"Wow," says Kia at one point in The Last Schwartz, "this night is totally not going the way I thought!"
Highland Park Community Center
That's lucky for audience members at Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company's new production of Deborah Zoe Laufer's 1999 play, under the direction of Warren C. Bowles. Though Kia at first seems to be a mere comic-relief supporting character, she sticks around to become a pivotal catalyst. Emily Dussault's spirited performance brings a much-needed spark to a play that labors under hackneyed stereotypes and predictable confrontations.
An aspiring actor and/or model, Kia accompanies her boyfriend Gene (Damian Leverett) to his childhood home in upstate New York, where Gene's family is gathering for a Jewish ceremony unveiling their father's headstone. The only one of the four Schwartz siblings who really seems to care about the ceremony, though, is the sternly traditional Norma (Laura Stearns Adams).
Gene is preoccupied with his busy life as a video director, Herb (Matt Sciple) is a cranky iconoclast, and Simon (Corey DiNardo) is preparing for the end of the world. An astronomer who's on the autism spectrum (despite Norma's ludicrous denial), Simon is hoping to be relocated to the Moon before Earth's ecosystem collapses. In an allegory so blatant that it makes Aesop look like a naturalist, Simon is also going blind.
Herb's wife Bonnie, in a high-strung performance by Heidi Fellner, doesn't seem to get much respect from any of the Schwartzes. Bonnie ultimately forms a bond with Kia, confessing her uncomfortable history with the family generally and the late patriarch specifically. Kia's commune-like upbringing left her without any burden of history, and over the course of a long night's journey into day, the slow-witted but forthright young woman helps the Schwartzes realize they've become trapped in a cycle of resentment and denial.
This is very familiar dramatic territory, and Laufer places far too much trust in it to hold our interest. The script almost teases us with repeated possibilities that it might take a more engaging turn.
Are we going to dive more deeply into Jewish ritual and the family's relationship to it? Nope, we just get a quick gag involving a memorial candle. Will Kia's flirtations with literally every man in the house develop into a dark farce? Nope, characters are simply shooed out of the room when they become inconvenient. What if Kia's just playing dumb? Nope, she's actually dumb…but in that kind of wise way, you know?
Just go with it. That's what Dussault does, as Kia (stripped to a teddy for much of the show, in case we missed the point that she's uninhibited) gets more and more work dumped on her by a repressed family who seem incapable of triggering any of their own character developments. Finally Bonnie steps up and confronts the Schwartzes, but Fellner starts the play at such a high pitch of jangling nerves that she's left without much range left to explore when she snaps.
Even a final moment of would-be transcendence can't lift The Last Schwartz out of its rut.