Kosher Lutherans | HotCity Theatre

Kosher-Lutherans 75I kept looking for the zombie or alien or serial killer to emerge, but this show is a warm family comedy that is just slightly askew.

 

What would you do if you truly, madly, deeply wanted a child and were told you couldn’t have one biologically? Maybe you’d decide to accept it and focus your energies elsewhere. Maybe you’d get pets. Or maybe you’d be open to adoption, but because of an unfortunate accident involving your rabbi after Temple one day, you think that avenue is closed to you also. What if you were feeling desperate, and then an opportunity to adopt an unborn child virtually falls into your lap when a young, single pregnant woman may be willing to give you her child? Would you do anything to make that happen? Would you deny your very identity in order to lie to this ignorant little Christian and pretend not to be Jewish because she believes the lies her Iowa daddy told her? Well, would you?

In HotCity Theatre’s new production, Franklyn (Richard Strelinger) is willing to say he’s Lutheran for the sake of getting a baby. His wife, Hannah is uncomfortable with prevaricating, but she, too, is desperate to be a parent. It’s not like converting is anything new in the family. Hannah’s cousin and friend, Martha (Nicole Angeli), declared herself Lutheran after an unusual experience in a funeral parlor. Martha’s husband, Ben (Jerry Russo) is a Ralph Kramden type — he blusters and rants, but Martha clearly controls him with a sharply spoken “Settle!” when he goes too far. The two of them are like oil and water and are polar opposites of the sedate Franklyn and Hannah (“the perfect couple, like macaroni and cheese,” Martha and Ben repeat). Of course they’re not perfect, and even though Ben and Martha fight loud and long and even go to extremes at times, they have their good side too.

It all begins on Purim in Mr. and Mrs. Perfect’s well-appointed home. Everything is tasteful and serene, and I could live happily on David Blake’s set with Meg Brinkley’s props—living room, dining room, entrance and the usual stage “doors to nowhere” but mentioned as kitchen and “study.” I didn’t know the Kranzberg Black Box could look so spacious. If you sit in the front row center, it’s almost like being at the party. Franklyn is absorbed in working on a novel he’s working on in night school, and Hannah is running around trying to get ready for their friends, who Franklyn calls “raging alcoholics” and their behavior doesn’t exactly contradict his assessment. When they arrive — separately — because Martha wanted to take her new Cadillac SUV and Ben wanted to drive his BMW, they fought about it and they took both cars. So, they are already in a terrible mood. Ben even tells Franklyn that he’s filed for divorce but that Franklyn shouldn’t mention that. (Get it? Ben Franklyn [sic])? The two men do).

This divorce talk upsets Franklyn more than Ben could ever know because he and Hannah had planned to ask the childless couple (and you will find out why there are no children in the course of the play) to donate eggs. Franklyn also needs a little help from Ben, but Hannah isn’t in on this part. Hannah also is unaware of something else Franklyn is hiding. As for Ben and Martha, they may be loud (and stereotypes, I should add) but they’re honest. They don’t keep any secrets and that includes their supposed level of contempt for each other. The whole evening goes completely down the drain when Franklyn mentions the divorce, and of course, this is the first Martha has heard of it. An unexpected phone call brings down the curtain on Act I. In Act II, we meet 18-year-old pregnant Alison (Beth Wickenhauser) who is eating pickles and chatting with Franklyn. He fervently hopes she will agree to let him and Hannah adopt her baby, but when Hannah chats with her later, she finds out that not only does Alison not know they’re Jewish, all she does know about Jews is what her father told her, which is that “[Jews] run Hollywood and killed Jesus.” Let the lying games begin!

William Missouri Downs’ play is pretty much an extended sitcom, right down to the two couples formula perfected by the Ricardos and the Mertzes and riffed on ever since. But the actors elevate the material so much that it is possible to enjoy the show quite a lot, even though they often have to bring the funny to the comedy on their own capable shoulders. Nicole Angeli is absolutely believable and hilarious as the crude, flashy Martha whose skirts are too tight and heels too high. At one point, she wears a tiger print blouse with leopard print shoes. Her jewelry is big and so is her mouth, but in the end, her heart is bigger still. As Ben, Jerry Russo, one of our best physical comics, is a dervish. We tend not to notice that some of his lines are repetitive and that there is a gap in the story a mile wide because he doesn’t slow down enough to let us absorb the weaknesses. He even improvised a joke on a late sound cue.

Strelinger and Layton are outstanding also. They play well with each other, but both are gracious and allow themselves to be reactors to the outrageous behavior of their friends a good deal of the time. Watch Layton looking at Angeli when she’s talking, for example. Layton’s face is so expressive, whether showing open-mouthed bemusement, or even outright horror now and then. Strelinger, who has quit his job with his father-in-law to concentrate full time on writing his novel, milks as much humor out of bad writing (his own) as can be found in that topic. Wickenhauser is winsome and also humorous in her small role. There are twists and surprises in the story, but they’re not THAT hard to see coming. Director Marty Stanberry (also artistic director of HotCity) has done a masterful job in putting makeup on this script by guiding his actors to wring every laugh and occasional tear they can find out of the material.

Light by Maureen Berry, sound design by Michael B. Perkins, and especially Felia Davenport’s costumes add to the realistic look and feel of the production. This being HotCity Theatre, I kept looking for the zombie or alien or serial killer to emerge, but this show is a warm family comedy that is just slightly askew, like the mezuzah Hannah has glued crookedly to the wrong wall because she likes to look at it. “Kosher Lutherans” proved to be a fine way to spend an otherwise dreary Sunday evening. | Andrea Braun

Kosher Lutherans runs at HotCity Theatre’s black box space in the Kranzberg Center for the Performing Arts through Dec. 21. You may contact hotcitytheater.org.

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