Nature of American Judaism in a nutshell

Sasha Olinick is the less-than-happily-married Herb and Emily Kester is Kia in “The Last Schwartz,” a comedy with a dark underbelly at Theater J. Photo courtesy of Theater J, Edlavitch DCJCC
Sasha Olinick is the less-than-happily-married Herb and Emily Kester is Kia in “The Last Schwartz,” a comedy with a dark underbelly at Theater J.
Photo courtesy of Theater J, Edlavitch DCJCC

Deborah Zoe Laufer’s comedy with a dark underbelly navigates the heights and depths of a Jewish family gathering for their father’s first yahrzeit. The play, written in 1999, makes its regional premiere in the Goldman Theater of the Edlavitch DCJCC through Oct. 2. This season opener is tautly directed by newly appointed artistic director Adam Immerwahr, who brings out the intense insularity of a family brought together to remember — and forget — the deeds and errors of their late patriarch.

Laufer’s play is pack full of zingers and comic riffs – providing many well-timed, laugh-aloud moments. There’s self-appointed boss, the oldest sister Norma, who rules the kitchen and her younger brothers, to the point of ordering them to prepare remarks for the cemetery visit.

Herb is the settled brother, less-than-happily married to Bonnie for almost a decade. Simon, the scientist, spends his time gazing into a telescope although he has been losing his sight. What could he possibly see? His odd behavior and hypersensitivity to touch or even social interaction suggests Asperger’s, but his problems are ignored by his siblings and his parents before them.

Gene (Billy Finn) is a prodigal son of sorts. The ladies’ man, he shows up late for Norma’s brisket dinner with a young, scantily clad girlfriend, Kia, in tow. As the fish-out-of-water thrust into this insular Jewish family, Kia’s presence allows the family to break the silences on some long-hidden secrets that suggest that their family was not as ideal as sister Norma would have everyone believe. Emily Kester relishes her role as the dumb blonde.

Norma is not much of a peacemaker, but she is a tyrant when it comes to her brand of Jewish observance. She leads the kiddush over wine at dinner, runs the whole evening and organizes the schedule of the group cemetery visit. The rest of the family, she notes harshly, tosses off their culture carelessly, exhibiting neither faith nor religiosity. Barbara Pinolini’s Norma exhibits no-nonsense steeliness and no regrets.

Sasha Olinick as brother Herb has a great bombastic Jackie Gleason moment early on when he blows up about being scolded for putting his feet on the family coffee table. Wife Bonnie, played by Anne Bowles, can’t help but retell her miscarriage stories, again and again, to the objections of the rest of the family. She struggles as an outsider in this very insular family. Until Kia shows up.

Under Immerwahr’s direction, “The Last Schwartz” exhibits plenty of laughs, many focusing on bimbo Kia’s dumb questions. But the more somber undertones remain ever-present — Bonnie’s pain at her childlessness, the odd youngest sibling Simon’s physical and mental ailments, Herb’s and Bonnie’s marital discord, and even picture-perfect Norma, we learn, is divorced and estranged from her son.

And that, in a nutshell, is the present, and erstwhile nature of American Judaism: Joy is always tempered with unhappiness. Families struggle. They’re imperfect. When Norma opines: “Why aren’t we a real family?” Her brother Herb shoots back: “This is what a real family is.”

With all its hidden secrets, irredeemable past flaws and mistakes, including the legacy of a patriarch who was far from perfect and siblings who rarely agree, the Schwartzes remain indelibly tied together. Playwright Laufer suggests the family may be facing the end of its lineage, but they’re not going down without a fight. n

“The Last Schwartz,” through Oct. 2, Theater J at the Edlavitch DCJCC. 1529 16th St.  NW, Washington. Tickets from $47.25. Visit

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