‘The Last Schwartz’: Keeping family and faith alive

Bonnie (Brianne Beatrice) and Herb (Gabriel Kuttner) in “The Last Schwartz.”  Photo by Kippy Goldfarb Carolle Photography

Bonnie (Brianne Beatrice) and Herb (Gabriel Kuttner) in “The Last Schwartz.” Photo by Kippy Goldfarb Carolle Photography

GLOUCESTER – You never know what will cause the ties that bind families together to fray.

Family gatherings are often emotional powder kegs ready to explode.

It can happen even at a memorial service that draws family members together in the Gloucester Stage Company’s production of Deborah Zoe Laufer’s “The Last Schwartz.”

Laufer and Director Paula Plum were the team that brought us last season’s GSC hit “Out of Sterno,” with Laufer crafting some memorable characters and Plum being wise enough to bring in husband Richard Snee to play a passel of them

“The Last Schwartz” differs greatly in style and substance, although it also – like “Out of Sterno” – has quirky characters and laughs.

But Laufer also has a lot to say through her characters, who will debate what it means to be Jewish, the importance of family and carrying on family traditions, and the issue of assimilation and the increasing numbers of Jews marrying non-Jews, and what that might mean to the future of the faith.

The Schwartz family – sister Norma and brothers Simon, Gene and Herb – has gathered in the upstate New York family home in Lake Huntington in 2007, a year after the death iof the family patriarch.

Norma (Veronica Anastasio Wiseman), divorced and estranged from her son, is by her own choice the matriarch of the clan, cooking dinner and badgering Herb (Gabriel Kuttner) about his feet on the coffee table as Herb’s wife Bonnie (Brianne Beatrice) riffs on a story about Siamese twins on the Oprah show.

Paul Melendy is Simon, a brother who has lost his sight and is off in his own netherworld, endlessly looking through a telescope and seeing nothing while only occasionally touching base with reality.

Gene (Glen Moore) is in the entertainment business and is coming up with his very young new non-Jewish girlfriend, Kia (Andrea Goldman).

And while this is a very comptetent cast all-around, two performances rise above the rest: Beatrice as Herb’s troubled wife, and Goldman as Kia, the California woman whose goals in life – which Gene has promised will come true – is to be both “The Girl in the Cage” and the “Fat No More Girl.”

Kia, who is all legs, plunging neckline with stiletto heels and a mini-dress that goes up to here– not to mention the blazing-red baby doll nightgown — marvels at actually washing and drying dishes by hand, and regards Judaism as kind of a fun, quirky thing, as the very-observant Norma arches her eyebrows and orders her to sleep on a coach in the living room.

Herb – Kia calls him “erb,” as if he were a plant – is intrigued by Kia. Simon – who doesn’t like to be touched or to touch others – hilariously resists Kia’s advances, which turns her on even more, as Herb stumbles upon the two and Herb finds Kia coming on to him, with Bonnie joining the fray.

Bonnie came into Herb’s life as his hot shiksa girlfriend – a Kia of years ago – but has been hurting for a long time, and it has manifested itself in many ways, not the least of which has been a past tryst with her brother-in-law Gene. She and Herb have endured multiple miscarriages and a stillborn child and the despair of being childless after years of trying has set in.

There’s a subplot set against Herb’s desire to sell the home, which Norma resists. What would the sale of the home mean? With only one male son, what if the line of Schwartzes were to suddenly stop cold? What would that mean?

Bonnie will make a horrifying revelation about her deceased father-in-law, and the announcement of a pregnancy will unleash a whole new set of dragons which will have to be slain if there is to be peace in the household.

Director Plum, who has made Gloucester Stage one of her several artistic homes, helps her own cause with astute casting and a feel for Laufer’s work.

The set by Jon Savage features a recliner, sofa and dining room set past their prime, and missing pieces of latticework in the walls. meant to show a property in decline.

“The Last Schwartz” dosn’t have the all-out belly laughs of “Out of Sterno,” but it does have humor, heart and soul, and it has you caring what will happen to the Schwartzes and whether there will be another generation of the family to keep the name alive. Or, as one character put it: “To keep the family alive is to keep the faith alive.”

The Gloucester Stage Company production of Deborah Zoe Laufer’s “The Last Schwartz.” Directed by Paula Plum. Costume design by Elisabetta Polito. Properties design/assistant set design by Mary Sader. Set design by Jon Savage. Lighting design by Russ Swift. Sound design by Andrew Duncan Will. At the Gloucester Stage Company through July 30. http://www.gloucesterstage.com.

Kia (Andrea Goldman) and Simon (Paul Melendy) in “The Last Schwartz.” Photo by Kippy Goldfarb/Carolle Photography

Kia  (Andrea Goldman) and Simon (Paul Melendy)  in “The Last Schwartz.” Photo by Kippy Goldfarb/Carolle Photography