Jews, Christians, and Screwing Stalin at the Matrix Theatre – Theatre Review

Originally published on Discover Hollywood.

 

By Kathy Flynn

As the play begins, the ghostly Zayde Murray appears, explaining that what you are about to see is “your typical Jewish kitchen-table comedy filled with bitterness, anger, sarcasm and love.” And really, nothing I can say here will can describe this play better than that.


Sammi-Jack Martincak, Cathy Ladman and Hunter Milano in
Jews, Christians and Screwing Stalin
Photo by Ed Krieger

Jews, Christians, and Screwing Stalin is the story of the Grazonsky family, Brooklyn Jews who own a boarding house in Brighton Beach circa 1966. The widowed Minka awaits the arrival of her grandson, Joseph, who is on his way home for Rosh Hashanah. What Minka doesn’t know is that Joseph is bringing his half German, Christian, pregnant fiancée along with him. What Joseph doesn’t know is that Minka has also invited his alcoholic father, who abandoned him as a child, to dinner. Will Minka accept the non-Jewish Caitlin? Will Joseph be able to find common ground with his father? Will David remember to bring back the chicken for dinner?

Zayda (John Pleshette)
John Pleshette
Photo by Ed Krieger

functions as a Greek Chorus of sorts, his ghostly presence commenting on the dramatic action he cannot interact with. The other tenants of the boarding house, particularly Lillie Feinstein (Laura Julian), provide comedic exchange, but the heart of the play is in the family.

From the seeds of heartbreak and anger comes a play brimming with love…and sarcasm. The play is based on playwright and director Mark Lonow’s own Russian-Jewish socialist family and the characters Joseph and Caitlin are based on him and his wife of 49 years, co-writer Jo Anne Astrow. Because of this, there is an authenticity to the characters, particularly family matriarch Minka, who just wants to bring what’s left of her family back together.

Cathy Ladman’s Minka is delightful, 
Cathy Ladman and Laura Julian
Photo by Ed Krieger

strong-willed and yet long-suffering, full of love and surprises in equal measure. Ladman brings Minka to life as a flesh-and-blood, relatable person who you would love to sit down and have dinner with. Hunter Milano’s Joseph anchors the play with a strong performance filled with a maturity and centeredness disparate with his young age. Travis York is wonderful as the shifty, ne’er do well David, finding the humanity in a character that could easily fall into caricature in lesser hands.

The writing is crisp and effervescent, full of twists and consistently delightful one-liners. At times, I was reminded of the best of Neil Simon. But the work-in-progress nature of the play was a little too evident on opening night. The comedic timing was a little off sometimes and some of the delivery needed a bit more oomph. I expect that once the cast gets a few more performances under their belt that that material will absolutely sing.

Jews, Christians and Screwing Stalin was directed by Mark Lonow and written by Mark Lonow and Jo Anne Astrow. It stars John Pleshette, Cathy Ladman, Hunter Milano, Sammi-Jack Martincak, Travis York, Laura Julian, Sally Schaub, and Marty Ross.

Jews, Christians and Screwing Stalin plays on Saturdays, Sundays, and Mondays through Sept 23 at the Matrix Theatre, 7657 Melrose Ave, Los Angeles. Tickets are $35 are can be purchased here.

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Meet the Playwrights: Mark Lonow and Jo Anne Astrow of ‘Jews, Christians, and Screwing Stalin’

First published on Discover Hollywood.

By Kathy Flynn

Mark Lonow, co-owner of the legendary Improv comedy club, and his wife, Jo Anne Astrow, a stand-up comedian and personal manager, are co-writers of Jews, Christians and Screwing Stalin, the outrageous new comedy inspired by Mark and Jo Anne’s life. 

Discover Hollywood chatted with Lonow and Astrow about their play and the real life stories behind it.

What inspired you to turn your childhood memories into a play?

Lonow: My pain of childhood. (laughs)

Astrow: Well actually, that’s partly true.  When it started out, Mark wrote it as a drama.  We workshopped it and did four performances at The Complex. We were at the time doing a production with Jimmy Nederlander on Broadway of Louis Black, who we were managing, and Mark said, “Let’s give it to Jimmy.”

Lonow: Yes, and he read it and, this is a relatively accurate quote, “Mark, this is very well-written, but you’re no Arthur Miller.”

