Story: When Ben and Franklyn met in college, they knew they’d be best friends, as in “Ben Franklin,” you know? Several years later, Ben is a successful Los Angeles businessman operating a string of ‘Big and Tall’ men’s shops, while Franklyn pays the bills as an employee of a prominent law firm run by his father-in-law. What he really wants, though, is a career as a writer, so he’s taking a night-school course to help in that endeavor.
Franklyn and his wife Hannah have been trying for a couple of years to conceive a child, with no luck. Ben has some not-so-subtle advice for his friend, including the name of a fertility specialist he mentions while casually dropping the news of his impending divorce from his own wife, Martha.
That latter bit of information puts Franklyn and Hannah in a tizzy while they prepare for what was to be a fun evening of dinner and conversation with their friends. It turns out to be a happy occasion, though, when the late-arriving Martha agrees to donate her eggs to Hannah for conception.
The festive mood, however, quickly turns sour when Martha hears what Ben has revealed, which is news to her. That even upstages Martha’s decision to abandon the Jewish faith she shares with Ben, Franklyn and Hannah to become a Lutheran. What an eventful evening.
Highlights: HotCity Theatre has unveiled a number of clever new plays over the last several years, perhaps none more entertaining than Cockeyed, a clever comedy penned by playwright William Missouri Downs that captivated audiences a few years back.
For an offbeat holiday offering, HotCity is trotting out another original work by Downs under the guidance of artistic director Marty Stanberry. Aided, perhaps, by fond memories of Downs’ earlier effort and a strong cast assembled by Stanberry, Kosher Lutherans played to sold-out houses on opening weekend.
Other Info: Unfortunately, Kosher Lutherans falls short of the whimsy and cleverness of Cockeyed. While it elicits its share of laughs, there are annoying problems with both the script and production.
Most notably, there seem to be two different plays at work here, albeit somewhat related. The news release for the show focuses on actions that don’t even take place until the work’s second act, although there’s an oblique reference to the title earlier when Martha decides to try Lutheranism. That’s quite a stretch, though, from the appearance in Act II of a pregnant young Lutheran woman, whose unborn baby Hannah and Franklyn hope to adopt.
Second, Downs plays this more like a forced TV sitcom than a witty, plot-driven play. There’s an over-abundance of loud, broad humor accentuated by shouting and interminable stretches when a doorbell goes unanswered while characters debate this crisis or that.
Third, while religion is key to the story, Downs overdoes the coy references to the differences between Christianity and Judaism, even throwing in tired clichés about “killing Jesus” and “controlling Hollywood.” The one saving grace to those allusions is the low-key, matter-of-fact manner in which pregnant Alison offers her knowledge of Jews from the perspective of her small-town Iowa upbringing.
To be sure, the cast is comprised of a gifted troupe of players. When Julie Layton as Hannah frostily declares that “Dinner is served” in Act I or quickly affects a Swedish accent to throw off Alison in the second act, we see what spot-on comic timing and acting subtlety she brings to the production.
Beth Wickenhauser is impressive as the simple Alison, harboring her own surprising secrets. Richard Strelinger is in solid form as the amiable but wistful Franklyn, whose dreams don’t match his reality and who battles with his own temptations.
Nicole Angeli and Jerry Russo are the broad and brash friends Martha and Ben. As such, they spend way too much time at higher decibels, although in Angeli’s case it’s in reaction to her addle-brained husband. Russo certainly is good representing Ben’s obnoxious personality, but he’s more preferable when the character is slightly toned down in the second act.
Along the way Downs reveals a number of surprises, some of them entertaining and others that merely clutter proceedings. Stanberry’s direction dutifully follows the playwright’s lesser inclinations to make the story more a sitcom with its own laugh track rather than a wry commentary on social problems both old and new.
David Blake’s scenic design provides a convincing depiction of a well-to-do, southern California home, effectively lit by Maureen Berry and nicely furnished by properties master Meg Brinkley. Michael Perkins’ sound design adds pleasant down-time interludes, while costume designer Felia Davenport shrewdly matches each character’s personality with appropriate attire, most notably Ben’s and Martha’s garish garb.
Downs knows how to write funny dialogue, as evidenced both by Cockeyed and at times by Kosher Lutherans. He’d be best advised, though, to rework this effort and tone it down to a more bearable level of humor.
Play: Kosher Lutherans
Company: HotCity Theatre
Venue: Kranzberg Arts Center, 501 North Grand (Big Brothers Big Sisters Building)
Dates: December 12, 13, 14, 15, 19, 20, 21
Tickets: $15-$25; contact 289-4063 or hotcitytheatre.org
Rating: A 3.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of Todd Studios, Michael Perkins