October 13, 2019

Theater: The Catskills, a sonata mit a tvist

Question: What’s vodka and orange juice?

Answer: A drink invented by communists living in Florida.

If that sounds like a Borscht Belt gag of the late 1950s, you’re in the right place and proper mood for a date with “The Catskill Sonata.”

The play, now in its world premiere run at the Hayworth Theatre, is directed by Paul Mazursky (“Bob&Carol&Ted&Alice,” “Enemies, a Love Story”) and written by Michael Elias (“The Jerk,” “The Frisco Kid”).

Both draw inspiration from their own Catskill days — Elias was actually born in the mountains, and both he and Mazursky passed their Borscht Belt apprenticeships as waiters and comedians.

Set a week before the season’s opening at Rosen’s Mountain View Hotel, a bohemian off-Borscht Belt resort that has seen better days, proprietor Anne Rosen (Lisa Robins) caters to left-leaning writers, musicians and artists, whose job it is to mingle with the easily awed paying guests.

However, this year the artists in residence are not as chipper and argumentative as in past seasons. The McCarthy-era blacklist of “communists and fellow travelers” has cast a pall over newly-ostracized artists and those fearing a similar fate.

Nevertheless, the resort has engaged hunky looking Dave Vaughn (Kip Gilman) as the year’s “intellectual tummler,” or funmaker. Dave, a comedy writer for Arthur Godfrey’s show, has a wonderful head of hair and a physical resemblance to a young Robert Mitchum.

Dave is also acerbic, unhappily divorced, a dedicated womanizer and heavy drinker, who carries around a bitter secret. He spends much of his time knocking down the aforementioned vodka and orange juice, seducing women, alternately counseling and offending fellow employees and guests and mentoring 17-year-old bellhop Irwin Shukovsky (Daryl Sabara) in the ways of sex and writing.

Sharing the stage with Dave are Rae Isaacs (Lisa Chess), a blacklisted concert pianist; Leo Schwartz (Zack Norman), a businessman who wants to convert the bohemian retreat into a Chasidic center; and Ernie Korn (John Ciccolini), the exasperated manager of the place.

After a slow start, “Catskill Sonata” picks up the pace and the punch lines, which are interlaced with telling observations on the political condition of the country and the human struggles of a failed artist.

One scene alone is worth the price of admission ($20), a dream sequence in which Dave teaches Stalin to cha-cha-cha. In turn, the old dictator, worried that the Soviet Union is falling behind Americans in comedy shows, offers Dave a job as the Kremlin’s chief comedy writer — until he learns that Dave and most of his ilk are Jewish.

“Catskill Sonata” plays Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings through April 14 at the Hayworth Theatre, 2509 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles.

“Catskill Sonata” plays Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings through April 14 at the Hayworth Theatre, 2509 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. For tickets or more information, call (800) 838-3006 or visit www.brownpapertickets.com.