Astrow: And then I joined the team as the co-author.

What was it like writing together? Have you worked together on other projects?

Lonow: A movie called The Prince Charming Papers way back when.

Astrow: We met in Greenwich Village and married in 1969. We formed an improv group and collaborated on that and made our living touring colleges. We had our own room in New York and then we came to California because Mark got a television series.

Which series was that?

Lonow: Husbands, Wives, and Lovers in 1977 or 1978.  I also got the acting lead in Thank God It’s Friday.

Astrow: We had been performing before we came to California at New York Improv as a trio and that was our natural place to hangout.  So in LA, when The Improv had just opened in LA, Mark became a partner.

Lonow: I bought into The Improv.  It’s much more complicated than that.

Astrow: We’ve been in comedy many, many years, I was a stand-up for 12 years, I did The Tonight Show, I toured the country, and we managed [acts] for about 20 years.

Lonow: We just sold The Improv about three months ago.  I owned The Improv for 38 years.

Astrow: Mark is still a consultant.  The play is being presented by our production company, Took A Cab, and The Improv.

Lonow: The ties are still strong. We have not divorced.

You mentioned how this [play] was originally written as a drama. What were the challenges of turning it into a comedy?

Lonow: Most of my childhood was a tragic comedy, so it wasn’t that difficult to make the decision.  We took the characters and we made them sarcastic… a lot of laughs.  The storyline is basically exactly the same, it’s the way they act and how they relate to each other [that’s changed]. Instead of crying, they are attacking, so you laugh at them. I don’t want to tell you what happens in the story, but there’s a serious underpinning in the story, it’s about reconciliation between a father and a son, that’s one of the themes in the storyline, and you will see how it resolves itself, but it’s a tragic, funny…

Astrow: …There’s also atonement…

Lonow: …There is atonement because it’s Rosh Hashanah

Astrow: Historically, it’s very, very interesting in that you experience three generations of men, the grandfather, the father and the grandson, and the same thing for the women, there are well, two generations. [It takes place in] 1966, which was the beginning of such a transition in the country…

Lonow: …there are also socio-economic themes, women’s feminism, and economic striving, and immigrant desires and fantasies, and that is what drives almost all the characters, that and the crossover between religions, because you very quickly find out that Joey’s fiancée who he is bringing to meet his grandmother, is a Catholic among other things. He’s Jewish so you walk into an immigrant Jewish home bringing in an Irish Catholic woman to meet his very sarcastic, very sexually…not active but has a proclivity for and no filter towards sexual comment, and so you’ll see how that unfolds. It’s a little shocking, it breaks a lot of stereotypes and also the characters as presented are not the normal Jewish characters as have been presented onstage in the last 60 years…they’re not upper middle-class, college educated people.

Astrow: Mark and I, our first passion still is theatre and so this is a gift we have given ourselves to be working every day in the theater.  But Mark had a passion to explore and show the audience a blue-collar Jewish background.  Not the angst of the post-Woody Allen Jewish image, which is also very funny, but not what we wanted to portray. And I get to be…the character based on me is a raised outside of New Orleans shiksa, the Yiddish word for a non-Jewish woman.

Lonow: We will explain every Jewish idiom and word used in the play, it comes into the dialogue so you will understand everything.

Astrow: Another gift that we have given ourselves in luck and all goodness, John Pleshette, a wonderful actor, is playing the grandfather, and Cathy Ladman a stand-up and actress, is playing the grandmother and it’s just a wonderful cast. We are having a lot of fun and we are all talking like old Jews now.

Lonow: We’re having a lot of fun, I am still in my neurotic period.

Astrow: He’s still in pain, (laughs) but I came from a happier side of Jewery…

Lonow: …she came from the baubles and bangles side of Jewery…

Astrow: …but not rich.

Now you said theatre is a passion for you.  What is your favorite thing about theatre? Why do you love it?

Lonow: The angst, the pain…getting on stage live in front of an audience, walking the tightrope is fun. I grew up, well I certainly didn’t come from a theatrical family, but when I was 12 I lied about my age and got into HB Studio, you couldn’t go unless you were 13 so I lied and made myself a year older. And then when I was about 16 I got a job in summer stock for Jean Stapleton and her husband Bill Putch at Totem Pole Playhouse in Pennsylvania,  I did a season there and then I did Allenberry playhouse. When I was still in high school I went for the summers, and I continued on and I did regional so I didn’t come from Hollywood, televisions, movies…my whole concept of theatre was stage and I did it until 1977 when I got  Husbands, Wives, and Lovers and Thank God its Friday.  Joanne and I came out [to Hollywood] on vacation and our agent hooked us up with a Hollywood agent and I started working, and that was the first time I even thought I could be a television or movie actor.

