The neo-Nazi National Socialist Party Of America’s planned march through the heavily Jewish Chicago suburb of Skokie, Illinois, sends Isaac Adams on a quest to discover what it means to be a Jew in James Sherman’s hilariously original comedy The God Of Isaac, now playing at West Los Angeles’s Pico Playhouse.
No, you did not misread, nor did I mistype the words “hilariously original comedy.” Despite what might seem to be a downer of a storyline, Sherman (whose Beau Jest recently delighted audiences at Glendale Centre Theatre) has managed to come up with a fact-based laugh-a-minute bit of whimsy that never forgets the gravity of either the proposed neo-Nazi march through Skokie or Isaac’s journey toward self-discovery.
Directed with the deftest of comedic hands by Darin Anthony, the West Coast Jewish Theatre production stars charismatic charmer Adam Korson as Isaac, who opens the evening’s proceedings with the standard (albeit funnier than usual) pre-show announcements (“If there’s a fire in the lobby, use the onstage exit.”) only to be surprised by the discovery that his “mother” (Karen Kalensky) is seated in the audience. (Isaac: I didn’t know she was going to be here tonight. Ma: You want to know where I’ll be? Call sometime.)
Following a brief illustrated lecture on the history of Skokie, the Bar Mitzvah of his nephew Jason, and the 1977 ACLU lawsuit on behalf of those pesky neo-Nazis, our amiable protagonist has the first of a series of encounters with members of assorted Jewish sects, beginning with the ultra-orthodox Lubavicher Hasidim. (“It was the first time in my life I ever talked about what it meant to be a Jew. My Jewish education had consisted of two things: four years of compulsory Hebrew school, of which I retained nothing … and I saw Fiddler On The Roof six times.”)
We meet Isaac’s two girlfriends, Jewish Chaya (Jennifer Flaks), and shikse Shelly (Corryn Cummins). (“She [Shelley] once hitchhiked across Europe. She [Chaya] has been to Miami Beach every winter since she was eight.”) Going for the blonde, Isaac marries Shelley.
Over the course of The God Of Isaac’s brisk two acts, we follow Isaac on his quest as he meets up with members of the Jewish Defense League, a tailor/Holocaust survivor named Motel Camzoil (Fiddler On The Roof fans will get the reference), and the rabbi of the Conservative synagogue where Isaac was Bar Mitzvahed. We watch as Isaac’s increasing awareness of his Jewish identity begins to put strains on his marriage to Shelley, who uses expressions like “Jew someone down,” blithely clueless of their anti-Semitic origin. And Isaac’s Ma continues to interrupt the action from her seat amongst us. (“What’s with all this shticklach?”)
God Of Isaac supporting characters include Jewish versions of Huckleberry Finn, Tom and Ma Joad, Henry Higgins, Eliza Doolittle, and Colonel Pickering, Dorothy, Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Lion, and Marlon Brando and Rod Steiger in On The Waterfront mode, each of whom has his or her own pearls of wisdom to impart. (Tom Joad: Wherever there’s a delicatessen so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever there’s a neo-Nazi beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. I’ll be there in the way guys sing when they daven. And when people are buying their leisure suits, livin’ in the condominiums they build, I’ll be there too.)
Did I mention that The God Of Isaac is a comedy?
The cast assembled at the Pico Playhouse could hardly be a better one, beginning with Korson, who has us in the palm of his hand from those pre-show announcements, combining offbeat leading man good looks with oodles of charm and razor-sharp comedic timing to make Isaac Adams fans of us all.
Kalensky is very funny as Ma Adams, performing mostly from her seat, though playwright Sherman does give her a terrific onstage scene to play opposite her “son.”
The remaining foursome (Cummins, Flak, Peter Van Norden, and Jason Weiss) get to portray everyone else, and do so with mucho pizzazz. Cummins, in a 180 degree turn from her Scenie-winning dramatic role in Blackbird, proves herself an equally adept comedienne in blonde Farrah (circa Charlie’s Angels) wig, and as Eliza Doolittle gets to sing “Der Mensch Is Vos Er Iz, Oben Nisht Vos Er Iz Ge-Ven” to the tune of “The Rain In Spain.” A deliciously deadpan Flak has her Jewish American Princess act down pat, in addition to bringing to life a Jewish Dorothy and a Jewish Ma Joad. Van Norden brings gravitas and comedic chops to the men Isaac interviews on his quest, as well as getting to play a Lion in search of chutzpah and Colonel Pickering (among others). Weiss shines too in the plum roles of Huck Finn, Brando, Tin Man, Henry Higgins, and Tom Joad. (Won’t that look good on a résumé!)
From the get-go, our hero informs us à la The Glass Menagerie that The God Of Isaac is a memory play, and scenic designer Kurtis Bedford’s ingenious set keeps this in mind with an attic-full of furniture and props, pieces of which get pulled out center stage whenever needed. Ellen Monocroussos lights Bedford’s set with imagination and flair. Sherry Linnell’s costumes range from ‘70s polyester and flair pants to Wizard Of Iz fairytale wear to Pygmalion-style period pieces. Bill Froggatt’s inventive sound design adds to the evening’s whimsy.
The God Of Isaac is produced by Howard Teichman and Froggatt, with casting by Raul Clayton Staggs. Deidre Works is stage manager.
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when I first heard about The God Of Isaac. A comedy about a proposed neo-Nazi march down the streets of Skokie?!?
And yet, oy gevalt, it all works. Sherman’s play inspires laughter and provokes thought in equal measure, and since there’s a Yiddish glossary in the program, Jewish you don’t have to be to enjoy every minute of Isaac’s quest.
Pico Playhouse, 10508 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles.
November 10, 2011
Photos: Michael Lamont