She lit one up, and then things got a lot more relaxed.
It's just a moment in "The Last Schwartz," the latest production from Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company, but the whole energy of the narrative shifts when a guest at a Jewish family's country home lights a joint from the candle burning in memory of the clan's patriarch.
This family, beset by sorrows and sordid secrets, could stand to lighten up.
Playwright Deborah Zoe Laufer's one-act comic drama is culturally specific: It takes place around the yahrzeit, a Jewish mourning ceremony marking the one-year anniversary of a death. But this well-acted production by director Warren Bowles is universal in that it contains struggles over identity and legacy that vex many families.
When we meet the Schwartzes, they are all in different worlds, each of them busily talking but none of them listening.
The eldest child, Norma (Laura Stearns Adams), is a disciplinarian and enforcer who once called the cops on her now estranged son and has taken on the role of trenchant memory preserver. The oldest of her three brothers, Herb (Matt Sciple), a financial whiz who thinks money is the solution to nearly everything, is accompanied by his ignored and ambivalent wife, Bonnie (Heidi Fellner). Gene (Damian Leverett), a hot TV director, has brought along his actor girlfriend, Kia (Emily Dussault). And Simon (Corey DiNardo), an autistic astronomer, dreams of settling on the moon — peering through a telescope even as he's losing his eyesight.
They remain on the outs through much of the show — especially about how to care for or even to keep the family place and the complicated character of their late father — until Kia unwittingly provides that moment of levity.
The action takes place in Michael Hoover's neat, small-scale set depicting the interior of a home in New York's Catskill Mountains. Because of the rural setting, some have likened "Schwartz" to Chekhov's "The Cherry Orchard." "Schwartz" is closer to comic soap opera than the great dramas of yore.
While Laufer's script includes sensitive dialogue about miscarriages and abortion, there are also misfires, including a cringe-inducing sequence of jokes about conjoined twins.
Strong performances make this a show worth seeing. Dussault virtually steals the show as the breezy Kia, who snagged a part in a commercial directed by Gene and cares more about getting roles than anything else. Using physicality and phrasing, Dussault is casual but commanding as she fleshes out a thinly written beach-bum character into a full-blown deux ex machina.
Norma also is underwritten, but Adams finds some light in the grim personality of the family enforcer. As the gathering winds down, Norma seems to better understand her siblings, even if she believes they have let the family down. Sciple is a stitch as Herb (a name that may or may not be a pun), delivering stage business with expert timing and wit.
The acting company is fairly well-rounded. Fellner carries us on an emotional journey as she lays on the heart-tugging waterworks, while Leverett brings a touch of TV charisma as Gene and DiNardo imbues Simon with dreams and wonder. His character brings clarity to it all: Legacy may be important, but he would much rather look to the future.