Astrow: For me when we came to California I had a very successful career in commercials in New York that did not happen in L.A. It’s so fascinating if you are interested in cultural history as I am.  In New York I was a midwest housewife [type], I made a lot of money, I did a lot of commercials.  When I got to California, I was too Jewish or not Jewish enough. In other words, I was not the caricature, but I still read New York Jew to the California market.  That’s how I became a stand-up, because when Mark became the co-owner of The Improv I had a stage to learn stand-up.

I did love managing also, it comes naturally to me, I managed Lewis Black and Niecey Nash and Doug Stanhope, that was a fine time too because managing is very rewarding…

Lonow: …until they drop you…

Astrow: (laughs) …and they do!

Back to the play, what do you want people to take away from it, or what are you hoping people will take away from it?

Lonow: Pain from laughing.

There’s a lot of pain here.

Lonow: What, are you kidding? Jews!  What drives a Jew but pain. It gives you storyline, it gives you interesting commentary, and it gives you laughs.  I want them to leave talking about the interest of the characters, and telling everyone they must see it because it’s so funny.

Astrow: Our goal is… it’s a work in progress and something that is growing, and of course 99-seat is too short to get everything done, but our dream and our goal is to bring it to New York.

Lonow: This is just the first step in the process.  We want to see audience reaction to it.  In New York very often they used to go out on the road and work the show until it was ready to present, but there is no road anymore. So now you do it in workshops or in small theatres in New York but we are not there so we are using this as the first cog in the wheel heading to New York. We had a run through last night and we felt, oh this seems a little too long, maybe that scene needs a little trimming, so it will go up in front of people, it will be up six weeks, and we will continue to work, and rewrite, and alter it and let the actors get over their initial nerves. We have a couple of previews and a couple of shows this week, and as it settles in we will be able to see more objectively as a writer and creator, where things have to be massaged, and that’s what we will do, it’s the process of writing the piece.

Astrow: And we are working with our producer, Racquel Lehrman of Theater Planners and she and her associate Misha Riley have just been wonderful.  She brought to us designers, set, costumes, because this is their hood, 99-seat.

Lonow: It’s not really a 99-seat presentation, what you are going to see is a pre-Broadway production in a  99-seat house.  And it will have all the bumps and grinds and concept that will work on Broadway, we hope, There are sight gags, there are technicals…this show really works on many, many levels.

Astrow: And the design team is phenomenal.  Our stage manager Karen Schleifer, Racquel and Misha, have done a wonderful job.

Lonow: As one of the cast members said, “Wow, this is really different. Usually you do a 99-seat house with a table, two chairs, and they tell you to bring your own shoes and costume.” We have costumes, sets, a two-level set, it’s quite a piece for a 99-seat house.

Took A Cab Productions and the world-famous Improv comedy club chain present the world premiere of Jews, Christians and Screwing Stalin, directed by Mark Lonow, opening August 18th at the Matrix Theatre, where performances will continue through Sept. 23rd.  Buy tickets here: Jews, Christians and Screwing Stalin at the Matrix

Waitress the Musical at the Hollywood Pantages – Theatre Review

By Kathy Flynn

 

Charity Angél Dawson, Desi Oakley, and Lenne Klingman in Waitress
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Waitress, now playing at the Hollywood Pantages, is a story about female friendship and empowerment and taking what life gives you and making the best of it, as Jenna does with her magnificent, improbably-named pies.

Jenna (Desi Oakley), a small town waitress who gives more than she gets, is trapped in a loveless marriage to abusive jerk Earl (Nick Bailey). She gets by with the help and support of her fellow waitresses, the shy and nerdy Dawn (Lenne Klingaman) and the brash Becky (Charity Angél Dawson). An unwanted pregnancy sets the plot in motion, and the charming new ob/gyn in town (Bryan Fenkart) opens Jenna up to the possibility of something more in life than she dared dream possible.


