By Ted Hoover
Pittsburgh Current Theater Critic
Let’s all jump into the way-back machine and return to a particular time in theater history. I don’t have an exact date, but somewhere in the l’60’s/70’s … when you could see a play on Broadway and not have to take out a second mortgage to do so, that fabled period when tickets cost $4.40, $6.60 or, if you were splurging, $8.80.
There was a certain kind of comedy in those days – typified by, but not exclusive to, early Neil Simon – maybe not landmarks of the American Theater, true, but bright and breezy fun with no purpose other than to entertain.
The Burdens continues through May 12. City Theatre, South Side.
I was thinking about them watching the newest production at City Theatre, Matt’s Schatz comedy The Burdens. It’s a small show, in the best sense of that word, telling an off-beat little story in an amusingly quirky way shot-through with flashes of laugh-out-loud comedy. It’s not a deep show with a pounding message or searing insight into the human condition, just 75 minutes of fun. And, really, in a world where Kirstjen Nielsen is suddenly the moral one, that ain’t bad.
Jane and Mordy Berman, brother and sister, are, at the beginning, living on opposite ends of the continent. Jane’s a highly strung, ruthlessly efficient lawyer living in New Jersey, Mordy’s a loveable sad sack of a sloth in L.A. pursing a music career that will never happen.
Their grandfather, Solomon, has just celebrated his 100th birthday and, we quickly learn, it’s been 100 years of sheer hell. Solomon life’s mission has been to make every person around him miserable … especially his immediate family, and most particularly, his daughter Barbara (the mother of Jane and Mordy.)
Besides being an emotional drain, Solomon’s stay in an assisted-care facility has ruined the family financially and it all comes to a head after an exceptionally ugly family gathering. Jane decides that it’s time for Solomon to go – so she and Mordy need to, as she puts it, “expedite the inevitable” or, more bluntly, kill zayde.
Schatz keeps the whole thing off-kilter for a long while and you’re never precisely sure where he’s going to take you as a storyteller. Yet, each twist and surprise feels exactly right. What gives the script extra oomph is that he wrestles, as all playwrights are now forced to do, with social media and communication in a digital age.
Until the final scene, Jane and Mordy never actually talk to each other. Much of the play is tweets, but there’s also Facebook, voice mails, email, IMs and just about every other way two people can talk to each other these days without ever actually being in the same room.
Schatz has a lot of fun playing around with the various platforms and media but eventually you stop noticing and it ceases to register. Part of the reason for that might be because Schatz’ dialogue is so much like how human beings actually talk, rather than the abbreviated, truncated and acronym-loaded jumble we type into our hands.
Schatz has also created, in miniature, a gorgeous opportunity for theater artists to display their craft … and, fortunately, talented theater artists are a City Theatre specialty.
Marc Masterson, the once and now once-again Artistic Director of City Theater, directs his first show since returning to town. Welcome home, you big lug!, and thanks for giving this spot-on production such speed and sense of purpose. Masterson takes Schatz’ blueprint and builds a solid, decidedly enjoyable evening from it.
Catherine LeFrere brings huge drive to the role of the sister; we get an immediate sense of how many plates Jane keeps spinning and her determination to make sure all stay aloft gives the production a terrific propulsive energy.
The role of Mordy could easily be eclipsed by Jane’s showiness but Ben Rosenblatt proves to be the perfect foil for LeFrere. I don’t know how he does it, but he manages to turn lethargy and emotional paralysis into action verbs – plus he’s got a terrific set of pipes.
Perhaps predictably, toward the end Schatz steps away from the quirkiness and slightly dark undercurrent and ties up all the various plot points with neat, sentimental bows. I’m not a big fan of easy, happy endings, but I’m certainly willing to overlook it because The Burdens has been such a delight for almost all of its 75 intermissionless minutes.