Don’t expect Deborah Zoe Laufer’s play, “The Last Schwartz,” to be a typical dark comedy about a Jewish dysfunctional family. There’s nothing typical about her funny, provocative look at family life, making its New England premiere July 7-30, with Gloucester Stage Company.
This story is set in the Catskills, where the fictitious Schwartz family gathers for their father’s yahrzeit.
The play has more unexpected turns and twists than a coastal North Shore scenic byway, and keeps you guessing. That’s the way Laufer likes it.
From her home in Mt. Kisco, NY, Laufer said she’s delighted to return to Gloucester. “Gloucester was one of my favorite productions of the play ‘Out of Sterno.’ It was amazing,” she said.
Originally from Liberty in the Catskills, Laufer started her career as an actress, but after marrying actor-turned-entertainment lawyer David Friedlander and having two sons, she didn’t want to be out night after night, anymore, so she tried writing plays, instead. Although sons Alex, 20, and Charlie, 16, are grown up, she’s still writing. Laufer also leads workshops and will direct her latest play, “Three Sisters of Weehawken, NJ,” this fall in Boca Raton, Florida.
“I don’t know why I wrote ‘The Last Schwartz,’ but everyone writes a family play, and this is mine. It’s about a Jewish family, but people [Jewish and non-Jewish] say it reminds them of their own family.”
When asked what message the play is conveying, she replied, “I never have one. I ask questions. I have a big theme or question I like to explore, and look at it from different angles. I have no desire to tell people what to think. And it’s typically Jewish to ask questions,” she joked.
She also refuses to micro-manage productions of her works, “My plays are like my kids. I raise them, send them out into the world to live their own lives and hopefully do me proud,” she said.
After watching over 100 productions of her plays, Laufer still enjoys seeing what creative teams do with them. “Sometimes I’m horrified, sometimes I’m amazed. I was delighted and amazed with Gloucester Stage’s production of ‘Out of Sterno’ and Paula Plum’s slick, intuitive direction.
“Last year, people were so in love with ‘Out of Sterno,’ and Paula did such a beautiful job, we decided to team them up again to achieve that same success,” said Gloucester Artistic Director Robert Walsh.
Laufer said the title, “The Last Schwartz,” refers to carrying on the family name and family traditions, but there’s more – much more here.
“…There are layers this play is about. There’s more in it than I can quantify. I like people to walk away pondering their own family and relationships… I don’t like going to theater and being told what to think. I like going to theater and being provoked.”
“One thing I like about Deborah’s voice is she’s deft with comedy in an offbeat manner, and yet has the capacity to draw deeply in her characters. I appreciate her style and her work,” he said.
“And the intimacy of the theater is great. It’s interesting, too, because from the audience, it feels like you’re right on top of the actors, but for the actors, having the audience seated 3/4 around them is a unique challenge.”
Laufer’s characters include oldest conservative sister, Norma, who’s trying to preserve family traditions and closeness; brother Herb and his needy, flamboyant wife, Bonnie; younger brother, Simon; and estranged brother Gene and his younger, bimbo-type aspiring actress-fianceé, Kia. Gene directed a commercial Kia’s in, and promised to help her get bigger parts.
“There’s a fun quality to her [Laufer’s] plays, like Chekhov,” added Walsh. “You get to know these characters through their idiosyncrasies, but there’s a depth that bubbles to the surface that causes us to empathize or laugh at their humanity. Like all of us, we have mixed emotions. We’re all trying to get something good for ourselves. We’re hungry for certain needs…”
Portraying Herb, award-winning actor Gabriel Kuttner said, “There’s a lot going on. It’s an interesting play, with a nice balance. It has a nice window into a family, with its customs, and it survives enough of levity and dark comedy. Herb isn’t a practicing Jew and makes fun of it, but I wonder what that little bit of Jewishness is that’s left in him.”
Kuttner, whose father is Jewish, empathizes. His mother is non-Jewish. Kuttner joked that he’s half-Jewish, has an 8-year-old son who’s a quarter-Jew, and a 7-year-old stepdaughter.
“As an actor, you must trust that the audience is extremely intelligent, and if there’s a laugh line, they’ll pick it up. That joke may be set to camouflage something more serious….
Herb’s very savvy, He’s no dummy. He chooses to avoid anything that causes him pain. But Kia kinda sets him off.
“Bonnie is in a semi-perpetual state of hysteria… Herb’s going through the motions with his wife and family. Herb and Gene were at odds.”
Kuttner said there are several ways to play Herb. “I like the subdued, listless, bored guy who wakes up out of his, perhaps emotional hibernation, then exploring that contrast set off by Kia’s arrival.”
“Kia has a naivete and innocence that cuts through the sibling rivalry – that the siblings aren’t totally aware of,” said Kuttner. “It turns a light on. She also develops an interesting bond with Bonnie. Bonnie is so full of needs. That helps us to access our own emotions. Life is so rarely tied up in nice, neat bows. [Laufer] does a nice job of illuminating that. Life’s a mess.”
“Come see it,” said Laufer.“It’s an incredibly funny, yet heartbreaking play. I think people will recognize perhaps someone in their own family.”
Performances Wednesday-Saturday, 7:30 p.m.; Saturday, Sunday, 2 p.m. Gloucester Stage Company, 267 East Main St., Gloucester. $28-$38, preview performances, senior citizens, theatergoers 25-years-old and under discounts gloucesterstage.com, 978-281-4422.