“The Last Schwartz” – Arizona Jewish Theatre Company

This review aired on KBAQ February 7, 2011


Arizona Jewish Theatre Company, John Paul Theatre, Phoenix College
Phoenix, AZ

Dysfunctional families are a common topic of plays. Deborah Zoe Laufer’s “The Last Schwartz” is another entry in this genre and, while the Arizona Jewish Theatre Company production is fine, the play isn’t the best. It tires to be a comedy with some expected and routine humor and it adds seriousness that isn’t particularly effective.

We are at the upstate New York ancestral Schwartz family home a year after the patriarch’s passing. The four children are gathered to commemorate the death and they all possess different attitudes about the family’s need to stay together. Norma maintains their Jewish heritage, something siblings Herb, Gene, and Simon skip. Norma’s the only one who values the family and yet her annoying dominance alienates her. Also along are Herb’s mousy wife, Bonnie, and Gene’s free-spirited girlfriend, Kia.

There are better family dramas and also superior Jewish family dramas than “The Last Schwartz.”  “Driving Miss Daisy” and several of Neil Simon’s later, more seriously themed works come quickly to mind. “The Last Schwartz” is a middling entry in the dysfunctional family play category.

It’s good Arizona Jewish Theatre Company brings new plays to Valley audiences but many of their past entries have been stronger. Playwright Laufer reaches for easy laughs, uses standard situations, and finds few interesting twists or turns in her one-dimensional characters or their relationships to hold audience attention for the two hour play. Only Simon, an astronomer, who lives in his own world and avoids any communication with the others, is unique.

Director Ben Tyler has done as much as he can with the play’s predictable events and limited action. The play occurs in the family’s Catskills house where they were raised. They’ve now all moved to the city and rarely return but Norma decides the house will remain in the family. Tyler’s performers do their best to make these unchanging people semi-interesting.

Cathy Dresbach crafts Norma, the character you are supposed to hate, into a somewhat dynamic person. That’s a tribute to Dresbach’s superlative acting skills rather than the playwright’s character. Gene Ganssle is the typical “doesn’t care” family guy while Jillian Courtney gets the most out of Bonnie’s expected changes. Eric Zaklukiewicz’s Gene bumbles along with few convictions other than having fun with life. Marshall Glass is convincing as weird Simon, while Brittany Roa maintains Kia’s frazzled impulses well in another superficial character similar to others she’s been essaying in other Valley plays lately.

“The Last Schwartz” is harmless mediocrity done as well as the middling script allows. It continues through February 13. For tickets, call the Arizona Jewish Theatre Company box office at 602-264-0402 or order tickets online at www.azjewishtheatre.org.

Grade: D