Oys in the Hood

Deep in the heart of Scottsdale, tucked into a forgotten strip mall, tiny Metro Theatre -- home to the often brilliant but financially troubled Ensemble Theatre -- is bustling tonight. While Ensemble shows generally play to half-empty houses, this second-night performance is teeming, its capacity crowd spilling onto the makeshift stage and out into the lobby. So many tickets have been sold, in fact, that Tim Hart, Ensemble's managing director, takes the stage 10 minutes before curtain to offer season passes to anyone willing to give up their seats to customers waiting outside. After a while, two people sheepishly make their way to the door to claim their free tickets.

The rest of the crowd stays put, determined to see a real live television star. They're less interested in the program -- Alan Brandt's 2 1/2 Jews -- than they are in Len Lesser, better known as Seinfeld's Uncle Leo. Lesser's big little-screen name has brought Seinfeld fans out in droves for what they hope will be a wacky evening of rerun fun.

For this, Ensemble has canceled its second show of the season, a collection of one-acts by Harold Pinter, and replaced it with the Brandt comedy, which recently enjoyed a nearly yearlong off-Broadway run. The show isn't technically an Ensemble production; the company has contracted with the show's original producers to bring 2 1/2 Jews to town. It arrives with Lesser and executive director Mark Robert Gordon, who plays one of the leads.

Neither the script nor its situations are particularly funny, but the dialogue is brisk and chatty, in a Neil-Simon-meets-Nora-Ephron sort of way. My companion, an East Coast Jew, graciously translates the Yiddish phrases for me, and attempts later to explain why it's amusing to watch Jewish men disappointing their fathers.

That, in short, is what 2 1/2 Jews concerns itself with. Each of its three principals has fallen short of his father's -- or his son's -- expectations. Morris, a septuagenarian widower and Lithuanian émigré, is the father of Nathan, a renowned civil-liberties attorney who fights for "the little guy." Nathan's grown son, Marc, is a Yale-educated corporate lawyer with an eye on the bottom line. All three are sarcastic, stubborn men with a secret: Morris is getting married; Marc's just been made partner; Nathan is a closet racist.

It's the gradual discovery of these surprises -- and not any particularly amusing circumstances -- that moves the story along. We meet Morris and Nathan at a pretrial meeting, where Nathan questions his father about why he urinated in a potted plant on Park Avenue. Pee jokes provide the humor, such as it is, during this longish scene. Next, we watch Marc and Nathan bicker in a locker room, where punch lines take a backseat to exposition, much of it about Nathan's failing marriage to Marc's Gentile mother (Marc is the half-Jew of the title). It isn't until the second act, when the circumstances take a melodramatic turn, that we truly become engaged in the lives of these men.

None of this matters much to this Saturday-night crowd; most of them have come to see Uncle Leo. Lesser's performance is, in fact, the highlight of the evening. I arrive ready to be unimpressed and, having only seen Seinfeld's final episode, without any affection for the fellow. I'm delighted when Lesser's dead-on timing and comic clowning show up his fellow actors' efforts. Which is no huge accomplishment, given Gordon's quiet technique and Kenneth Bridges' distracted performance as Nathan. Despite a week's worth of previews, Bridges struggles with several of his longer speeches.

I can't imagine, at evening's end, that Seinfeld fans are much gratified by the story they've seen. But my companion reminds me that Seinfeld was a "show about nothing," and that the last time a former TV star appeared onstage in Phoenix, it was Lauren Tewes from The Love Boat. I suddenly feel much better for the audience, which applauds wildly as Lesser takes his bow.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela