Those of you who require subtlety and sophistication at the theater are hereby advised that Mark Troy’s latest comedy may not be your cup of four o’clock tea.  On the other hand, if you are simply on the lookout for laughs (and plenty of them) you will find them—and then some—in A Very Merry Happy Kosher Christmas. Troy’s hilariously outrageous new farce is peopled with nearly every New York stereotype in the book and acted with vim, vigor, and verve by the talented 68 Cent Crew Theatre Company.   

The strains of the Village People singing “YMCA” situate us in the year 1978, the bouncy notes of “Here Come Santa Claus” specify the time as just before Christmas, Danny Cistone’s terrifically detailed two-story set reveals the locale to be a public library, and the racially, ethnically, and religiously mixed bunch of library patrons assembled make it clear that we are in New York City.  

Enter two of the most inept (albeit well-meaning) thieves in Big Apple history. 

Tony Abruzzo (Jeremy Luke) and Carlo Bumbachi (Joey Russo) have come to the New York Public Library with pistols in hand in hopes of stealing $14,000, though clearly they could have planned their hold-up a tad more carefully.  Carlo’s “It’s a stickup!” is greeted with a bossy “Shhhh!” (and an angry glare) from librarian Mrs. Weiner (Perry Smith) and an even angrier look from Tony, who reminds his friend that he’s the one giving orders and that they’d better regroup.

This being New York, the other library patrons seem unaware that anything out of the ordinary is happening.  Blind Frenchman Gary Zinger (Adam Silverstein) is informing Mrs. Weiner (“head librarian since 1970”) that he’s come in search of $100,000 he believes to be hidden somewhere within the library walls.  Pretty Jewish co-ed Hava Ishmael (Shelly Hacco) is mid-rendezvous with her secret Sunni boyfriend Muhammad (Abhi Trivedi) when she realizes that the skinny Santa seated over in a corner is none other than her Rabbi papa Nathan Ishmael (James Engel), on her tail these past few days.  “We met at Queens College, Daddy,” Hava informs him. “But we sent you there for the Jews,” he protests, and reminds her that he’s already disowned one child, his gay son Isaac.  On the mezzanine level overlooking the action below, a nerdy bespectacled young man (Paul McGee) is observing Hava with more than casual curiosity in his eyes.  Could it be that Hava is precisely the sort of nice Jewish girl Douglas’s parents sent him to Columbia University to meet?

Meanwhile, back at the librarian’s desk, Carlo is asking where the library safe is located. Is he referring to the $12 in late book fees Mrs. Weiner keeps in her drawer?  That’s about all he and Tony can expect to make from today’s robbery, the librarian curtly informs a disappointed Carlo. Even more disappointed is Tony, whose idea it was to commit the holdup.  It turns out that the $14,000 he’s demanding is for his girlfriend Bernadette, who can’t stop talking about how much she wants “a little Chinese doll.”  Obviously, Tony tells Carlo, Bernadette is talking about areal baby.  (“Ain’t it romantic?”)  That’s what put the idea for the bank robbery in Tony’s head. He’s going to use the $14,000 buy Bernadette a black-market baby from China!  Unfortunately, even after collecting everyone’s wallet, the two would-be thieves can only come up with another $20, so Tony sends Carlo down to the street to find and bring back two people who look like they could be worth fourteen grand between them.

Carlo not being the best judge of appearances, and this being the blaxploitation 1970s, who should arrive but Cleopatra Jones and Superfly?  Well, actually the duo’s names are Divinity Lockjaw (Monica Quintanilla) and Leroy Lee Roy (Greg L. Glass). Not that this matters. Carlo couldn’t tell the difference between a pair of millionaires and a hooker and her pimp if they paid him to.  

And there’s more!  Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer shows up in the person of Shpilka Ishmael (Jeff Blumberg), Nathan’s brother in reindeer garb.  A pregnant woman wearing short shorts (Liz Bassford) zips past on roller skates.  A Southern belle in a Rockettes uniform (Regina Palian) pops in and demonstrates how high she can kick.  A dark-haired woman (Katy Jacoby) streaks past—naked.

And the fun ha only just begun!  

Like Mel Brooks, Mark Troy gets mileage galore out of ethnic, racial, religious, and sexual stereotypes, so audiences are advised to leave sensitivity at home. Yes, I found his gay policeman a tad too swishy and the transgender Shirley Markowitz a bit too … hairy for my liking, but they are no more stereotypical than the Jews, Muslims, Italians, Chinese, Southerners, or African Americans peopling the stage.  What all these characters have in common is how darned funny they are. No wonder I couldn’t stop laughing.

Troy’s retro script is peppered with 1970s references—to Betamax, streakers, and Hungry Man dinners.  There’s a funny sound gag about how long it takes to dial 911 on a rotary phone and a laugh-getting joke about 35¢/gallon gas prices.  (Troy cheats here, though. Regular gas actually averaged 63¢/gallon in 1978, which is just as funny.) Yes, many of the jokes are as corny as Carlo’s “What if the cops send me to Sing Sing? I can’t sing!”, but sue me, I just kept on laughing.

Like 68 Cent Crew’s recent 13 By Shanley festival, a highlight of the 2008-9 theater season, the New York setting of A Very Merry Happy Kosher Christmas makes it a perfect fit for this very “East Coast” Theatre Company. Director Marmo and assistant director Jacoby “get” Troy’s sense of humor and the performances they’ve elicited from their 19-member cast show that they get it too.

If I had to pick a favorite among the terrific cast it would have to be McGee’s nerd to out-nerd all nerds.  With hisvery nasal line-delivery to his peculiarly hunched-over posture to his BIG plans for the future, McGee had me rooting for Douglas to steal Hava’s heart from his first nervous breath.

The rest of the ensemble do memorable comedic work as well.  There’s Smith’s ever so by-the-numbers librarian, Luke’s aspiring robber with a troubled past (or did he just see Oliver! too many times?), Russo’s sweetly inept henchman, Silverstein’s Gallic blind-man-with-cane, Hacco’s adorable love-struck teen, Trivedi’s cab-driver-with-big-dreams, Engel’s set-in-his-ways rabbi Santa, Quintanilla and Glass’s affectionate takeoffs on blaxploitation idols of the ‘70s, Blumberg’s humorous man-in-a-reindeer-suit, Bassford’s sexy roller-skating expectant mom, Palian’s Southern-belle-with-a-secret, Jacoby’s frustrated women’s libber, Kourtney Sonntag’s much-married lady cop, Peter Newman’s out-and-proud police detective, and Clint Tauscher’s hairy-gal-in-a-sundress-and-heels.  

A Very Merry Happy Kosher Christmas’s particularly well-chosen costumes place us smack dab in the polyester ‘70, with special mention due Carlo’s borrowed-from-Cher platform shoes. Cistone’s lighting design is mostly quite effective, though it occasionally calls a bit too much attention to itself.   

Following its pre-holiday run, A Very Merry Happy Kosher Christmas re-opens in January, which may prompt some to wonder why a Christmas show is still playing in the New Year. No need to fear. Troy uses the holiday season as a hook to center his plot on, but the play could as easily be staged mid-summer as during the holidays.  Those looking for laughs aplenty in early 2010 need look no further than Theatre 68’s latest treat.  Regardless of your religious affiliation, you’ll have a very merry happy kosher time!

Theatre 68, 5419 Santa Monica Blvd., Suite D. Hollywood.

–Steven Stanley
December 18, 2009

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