Bryan Fenkart and Desi Oakley 
Photo by Joan Marcus

Waitress is the musical adaptation of the beloved 2007 indie film, written and directed by Adrienne Shelley, who was tragically murdered three months before the film opened at Sundance.

As with the film, the charm of the story is in its realistic, messy characters. While the musical adaption takes broader strokes and pumps up the comedy, the plot still retains its delightful appeal. In a refreshing spin on the norm, the male characters in Waitress only exist to propel the women’s story arcs forward. Earl is a one-dimensional stereotype, and Dawn’s eccentric beau Ogie (Jeremy Morse) is full-scale comic relief. Even the charismatic Dr. Pomatter is far from perfect, he seems blithely unconcerned that he is cheating on a wife that clearly adores him, causing the audience to share in Jenna’s moral discomfort. The one plot misstep is the deus ex machina ending which doesn’t feel earned, in some ways diminishing Jenna’s growth. But it’s a minor quibble in a story that is otherwise joyful, moving, and empowering.

The musical features a groundbreaking all-female creative team, with direction from Tony Award-winner Diane Paulus and a book by Jessie Nelson. The music and lyrics, by Grammy and Tony award nominated singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles, is gorgeous and enchanting, with an anthematic modern pop sound that is uniquely identifiable; “She Used to be Mine” and the opening number “What’s Inside” being particularly lovely standouts.


Desi Oakley 
Photo by Joan Marcus

 

Originally published on Discover Hollywood. 

X Ambassadors at the 2018 Grove Summer Concert Series

By Kathy Flynn


Singer Sam Harris, drummer Adam Levin, and keyboard player Casey Harris of
X Ambassadors at the Grove’s 2018 Summer Concert Series 
Photo by Kathy Flynn

Indie rockers X Ambassadors played The Grove’s central courtyard Wednesday night as part of the Citi sponsored Summer Concert Series. They opened their set with “Ahead of Myself,” off of their most recent album, Joyful, and proceeded to play a set of high energy, bombastic rock to the delight of the hundreds of fans in attendance. Their set covered all the fan favorites, including “Jungle,” Love Songs Drug Songs,” “Loveless,” and “Hang On,” culminating with their ubiquitous triple-platinum Jeep commercial tie-in, “Renegades.”


Casey Harris of X Ambassadors at the Grove’s 2018 Summer Concert Series
Photo by Kathy Flynn

X Ambassadors consist of lead vocalist and lyricist Sam Harris, his older brother Casey Harris, and drummer Adam Levin.  Casey Harris has been blind since birth.

Past Summer Concert Series have included artists as varied as The Backstreet Boys, The Mowgli’s, All Time Low, Brian Vander Ark, and LP.


Singer Sam Harris, drummer Adam Levin, and keyboard player Casey Harris of X Ambassadors at the Grove’s 2018 Summer Concert Series
Photo by Kathy Flynn

Originally published on Discover Hollywood.

Famous at the 11:11 – Theatre Review

By Kathy Flynn


Alexander Daly (Ryan), Thomas McNamara (Brody), and Christopher Dietrick (Jason) in Famous at the 11:11. 
Photo by Genevieve Marie Photography

Jason Mast, teen actor turned Hollywood megastar, has just received his first Oscar nomination and there’s a celebratory party at his house, complete with pushy manager, loser brother, and slutty starlet. The cast of characters are all familiar in Famous, but don’t take anything at face value. Over the course of the evening, motivations are revealed, alliances are formed, and for better or worse, no one is quite who they seemed when the night began.

Famous is the play we need in the #metoo era, shining a bright light in the dark corners where horrible shadows lay undisturbed. The cost of fame is a frequently told tale, but the headlines from the past few years makes the story feel particularly relevant and timely. Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Bryan Singer, River Phoenix …just a few of the names that flashed through my mind watching Famous. I found some of the situations uncomfortable and triggering, falling a little too close to comfort to my own past experiences.


Derick Breezee and Christopher Dietrick 
Photo by Genevieve Marie Photography

Christopher Dietrick’s powerful performance as Jason is a revelation, bringing a layered intensity that keeps you riveted to the stage. The action is told both in present day and in flashback, with young Jason, personifying Jason’s literal inner child, interacting with adult Jason to illustrate his inner torment, giving form to his guilt and anguish. Young Jason is played by Derick Breezee in a breakout performance laced with sweetness and vulnerability.

