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Home #Hwoodtimes Improv Owner Owns His Roots in “Jews, Christians and Screwing Stalin” 

Improv Owner Owns His Roots in “Jews, Christians and Screwing Stalin” 

By Ethlie Ann Vare

Photos by Ed Krieger

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Los Angeles, CA (The Hollywood Times) 8/21/18 – Mark Lonow is an interesting guy. A co-owner of the famed Improv comedy club, he discovered a young Adam Sandler. His wife of 49 years (49 years! In Hollywood! Imagine!), comedienne Jo Anne Astrow, also manages Lewis Black. Their daughter Claudia Lonow is a prolific television writer/producer. On top of that, apparently his great-uncle executed the Czar and his grandmother may or may not have slept with Stalin. These people belong on Broadway, Lonow decided. So he wrote a play about them.

Hunter Milano and Sammi-Jack Martincak

Lonow’s lightly fictionalized biographical saga was conceived as a drama, until Carl Reiner convinced him that the characters were so wacky he should do it as comedy. “Jews, Christians and Screwing Stalin” originally aimed for “Death of a Salesman,” then took a left towards “Brighton Beach Memoirs”… and ended up at the intersection of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and Welcome Back Kotter.

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This is the story of those European Jews, many of them socialists and union organizers, whose WWII-era kids became known as “red diaper babies.” Friday night candles were lit. Yiddish was spoken. Colorful matriarchs ruled the roost.

Cathy Ladman and Laura Julian

The matriarch of Lonow’s stage family is Minka Grazonsky, a foul-mouthed widow played with a knowing gleam by comedienne Cathy Ladman (Curb Your Enthusiasm, I’m Dying Up Here.) She’s getting on with life after the loss of husband Murray – who pops in from Paradise in the form of John Pleshette (Knot’s Landing) – by managing the family boarding house. On this 1966 Rosh Hashana eve, she has invited both her wastrel son (played by Travis York) and her aspiring actor grandson (Hunter Milano) to dinner in hopes of a family reconciliation. What she doesn’t know is that her grandson is bringing his girlfriend home with him. She’s Christian. She’s Southern. She’s pregnant.

The grandson is so obviously Lonow and the girlfriend so obviously his real-life wife that it’s difficult to see them as dramatic characters. They come off as idealized and romanticized, glimpsed through a heroic haze of nostalgia and played too broadly for a small theater. Minka Grazonsky, however, and her friend and rival Lillie Feinstein (soap opera veteran Laura Julian) are sharply observed and realized. They are the joy of the show.

Sammi-Jack Martincak, John Pleshette,
Hunter Milano and Cathy Ladman

Baby Boomers will appreciate touches like Murray’s vision of heaven: a sort of resort hotel decorated with portraits of Ann-Margaret and Maureen O’Hara where you have cocktails with Trotsky. They will cringe at grandson Joseph’s fringed vest and hairdo and grin at Lillie’s movie star hats. But I doubt they will much care whether Joseph and his father make up with one another.

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“Jews, Christians and Screwing Stalin” is a love letter to a bubbe and an opportunity for some older actors to shine. It isn’t ready for Broadway yet, but that’s what Equity waiver is for.

Front: Sammi-Jack Martincak,
Travis York and Hunter Milano
Rear: Laura Julian, Cathy Ladman

The Matrix Theatre, Los Angeles through Sept. 23

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Written by Mark Lonow and Jo Anne Astrow

Directed by Mark Lonow

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Starring Cathy Ladman, John Pleshette, Hunter Milano, Sammi-Jack Martincak, Travis York and Laura Julian

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Valerie Milano is the well-connected Senior Editor and TV Critic at TheHollywoodTimes.today, a website that aggregates showbiz news curated for, and written by, insiders of the entertainment industry. (@HwoodTimes @TheHollywood.Times) Milano, whose extraordinary talents for networking in the famously tight-clad enclave of Hollywood have placed her at the center of the industry’s top red carpets and events since 1984, heads daily operations of a uniquely accessible, yet carefully targeted publication. For years, Milano sat on the board as a chief organizer of the Television Critics Association’s press tours, held twice a year in Beverly Hills and Pasadena. She has written for Communications Daily, Discover Hollywood, Hollywood Today, Television International, and Video Age International, and contributed to countless other magazines and digests. Valerie works closely with the Human Rights Campaign as a distinguished Fed Club Council Member. She also works with GLSEN, GLAAD, Outfest, NCLR, LAMBDA Legal, and the Desert Aids Project, in addition to donating both time and finances to high-profile nonprofits. She has been an active member of the Los Angeles Press Club for a couple of years and looks forward to the possibility of contributing to the future success of its endeavors. Milano’s passion for meeting people extends from Los Feliz to her favorite getaway, Palm Springs. There, she is a member of the Palm Springs Museum of Art and a prominent Old Las Palmas-area patron.