come off as repellent were it not for the engaging energy and insight Birk brings to the role. He subtly reveals the disappointments that underlie Grunwald's bravado, and tempers his egotism with charm and self-deprecating humor. It's a wonderfully assured and modulated performance.
Skyler Nowinski couldn't offer a stronger contrast as the younger Artz. Awkward, prickly, and intense, he presents an almost adolescent inarticulateness in the face of Grunwald's practiced verbosity. His frustration is almost palpable when he snaps at the older man that "writing doesn't have anything to do with what comes before and after."
As the two battle over the meaning of reality and the relative merits and demerits of playwrights from Shakespeare to Mamet, the writer of "The Last Word" couches their debate within the framework of a father-son relationship. Over the course of the play it becomes apparent that Artz is repudiating not just classicism but his own abusive parent when he rejects the "formulaic three-act structure". Grunwald, on the other hand, is seeking justification for the choices he made half a century earlier as a young man on the verge of fatherhood.
"The Last Word" is a play that easily could become forced and formulaic itself, were it not for director Hayley Finn's sure pacing and two fine performances from Birk and Nowinski. Their engaging and gently humorous portrayals manage to paper over any weaknesses in Safdie's script.