Phil Johnson’s A Jewish Joke is far more than a laughing matter. It’s a solo tour de force powerfully performed by Johnson and forcefully co-written by him and Marni Freedman, about the bad old days when Senator Joe McCarthy’s investigation of so-called communist sympathizers resulted in many being falsely accused of promoting the establishment of a totalitarian dictatorship in the USA.
A Jewish Joke shows how the blacklisting that grew out of McCarthy’s paranoia destroyed the careers of many people, including Bernie Lutz, a rising Hollywood comedy writer who didn’t realize that goodness was it’s own punishment.
Emotionally Lutz is still living in his childhood, subconsciously trying to live up to the standards set by his “lunatic father who got fired over and over for standing up for his principals,” and heeding his shrieking mother’s subliminal mantra when she sends him out at age 13 to find a job: “When there is no mensch, BE THE MENSCH
A Jewish Joke catalogs the most important afternoon in Lutz’s life. He’s a 50-something, good-enough-to-be-the-less-talented-half of the comedy screenwriting duo of Lutz and Frumsky. As for Frumsky, Lutz thinks he’s the funniest man alive aside from Milton Berle. Lutz and Frumsky have worked together since they were both 13 when Lutz became Frumsky’s assistant in a Newark Nickelodeon, then on to vaudeville, the Catskills, New York Yiddish theater and finally sunny LA where they’re supplying scripts for the Marx Brothers, Danny Kaye and NBC. Lutz’s contribution to the partnership? His familiarity with the contents of a box filled with 3 x 5 cards – Lutz’s version of Joe Miller Joke Book – into which he dips when a script needs yocks or simply to lesson his tension. And the icing on their cake is their big fancy Hollywood premiere that evening for their latest movie, The Big Casbah!
So, what could be wrong?
A fox has snuck into their henhouse in the form of a letter from Senator Joseph McCarthy’s committee to which Lutz has to respond by 5 p.m. or else, but he didn’t. He doesn’t consider himself political. He writes westerns. He writes musicals. “If a joke is too political, I cut it five minutes ago.” Also, he can’t locate Morris even though he’s dialed everyone he can think of via his co-star – the old old-fashioned black dial telephone on his desk — which connects Lutz with everyone from his wife to his agent to Louis B. Mayer. These characters are unseen but not unknown. Lutz’s words, body movements and facial expressions deliver a verbal portrait of anyone he happens to be speaking to and how he and that person feel about each other. Because Johnson the actor brings the words of Johnson the playwright alive so brilliantly, you never feel you’re trapped in a room with one single character but rather like you’ve been invited there to share someone’s life.
When the phone finally rings, it’s not Morris, but Variety calling, and not to promote The Big Casbah premiere but to inquire why he and Morris were called pinkos in a magazine called Red Channels. Why did they call him a pinko? Why did they call it a meeting? He only went to a party at Nelson Gitser’s because Morris assured him they’d be serving cocktail wieners.
At a loss, and still unable to contact Morris, Lutz phones others for advice. In the interim, each time the phone rings he hears more bad news. The Marx Brothers project is gone. Ditto the Danny Kaye script. And the NBC project is shaky. In addition the studio is holding back his paycheck. And he can’t get anyone he needs to talk to on the phone!
Someone gives Lutz the number of a FBI guy who tells Lutz to call Someone Else. Someone Else can help, but only if Lutz reveals everything he knows about Morris’s activities. Someone Else also knows about Lutz’s father’s possible criminal exposure with regard to a fire in a factory in which he worked and which he was believed to have set many years ago. For unexplained reasons, the factory fire gives Lutz the greatest angst.
Will Lutz save his father by destroying Morris? Will he save Morris by destroying himself? And why does the talk of the fire stress him out? Will Lutz find the moral strength to be the mench where there is no mench? Or will fame and fortune, even just make a living, prove too precious to forego. The answers to these absorbing questions connect the loose strings dropped during the play and reveal the source of Lutz’s guilt.
But I keep thinking, just what does being the mench entail in a time frame when Stalin has been revealed as another Hitler, information that should be especially meaningful to a Jew inasmuch by then any Jews who assumed power along with Lenin have either been assassinated or executed after crooked show trials?
A Jewish Joke was performed during the United Solo Festival in New York in September, was very well received and rightly so, because the acting is exceptional and the subject is always timely. One actor — the telephone doesn’t belong to the union — and a very simple set makes it a great prospect for off-Broadway. Producers, take note.