Gallows humor…cracking a joke with the hangman before the drop. From time immemorial, human beings have found a way to laugh in the face of death. People, that is, who don’t quiver, blubber, and go catatonic with fear. Comedians, who crack wise on stage before audiences that range from a few late-nighters in intimate venues, all the way to jam-packed stadiums, manage to curb their fear of bombing or they get out of the business.
Max and Willy’s Last Laugh, written by Jake Broder and Conor Duffy, a dark musical comedy, is inspired by the true story of Max Erhlich and Willy Rosen, popular Jewish cabaret stars who plied their trade in Nazi Germany. The racial laws and the onset of war caused the duo to flee to Holland, where they were caught and imprisoned in the Westerbork Transit Camp, a holding place where 94,643 persons were eventually put on trains to the death camps of Auschwitz and Sobibor. The commandant of the camp recognized the comedians and put them to work. They were charged with the task of creating and performing a cabaret show every Monday night. If they were successful in delivering laughs, skits and songs, they could do it again next week. If not, they were on the train to Auschwitz in the morning.
It is unusual for a theatre critic, or commentator as I like to style myself, to review a staged reading of a new play, but the story is irresistible. So I had my nephew, a freshman student at UCLA, meet me at the James Bridges Theater on campus. I considered it a chance for him to gain some knowledge of events that are not taught as thoroughly these days as when I was a high school student, when we were shown the film Triumph of the Will, Leni Riefenstal’s famous homage to the cult of Hitler. It was followed by a screening of Alain Resnais searing documentary, Night and Fog, that showed the remains of Auschwitz in1955, along with film clips and photographs of the unspeakable atrocities of the Holocaust. What I saw burned the horror into my brain. I will carry the images to my grave.
The staged reading of Max and Willy’s Last Laugh is a light-hearted affair for the most part, with the true horror downplayed. Jake Broder as Max, and Conor Duffy as Willy deliver a mild love-hate relationship reminiscent of The Odd Couple. Max, the comic, is the leader, and Duffy’s Willy, a song writer and musician, is a grouch. Their relationship provides much of the humor. In the cabaret performances, Lucy Davenport, as Jetty Cantor, is a spritely singer and dancer. Kerry O’Malley, as film star Camilla Spira, is an extraordinary, undeniable diva, a beauty who sings with grace and power. The camp’s Nazi officers are played by Ben Bodé as Commandant Albert Conrad Gemmeker, and Larry Cedar as Kurt Schlesinger. Leo Marks performs as journalist and diarist Philip Mechanicus. Seated in the downstage left corner of the stage are two old card players, Apollo Dukakis and Jamie Farr, who chat and kvetch. Mike Lanahan reads the stage directions.
The reading is directed by Henry Wishcamper, with music direction by John McDaniel at the keyboard, Isabel Dobrev on bass, Evan Perkins on drums and percussion, Gustavo Bulgach on reeds, Isaac De Vera on guitar, and Rachel De Vera on accordion.
A staged reading is early on the road to full production, and what I saw and heard is very, very promising. I look forward to attending the premiere of Max and Willy’s Last Laugh when it hits the boards.
Max and Willy’s Last Laugh is produced by Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills and co-sponsored by the The Lowell Milken Fund for American Jewish Music at The UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music. An additional producer is Painted Tree Road Media.