Sam Wolfson and Bryan Fogel
If long goodbyes, chronic health worries and receding hairlines have been a mainstay of your life, then you are the ideal audience for Jewtopia, the ethnic farce that has taken up residence at the Westside Theatre after its record-breaking Los Angeles run.
Co-writers Bryan Fogel and Sam Wolfson play 30-year-olds Chris O’Connell and Adam Lipschitz, two childhood friends who reunite at a synagogue mixer for young Jewish singles. Chris, not surprisingly, is actually Catholic. So what is he doing there? Hunting for a Jewish wife, so, he explains, he will never have to make another decision in his life. Adam, on the other hand, is not particularly fond of dating Jewish girls, but wants to find one with whom he can settle down just to please his mother.
The two strike up a bargain in which Chris agrees to introduce Adam to a series of Jewish girls right up his alley (which he refers to as “Jewtopia,” the mythical land of 500,000 single Jewish girls”), while Adam vows to indoctrinate Chris further into the world of Judaism so he can make a more convincing mate for a young Jewish lady. Of course, neither end of this pact makes sense: Thanks to a Learning Annex class, Chris already knows more about the Jewish faith than the irreligious Adam. And the titular “Jewtopia” that Chris brings to Adam’s attention is just the website jdate.com, which by 2003, when the play first opened on the West Coast (and went on to become the longest-running comedy in Los Angeles, playing for eighteen months), already saw as much traffic by non-Jewish singles looking for love.
Jackie Tohn and Sam Wolfson
But the pair become inseparable, with the outlandish Adam going on multiple bad dates (all of whom played hilariously – and distinctively – by Jackie Tohn) and Chris learning tons of Yiddish phrases and culture clichés, all of which ring very true. Judging by the laughter in the audience, the house was full of Jews who recognized their lives and families in the mockery in front of them. Unlike so much current New York theater, this is one show far better suited to locals than to tourists.
Jewtopia combines the raucous belly-laughs of Mel Brooks with the more knowing delivery and relationships of Neil Simon, especially towards the end of the first act, when Adam readies Chris for a date with his Jewish girlfriend and her mother. One expects the date be the centerpiece of the second act, but what follows is a somewhat schizoid array of scenes including Adam’s dates and Chris’s attempts to please his future wife and mother-in-law (including a late-in-life circumcision gag that drags on a tad too long).
But like in so many comedies in which families of different cultural worlds collide, Jewtopia’s climactic scene, centered on a Passover Seder, is the most outlandish. Co-stars Glynis Bell, Lorry Goldman, and Larry Block as Adam’s mother, father, and grandfather, respectively, hysterically play out every stereotype about a Jewish parent, and all do double duty in smaller roles as well. Tohn, in addition to all of Adam’s dates, also plays his scene-stealing little sister and the object of Chris’s affection, with an amazing degree of distinction between each of them – and a fantastic stage singing voice as well. All of these actors, plus Irina Pantaeva as a potential love interest for Adam, gel together in the end to prove that above all else, this is a show about family.
Jewtopia, of course, remains an amateurish lark. John Tillinger, who directed the New York production, can not add much to the show’s basic premise feels more like a thinly stretched out sketch comedy scene rather than a clever work honed eight times a week. However, no one does more to bring it to life than Wolfson, who has the timing, delivery and reactions of an ace comedian. He fills Jewtopia with enough energy to power the entire show. Fogel does not always come off as well. Sometimes, the monotone actor seems to get unfocused and lose character, but when Wolfson plays off him, the two are on fire. The end result of their effort is a show that celebrates the grip family members hold on each other – even if that grip can sometimes take the form of a chokehold.