On erev Rosh Hashanah at a Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, rooming house in 1966, three generations of Grazonskys convene, collide and ultimately celebrate in “Jews, Christians and Screwing Stalin,” a world premiere comedy opening Aug. 17 at the Matrix Theatre.
As we’re told by Zayde Murray (John Pleshette), who is in heaven but enters periodically to address the audience and comment on the action, “This is your typical Jewish kitchen-table comedy filled with bitterness, anger, sarcasm and love.”
The play is populated by colorful characters, including a feisty Trotskyite bubbe who shtupped a Soviet revolutionary; her alcoholic ne’er-do-well son; a busybody tenant; and a grandson who’s bringing home his pregnant Catholic-Presbyterian Southern belle fiancee to meet the family.
Playwright and director Mark Lonow, who collaborated on the script with his wife, Jo Anne Astrow, based the story on his own dysfunctional Russian-Jewish socialist family, peppering the script with Yiddish phrases his bubbe would use. Although it was initially written as a drama, Lonow took the advice of legendary Hollywood director Carl Reiner and Broadway mogul Jimmy Nederlander and reconceived the play as a comedy.
Lonow and Astrow, who have been married for 49 years, met as young actors in New York, where they bonded over a love of theater and caviar, and founded an improv group. “Every time we almost broke up, something worse happened and we had to take care of it, and we realized we really didn’t want to break up,” Astrow said.
An actor and the co-owner of The Improv comedy clubs since 1979, Lonow now concentrates on writing and directing for the theater and is drawn to Jewish subjects, though he is not religious. Speaking to the Journal during a rehearsal, he said, “I think Yiddish and I write English,” quoting Mel Brooks. “All the characters I’ve created as a writer or a performer are Jewish. This [play] is very based in Jewishness.”
“Even though [the play is] very Jewish, anyone who has a family with crazy characters in it — and who doesn’t — will relate to this.” —John Pleshette
Several of the actors are Jewish, including Pleshette, whose grandfather changed his surname from Kravitz to Pleshet when he immigrated to pre-state Palestine, adding the “te” later.
A doctor’s son, Pleshette grew up comfortably on New York’s Upper East Side, but nevertheless found this show’s working-class family real and relatable. He canceled travel plans to be able to take the role of Zayde Murray. “It’s also touching and poignant,” said the actor, who has had roles in “Knots Landing” and “Murder One.” “Even though it’s very Jewish, anyone who has a family with crazy characters in it—and who doesn’t—will relate to this.”
Standup comic and actress Cathy Ladman (“I’m Dying up Here,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm”) temporarily put aside plans for a one-woman show to play Bubbe. “I’ve really drawn so much from my grandmother, the accent and the put-upon ‘life is hard’ kind of thing. So many of the words and the flavor reminded me of her,” said the Queens, N.Y. -bred performer, whose Jewish roots have Russian, Austrian and Polish parentage. “I feel very much at home with these characters.”
The people they’re based on are long gone, but Lonow imagines they would like how they’re being portrayed. “My grandfather would find it very amusing,” he said. “My grandmother would smack me in the back of the head, going, ‘That’s what you write about me?’ But I think they would really enjoy it.”
For the audience, Lonow promises “a night of laughter to the point where they hurt.”
“Jews, Christians and Screwing Stalin” runs Aug. 18–Sept. 23 at the Matrix Theatre. For reservations and information, call (323) 960-4412 or go to www.plays411.com/brooklyn.