The setting for “A Jewish Joke,” a one-man play written by Marni Freedman and Phil Johnson and presented by The Roustabouts Theatre Co., is a writer’s bungalow at MGM Studios in Los Angeles in the year 1950. It is the time of the anti-communist hysteria, the investigations, accusations and the blacklist. Johnson also plays Bernie Lutz, who talks to the audience about his writing projects that have been doing well at the studio. But the past involving his more political writing partner having led him to naively attend earlier meetings now deemed controversial is catching up with him.
With taut direction by David Ellenstein, Johnson recounts Bernie’s story between phone calls as step by step the situation becomes fraught with increasing tension and danger to his career. He is waiting for his partner to turn up, but can only eventually get him on the phone, and Bernie is furious at what he learns from him.
Bernie keeps pulling out index cards from his file to intersperse reading Jewish-oriented jokes that he has collected, and the ploy serves as comic relief. They are old jokes, almost all of which I have heard before. But judging by outbursts of audience laughter at some, there were jokes others hadn’t heard. (An old joke seems new to one who has never heard it.) The process of reading gags from Bernie’s collection periodically breaks the tension.
Johnson succeeds in making Bernie a full-blown, believable character, basically likable, but at times a bit overbearing. Overall, the actor-playwright succeeds in becoming increasingly frantic as the situation builds to the ultimate decision he must make, a decision very familiar to all who have lived through or followed those terrible blacklist days. Does Bernie save his career by agreeing to testify against his writing partner? Or will conscience not let him acquiesce?
Of course, one hopes Bernie will follow his conscience. The strength of the play, which lasts 90 minutes without an intermission, lies in uncertainty right up to the bitter end. Johnson does a superb job connecting with his audience, and anything to do with taking principled stands is certainly timely for today’s political situations.
For all of the solemnity of the situation, the many jokes told along the way give audience members a chance to laugh, as well as to remember for repeating to others when talking about the show. But at its heart “A Jewish Joke” is no joke. At the Lion Theatre, Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street. Phone: 212-239-6200. Reviewed March 15, 2019.