Cubans and Semites

The Bay of Pigs and Jewish culture make for interesting comedy fodder on local stages

Summer is comedy season on Tucson stages, but comedy isn't necessarily frivolous.

Well, sometimes it is, as in the entertaining Jewtopia, a send-up of all things Jewish, courtesy of Arizona Onstage Productions. (More information later.) But there are other kinds of comedy as well, including the fairy romance of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, reviewed in this space last week, and an unavoidably serious comedy called Rum and Coke, presented by the UA's Arizona Repertory Theatre.

I say unavoidably serious, because Keith Reddin's Rum and Coke is about the U.S.-masterminded invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs in 1961, the first in a series of American military failures over the past 50 years.

In Rum and Coke, Jake Seward is an idealistic young man who becomes a low-level operative in the government's plot to send far too few Cuban exiles back to their homeland to overthrow that dirty bearded Communist, Fidel Castro. Idealistic he may be, but Jake develops a clear notion of what the Cubans he's helping to train really need—and it's more than they're getting from Jake's CIA superiors.

It's always funny to watch bureaucrats bungle their jobs, but in this case, lives are at stake, and playwright Reddin doesn't trivialize that. Had Bertolt Brecht written this play—unlikely, given his Marxist faith—it would have been even darker and far more cynical. Reddin, in contrast, shows more sympathy for all of his characters. Fidel, in a couple of scenes, seems relatively sincere, and so do the Cuban infiltrators, and even most of the Americans. Even the operation's mastermind, Thomas Tanner (played with just the right degree of arrogance by Dwayne Palmer), is less malevolent than overconfident. He apparently regards himself as something of a jaded philosopher-warrior; in one of Reddin's nice, subtle touches, he's named his boat the Marcus Aurelius.

Nobody's really innocent, though. The Cubans would certainly like to take back their country, but meanwhile, they're not above demanding a fresh supply of whores for their training camp. Jake's sister, Linda, is a quasi-crusading reporter, but she's easily co-opted by the American government.

Jake is played by UA sophomore Joe Hubbard as the sort of nerdy company man who wears his black suit and narrow tie even to the beach, but he's also capable of developing great sympathy for the men he's sending into danger. The other students in this town-and-gown production—principally Michelle Wicklas as Linda and Brad Kula as one of Jake's hardliner friends—are also good, with townies Palmer, William Hubbard, Brian Wees, Richard Shipman and especially Julio Sauceda turning in fine work in their various, sometimes multiple, roles.

The one problem with this production, well-directed by Brent Gibbs, is that it's in the wrong space. Most scenes, heated as they may become, are intimate two- or three-character conversations that seem shrunken in the big Marroney Theatre. As a result, the student actors in particular often focus more on projection than expression. This show would have fared much better in the black-box Tornabene Theatre out back.

What the big proscenium space does show off well is Sally Day's inventive set design, consisting of fairly simple modules that slide in and out, with scenic elements projected on screens to the sides and back. There's an especially fine rainforest effect, among other things.

As is the UA's practice, this summer production will have a short run this month, and then return in September as the opening attraction of Arizona Repertory's full season.

It looks like Arizona Onstage Productions' latest show will also be returning in the fall, because its scheduled run this month is selling out, even with added performances. If you can't see Jewtopia now, you'll have another chance Nov. 14-15.

Why is Jewtopia so popular? Because it makes fun of Jews? It does, but not in a way that's anti-Semitic. The one time a character starts repeating that old saw about secret Jewish world domination, he's quickly but gently slapped down. What the show, conceived by nice Jewish boys, mocks is not Jews or the supposed Jewish "character," but certain Jewish-American cultural habits that are, frankly, funny—like never ordering any item from a restaurant menu without asking for so many changes that it's altered beyond recognition.

Jewtopia is a play for Jews who enjoy laughing at Jewish stereotypes, and for their knowing Gentile friends. It's not an especially good play, but it is very funny. Its main weakness is that it's like a series of separate skits that happen to include the same two characters all the way through, with other characters dropped in as necessary. Almost every scene seems to come from a different play. Can a two-hour series of jokes about stereotypes really provide a dramatic structure? And doesn't anybody have anything new to say about Jewish mothers?

Apparently not, but the basic joke is this: As maligned and segregated (often self-segregated) as Jews have been through history, a lot of Gentiles would like to be Jewish. Take one of the two main characters, please: an Irish-American Catholic named Chris O'Connell, who poses as a nice Jewish boy in order to obtain a Jewish wife, whereupon he will never again have to make a decision of his own. In terms of the religion and the Hebrew language, Chris knows a lot more than his authentically Jewish boyhood friend, Adam Lipschitz, but he can't handle himself convincingly in Jewish society, so he goes to Adam for some tutoring.

The plan: If Adam can turn Chris into a believable Jew, Chris will help Adam wend his way through an online Jewish dating service that Chris flippantly calls "Jewtopia."

If anybody should be offended by this show, it's not Jews in general, but Jewish women, who are depicted, without exception, as being seriously disturbed in one way or another. From the purely Jewish angle, though, unless you spend every waking minute at meetings of the Anti-Defamation League, you probably won't walk out of this show in high dudgeon.

Partly, that's because the production, smoothly directed by Annette Hillman, features lead actors who can be funny without descending into stereotype themselves. The hapless Jacob M. Brown and the strutting Jay C. Cotner do everything they can to make the characters that Bryan Fogel and Sam Wolfson have barely sketched out for them seem like real people. Among the several other actors taking smaller, multiple roles, Jaimie Pruden stands out for her versatility and confidence.

Jewtopia is not by any means a great play, but it is not a dangerous one, and it's often a funny one, thanks to this good-natured Arizona Onstage production.

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