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