The production design is exquisite. The stage is set as several rooms of Mast’s Hollywood mansion, with action often talking place in more than one room at a time and the actors freeze-framing to direct your attention to the room that is key. Lighting compliments and illuminates Jason’s fragmenting mental state.


Photo by Genevieve Marie Photography

Famous is a powerful and intense statement, but it’s not without flaws. Act 1 introduces a revenge plot which has Jason installing video cameras in all of the rooms. While it works as a dramatic device to allow Jason to see and hear all that goes on in the house, plot-wise the payoff is weak, and seems tacked on more than organic. I was invested in seeing where it was going to go and then it just…didn’t

Famous was written and directed by Michael Leoni, with original music by Conner Youngblood. It stars Christopher Dietrick, Alexander Daly, Rosanna De Candia, Megan Davis, Decker Sadowski, Thomas McNamara, Jacqi Vene, Markus Silbiger, Derick Breezee, Rachael Meyers, Gregory Depetro, and Kenny Johnston.

Famous plays through August 19 at The 11:11 Experience, 1107 Kings Road, West Hollywood.

Originally published on Discover Hollywood.

Cry It Out at the Atwater Village Theatre – Theatre Review

By Kathy Flynn


Megan Ketch and Jackie Chung 
Photo by Darrett Sanders

Anyone who has been through the changes motherhood brings will relate to Cry it Out, Echo Theater Company’s dark-edged comedy about two new moms and the friendship that forms between them.


Jackie Chung
Photo by Darrett Sanders

Jessie (Jackie Chung), the emotional center of this piece, is a former corporate lawyer whose entire worldview has changed with the arrival of her daughter. Lonely and desperate for companionship, she strikes up a friendship with her neighbor Lina (Megan Ketch), another new mom. Their naptime coffee meetups turn into a strong and relatable bond between two very different people. When a wealthy stranger drops by uninvited to ask if his wife can join them, all of their lives change in unexpected ways.

Cry It Out highlights the privilege that comes with both class and gender and the unbearably hard choices women often have to make. It’s sweet and heartbreaking and laugh-out-loud funny, sometimes all at the same. Both Chung and Ketch turn in pitch-perfect performances, as do the rest of the cast, but it’s Ketch who shines the most as brassy Long Island housewife Lina, a fully fleshed-out performance that is hysterical and messy and utterly real.


Brian Henderson 
Photo by Darrett Sanders

Rounding out the cast is Brian Henderson as the wealthy neighbor, and Emily Swallow as his mercurial wife, both absolutely terrific in their roles. Swallow, who is also currently appearing in Henry IV with Tom Hanks and Hamish Linklater, brings impressive depth and pathos to a character that could easily become one-note in lesser hands.

Cry It Out is the perfect moms night out. Grab your playgroup, Moms Club, or PTA friends and laugh and cry along to issues that you already know far too well.

Cry It Out was written by Molly Smith Metzler and directed by Lindsay Allbaugh, and plays at the Atwater Village Theatre through Aug 19.

The 4pm performance on July 22 has been designated “Child Care Sunday” – Echo Theater Company will provide free child care for parents attending that performance.

Originally published on Discover Hollywood.  

The Most Massive Woman Wins – Hollywood Fringe Festival Review

By Kathy Flynn

 

The Most Massive Woman Wins is a short play that packs a powerful punch. Four women in the waiting room of a fat reduction/liposuction clinic flash back to what brought them there. All of them have reasons to be there, but are any of their reasons really their own?

As familiar childhood rhymes become chilling taunts, teaching young girls to be subservient and not desire too much, the women bond over the common threads of shame, bullying, and abuse. Surgically removing part of themselves to be somehow more palatable to society is the imperfect solution.

Savannah Rutledge, Rachel Frost and Alexandra Fiallos all turn in strong performances, but the real standout here is Yridia Ayvar, who also produced and directed this play. She has a real presence and delivers her best lines with a fevered intensity.

The Most Massive Woman Wins is a moving statement about how far women are willing to go to fit in and be accepted in a world of unattainable beauty standards. How much of yourself are you willing to give away?

The Most Massive Woman Wins
Hollywood Fringe Festival 2018 at the Lounge Theatre
Written by Madeleine George
Directed by Yridia Ayvar
35 Minutes

Originally published by Discover Hollywood.