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A Jewish Joke

A monodrama that brings immediacy to the personal and professional effects of the 1950’s Hollywood blacklist.

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Phil Johnson in a scene from “A Jewish Joke” (Photo credit: Clay Anderson)

Joel Benjamin

Joel Benjamin, Critic

Bernie Lutz, a screenwriter played with nervous energy by Phil Johnson, is on the verge of either a brilliant success or the end of his career in A Jewish Joke co-written by Marni Freedman and Johnson and directed with emphasis on continual bursts of energy by David Ellenstein.

Set in an office in a writer’s bungalow at the MGM studios in 1950, Lutz is bombarded by phone calls celebrating the premiere of his latest film, The Big Casbah, to be shown that very night.  He has also been unceremoniously informed that his name has appeared in the infamous Red Channels magazine making him prone to blacklisting.

He is excited by his imminent premiere, but the sudden specter of losing everything to blacklisting projects Lutz into a whirlwind of anxiety as he tries to deal with MGM boss Louis B. Mayer and Mayer’s secretary Celia, his agent, his writing partner Morris Frumsky, his wife Ellie and his secretary Florence, all the while trying to complete manuscripts for new film projects, particularly one for the Marx Brothers and another for Danny Kaye.

Phil Johnson in a scene from “A Jewish Joke” (Photo credit: Clay Anderson)

Bernie relates how becoming the family breadwinner when he was still a teenager led him to thirteen year old Morris.  The two get into the “film industry,” at a cheapie peep show and then go on to performing in vaudeville, eventually becoming the writing team that is being assaulted by Senator Joseph McCarthy and his red-baiting HUAC.

As Bernie searches for an important letter that, he recalls, might shed light on his problem, he keeps interrupting himself to snatch jokes from a little metal box on his desk, mostly to avoid facing his real-life issues.  All the jokes, as they used to say, are so old that they have whiskers on them, as well as being objectionable and politically incorrect by today’s standards.

His problems only become worse with Mayer threatening to call off the movie premiere and Bernie more and more in the dark about why, suddenly, he has been accused of associating with Communists.  Searching his mind, between more and more frantic phone calls to and from Mayer, Ellie, a mystery man named Zelder and several from an FBI agent, he asks himself many questions.

Was it his father’s long-ago activities?  A party in the Hollywood hills attended by left wing intelligentsia?  Something he accidentally said?

Phil Johnson in a scene from “A Jewish Joke” (Photo credit: Clay Anderson)

Bernie eventually finds out the root of his problem, an answer that both enrages and saddens him.

A Jewish Joke brings immediacy to not only the personal and professional effects of the Hollywood blacklist, but to the current onslaught of internet finger-pointing and fear-mongering that can, and does, ruin lives even more quickly than in the slow-moving fifties.  Watching Bernie squirm and sweat over issues not of his own making, but issues that will take him down, is made only slightly more palatable by his self-deprecating humor.

Johnson takes on more and more emotional weight as the monodrama progresses, his eyes darting nervously, his breathing labored, ready for a nervous breakdown.

The disheveled office set—designed by Aaron Rumley—helps set the mood and period ambiance along with the mussed suit designed by Jordyn Smiley and Peter Herman and the subtle sound design by Matt Lescault-Wood.

A Jewish Joke (through March 28, 2019)

The Roustabouts Theatre Co.

Clurman Theatre at Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, call 212-239-6200 or visit

Running time: 90 minutes without an intermission

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Joel Benjamin
About Joel Benjamin (528 Articles)
JOEL BENJAMIN was a child performer on Broadway and danced with leading modern dance and ballet companies. Joel has been attending theater, ballet and opera performances ever since childhood, becoming quite opinionated over the years. He was the founder and artistic director of the American Chamber Ballet and subsequently was massage therapist to the stars before becoming a reviewer and memoirist. He is a member of the Outer Critics Circle.

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