by Kristen Schweizer
October 4, 2022
A definition of comedy is tragedy plus time… but how much time? How long should a playwright wait before joking about global suffering? I asked myself this question two times in one weekend. First, when giggling at Holocaust puns told during The Old Globe’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank and second during the La Jolla Playhouse’s Sweatshop Overlord, which hysterically rehashes one woman’s experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic – two wholly different shows offering similar catharsis.
The Old Globe pledges to “preserve, strengthen and advance American theatre” and does all three with What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank. This world premiere play echoes the classic, witty humor found on the Broadway of yore but is sharper and faster for today’s audience. While many of yesterday’s Jewish playwrights (for instance, Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple and Lost in Yonkers or Moss Hart and George Kaufman’s You Can’t Take It With You) wrote comedies set over time in a home living room, Nathan Englander’s story amplifies the intimacy – taking place in a kitchen in real-time.
The play centers around the relationship between two middle-aged Jewish couples; the women were best friends in high school; Debbie (Rebecca Creskoff), who no longer attends synagogue, and whose only son is an atheist, hosts Shoshana (Sophie von Haselberg), visiting from Jerusalem after converting to Orthodox Judaism, who shows off pictures of her ten daughters. The meaningful, meandering script never bores as it raises questions that polite guests would never ask at the dinner table.
So, when can you tell (and laugh at) an Anne Frank joke? When Barry Edelstein is at the helm. Director Edelstein has been the artistic director for The Old Globe for a decade. His experience glows in this roller coaster journey from laughter to gasps to tears and everything in between. The only thing you will not do is cringe; every moment of this story is handled with sincerity.
If you want to wince, head to the La Jolla Playhouse for Sweatshop Overlord. Pulitzer Prize finalist Kristina Wong is a seasoned performance artist, and her newest work is a memoir, stand-up comedy, and arts-and-crafts display all rolled into one. The one-woman narrative begins on March 19, 2020, the eve of California’s Shelter-In-Place order.
Wong, a lauded actress, comedian, writer, and elected representative of Koreatown, Los Angeles, describes herself as unessential because that is how our country once defined her. When her shows were canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Wong pulled out her Hello Kitty sewing machine and recruited nearly 800 volunteers – primarily Asian American women – to help her make and donate fabric face masks across the country.
She mixes potty humor with potent heroism; Wong named the sewing group Auntie Sewing Squad (A.S.S.). While her team aided health care workers, farm workers, and incarcerated people, it is hardly self-aggrandizing. Wong cracks child labor jokes when describing the kids who contributed to A.S.S.’s total donation of 350,000 masks. There is a point in the show when the audience is invited to throw their bras onto the stage (and a few people did on opening night) when reminding us of the elastic shortages which prompted Americans to cut up undergarments and bed sheets when hospitals called for help sourcing personal protective equipment. The recent news images (projected on a screen made of masks) are cathartic or triggering; it is hard to tell when you are snickering at the same time.
Both of these productions are approximately 90 minutes without intermission. Both require the audience to process world trauma through humor, and crowd responses were uneven as there is no easy, unified response to fresh history. Are these jokes too soon or our best chance at processing and healing? You will know what you think when you laugh.
What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank
September 13 – October 23, 2022 | The Old Globe
By Nathan Englander
Directed by Barry Edelstein
September 20 – October 16, 2022 | La Jolla Playhouse
Written and performed by Kristina Wong | Directed by Chay Yew
Note: Masks are required indoors regardless of vaccination status; proof of vaccination or negative COVID-19 PCR test results is NOT required.