Phil Johnson stars in the one-man show "A Jewish Joke." Photograph by Eric Woolsey.
A manual typewriter, a rotary telephone and file cards of “Jewish jokes” stacked high on the desk. That’s all that long-suffering screenwriter Bernie Lutz has for company just hours away from the biggest night of his life: the Hollywood premiere of a movie written by him and his partner, Morris Frumsky. His and the absent Morris’ tuxedos await in zipped garment bags, but before Bernie can change clothes and meet his destiny, his little office at MGM Studios begins to close in on him.
So does the scourge of the 1950: the House Un-American Activities Committee.
Marni Freedman and Phil Johnson’s one-man show A Jewish Joke, starring Johnson as the fictitious Bernie Lutz, is a telling reminder of the infamous era of Joe McCarthy, the Hollywood Blacklist, and the “pinko-commie”-seeking witch hunt that tried to, and in many cases succeeded, in ruining careers and lives. A Jewish Joke was conceived a few years ago in the Lawrence Family Jewish Community Center’s 5-Minute Play Festival. Now a one-act production, it is slated to open Off Broadway early in 2019.
For now, A Jewish Joke is kicking off the Roustabouts Theatre Company’s second season. Johnson is one of the Roustabouts’ founders, along with actor/director/writer Ruff Yeager and playwright Will Cooper. The play, directed by David Ellenstein, who is artistic director of North Coast Repertory Theatre, has already toured regionally in cities including Chicago and St. Louis. The weightiness of its re-creation of a shameful, paranoid chapter in American history is undeniable. But A Jewish Joke is the product of Johnson’s anguished portrayal of a mensch who’s fought for every little victory in life, and done so with no more than his punch lines and an unflagging refusal to quit.
For 90 minutes Bernie frantically works the phone trying to save his and Morris’ dream when he learns that his partner is not only a Communist sympathizer but an organizer. When he is asked to turn in Morris as a means of saving his own career, Bernie must fight again – with his conscience. Johnson is indefatigable and heart rending. He somehow manages to wring laughs, too, from the obvious one-liners that Bernie resorts to as he feels his world slipping away. (Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 3/21/18.)
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.