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Theatre Review: Hot City Theatre's "Kosher Lutherans" Faces Same Fate As "Casey At The Bat"

(Courtesy of Jeff Hirsch)
St. Louis Public Radio Theatre Reviewer Donna Parrone

If you want a good production you should start with a good script. In the case of Kosher Lutherans, which opened last week at HotCity Theatre, the script is strike one. William Missouri Down’s play was marketed as a comedy about a Jewish couple, posing as Lutherans to adopt a baby, which is only a tiny part of the plot. In reality, it is a hodge-podge of borrowed cinematic and theatrical tropes – a little Dinner With Friends, a bit of The Baby Dance, a touch of Hannah and Her Sisters.  Hey, we know there are no new stories, but if you’re “appropriating,” steal the good parts; you can see the plot twists coming ten miles down the road.

It’s a good cast at the surface, Richard Strelinger and Julie Layton play Franklyn and Hannah, the perfect couple, Jerry Russo and Nicole Angeli are their friends, Ben and Martha. Their marriage is a bit rockier, or so it might seem. Beth Wickenhauser does a nice turn in a small scene as Alison, the baby momma.  Strelinger’s Franklyn is pretty but none too bright and a terrible writer. Why his community college teacher even notices him is a mystery, and why this plot point abruptly disappears in the second act is an even greater one.

Credit (Courtesy of Todd Studio)
Hot City Theatre's Production of "Kosher Lutherans". Left to Right: Richard Strelinger, Jerry Russo* (back), Nicole Angeli (back), Julie Layton.

The technical aspects are excellent. David Blake’s set is strong and good looking, a solid bit of goyish California with a mezuzah glued to the living room wall. Felia Davenport’s costumes speak volumes before the actors open their mouths. Russo and Angeli are swathed in shiny, expensive fabrics; they look opulent and H-O-T hot. And I was rocking to Michael B. Perkins’ sound design, until “Firework” came on at intermission.

Opening night needed a few more rehearsals to be ready, pacing was rough, transitions were choppy and lines were sometimes less than fluid. Russo and Angeli looked the most ready; their scenes were crisp and their vocal ranges, dynamic. Strelinger and Layton play the first act way over the top, a manic Ethel and Lucy in overdrive. Layton is an actor who benefits from a strong director, and Marty Stanberry, who directs this foolishness, can almost always pull an actor out of their “bag o’ tricks” but her performance suffers from poor body posture, eternally furrowed brow and repetitive hand gestures. Strike two. One expects more from such a great pairing.

Sometimes the actors hit the punch lines so hard they fall to the floor for a ten count, and other times, as in “She brought knish,” they were low and thrown away.  Angeli and Russo do a fine job of being droll and genuine, Angeli’s Martha has a honeyed toughness and Russo is a tender curmudgeon. I imagine the pacing and transitions will improve with the first weekend and an audience under their belts, but that still leaves us with this script. I hope the cast finds its stride and eludes the strikeout.

Kosher Lutherans continues at the Kranzberg Arts Center through December 21st.