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The Arizona Premiere of Deborah Zoe Laufer's Comedy
"The Last Schwartz"

By Dave Cooper

The Last Schwartz, by the Arizona Jewish Theater Company

The Last Schwartz is a very fine local production featuring a feast of talented Valley actors, director and crew. "The Last Schwartz," a comedy presented by the Arizona Jewish Theater Company in Phoenix, is playing at the John Paul Theater at Phoenix College through Feb. 13, 2011. It's a delightful, perceptive and realistic play so captivating that I nearly forgot I was seated in a theater watching a play.

Director Ben Tyler's expert direction shines in this production. Watching the actors take ownership of their roles, lifting lines from the script and delivering them into normal, everyday language, I felt I knew the Schwartz family. It was like witnessing an exchange of dialogue, minus the Jewish perspective, at my own family gatherings. I had to wonder, is this play about my siblings? The genuine verbal banter and personal interaction was riveting.

In "The Last Schwartz", racy twists for extra dramatic value and well-acted cadences of humor combine with a few truly heartfelt, tender moments of grief and despair, mixed with a handful of ironic. These actors deliver fine, convincing performances. Tyler's expertise brings out the best in some of the most gifted actors in Arizona. "The Last Schwartz" features a stellar cast, and veteran actors Gene Ganssle and Cathy Dresbach are standouts. Director Ben Tyler, an Arizona native, has directed and acted in many first class Arizona productions. He is also an acclaimed playwright.

"The Last Schwartz" invites you into the ancestral home and personal lives of the Schwartz family in the Catskills of upstate New York. The play presents a subtle, yet deeply meaningful, humorous social commentary about the centuries-old global value of not only Judaism, but also of Jewish culture, its proud heritage and traditions and whether it will sustain for future generations. Under Tyler’s direction, the energy and thematic continuity of topics in "The Last Schwartz" are enhanced by a few well-placed musical tunes by REM. Upon seeing this play live, you will fully appreciate their affect.

When asked what he enjoyed most about being involved in this Arizona Jewish Theater presentation, director Tyler explained it this way: “Creating a production is really a great joy. I’ve worked with AJTC for many years, and it's the same with several of our cast members. It’s the shared experience that makes it special.” Gene Ganssle, who portrays Herb, added “We have had a lot of fun getting this play on its feet! The cast is as diverse as their characters. We all have gotten along well and complement each other on and off stage.”

The Schwartz family consists of siblings Norma, Herb, Gene, and Simon. Also present is Bonnie, Herb’s wife, and Gene’s casual love interest, Kia. They have assembled one year after the death of their father. Their mother passed on ten years earlier. They've come together to perform a sacred, traditional religious ceremony and to discuss what to do with their treasured family home and its contents.

The Last Schwartz, by the Arizona Jewish Theater CompanyAn important, underlying theme to the ancestral home is the proud Schwartz family heritage in this rural community. Emotional discussions about tradition and practicality are met with apathy and surrender. Norma is the matriarch upholding family and Jewish tradition, while Herb proudly carries the oldest-son torch while interjecting a more contemporary perspective. His wife, Bonnie, sensitive and sensuous, at times feels like the family pariah, and Gene holds his position with calm resolve. Although all characters have significant importance to the plot and to each other, Simon and Kia lend special innate, yet whimsical qualities to the mix.

Kia is an exuberant, carefree California girl raised in a commune setting. She has no religious background or traditional family upbringing; however, her ditzy, likeable personality is cleverly and effectively juxtaposed amid the Schwartz’s devout Jewish principles, adding hilarious comedic fodder, while also revealing, unwittingly, sensitive personal and family issues that may otherwise be concealed.

Exhibiting neurotic, aloof behavior, and brilliant mental capacity, Simon bears symptoms of autism, though never diagnosed professionally. He appears to reside within the solitude, and comfort, of a private, conceptual, very distant celestial realm. However obscure it appears, Simon’s odyssey into mysterious interplanetary travel is well calculated, and plausible, as later revealed in a simply charming way as the play closes.

I asked director Ben Tyler to describe the elements he contributed to the play that most pleased him. Tyler replied, “The ending. In the script, it says simply that the character Simon moonwalks and floats. You saw what we did with it. This seemed open to interpretation. This is what allows two productions of the same play to have a very different look and feel.”

You will feel as euphoric and liberated as Simon as he ‘moon walks’ into oblivion. For ticket information contact: azjewishtheatre.org 602-264-0402,