Rachel Weinberg has been a freelance theater critic around Chicago for more than three years. She is currently pursuing a Masters of Science in Integrated Marketing Communications from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. Prior to that, Rachel worked for two years in digital marketing at Goodman Theatre and spent a season as a Marketing Apprentice for Roundabout Theatre Company in New York City. You can read all of Rachel's reviews at RachelWeinbergReviews.com and find her on Twitter @RachelRWeinberg.
Review: A JEWISH JOKE, produced by ShPIeL Performing Identity at Victory Gardens Biograph Theater
By Rachel Weinberg
In ShPiel Performing Identity’s production of A JEWISH JOKE, Hollywood screenwriter Bernie Lutz has a few jokes up his sleeve. In fact, he has an entire green plastic box full of jokes carefully written out on index cards. Throughout A JEWISH JOKE’s 90-minute run time, Bernie (Phil Johnson, who co-wrote the play with Marni Freeman) pulls several jokes out of the box. Some are delivered directly to the audience, while others are whipped out during the series of phone calls Bernie takes from his office.
These jokes are used not just to amuse but also to curry favor or deflect sticky situations. Over the course of the play, it becomes clear that Bernie uses his box of jokes as a defense mechanism. For at the top of the play, he learns that he and his screenwriting partner Morris have been listed in the Red Channels—a publication listing entertainment industry members suspected of participating in subversive communist activities. As the play unfolds, Bernie discovers that Morris may be more involved with the supposed communist party than he originally believed. And thus while Bernie tries to hold off the repercussions for his career by telling joke after joke to his fellow industry members, he finds himself facing a tough choice—will his sense of humor be enough to salvage his screenwriting gigs, or will he need to take a more drastic course of action?
While dispersed with a great deal of humor—both tonally, and of course, through the straight delivery of Bernie’s many jokes—A JEWISH JOKE’s 1950s Hollywood setting also has darker echoes of the present moment. Fear runs rampant among the Hollywood community, fueled by McCarthyism and the investigations of the House Un-American Activities Committee. As Bernie grapples with how to respond to a letter from the committee and also the incessant phone calls from a persistent FBI agent, he must decide how much he’s willing to give away about his business partner in order to protect himself. The undercurrents of fear and hate certainly pulse through A JEWISH JOKE.
With direction by ShPIel’s Artistic Director David Y. Chack, A JEWISH JOKE also makes for a lovely evening of theater. Johnson gives a heartfelt and emotional performance, fully carrying the weight of Bernie’s plight on his shoulders. Johnson is likable and endearing. He’s also entirely convincing in the many, many phone calls that he takes over the course of the play. As Bernie’s situation escalates, the ringing of the telephone becomes ever more sinister. Brandon Moorhead’s lighting design, which slowly incorporates tones of red as the play progresses, also adds a fitting atmospheric touch.
While Johnson is quite adept at making the onstage phone calls feel real, I would have appreciated more direct address in A JEWISH JOKE. Those moments when Johnson speaks directly to the audience are always effective.
Fans of film history, as well as the recent film TRUMBO starring Bryan Cranston, will find much to appreciate in A JEWISH JOKE’s reflection on a pivotal and tense moment in the Hollywood time. And the era of fear mongering brought to life here resonates with the present.