‘Brunch at the Luthers’ by Misha Shulman: En Avant Dada!

The simple act of having someone over for brunch taps a torrent of artificial excitement, crisscrossed language and Burlesque in “Brunch at the Luthers,” the newest play by activist playwright Misha Shulman.

The author, a former Education officer in the Israeli army and now an American citizen, has received high critical praise for his realistic, layered and eloquent plays appealing for understanding behind Israelis and Palestinians. With “Brunch at the Luthers,” he has forsaken dramatic realism for Dada to explain the Western consciousness, which he sees as ruled by such surrealistic influences as Bush, Bin Laden, Trump, Hurricane Katrina and the tragic situation in Africa.

The piece will be acted by DADAnewyork, one of the most comedically-muscular troupes now working. Theater for the New City, 155 First Avenue, Manhattan, will present the play’s premiere run June 19 to July 6 in its Community Theater.

The Luthers, played by Mort Kroo and Joanie Fritz Zosike.
The Luthers, played by Mort Kroo and Joanie Fritz Zosike.

The play gives us a day in the lives of an absurd middle-aged couple. Luther (it may be his last name, or his first) is married (or lives with) a nervous woman named Ruth. They are preparing for a ceremonious brunch.

A famous chef arrives bearing duck–not to eat, but the wooden decoy, as does a state congressman, a woman named Mansfield, who brings a bronze one. They struggle stubbornly over the details of the meal and await apprehensively the arrival of Harlot Sierra O’toul, a niece of Mansfield.

The text is a highly structured, yet excruciating, series of malaprops caused by the characters continually interrupting each other, somewhat like partially deaf people acting Laurel and Hardy’s “Who’s On First.” They comedically elongate such ordinary matters as whether to answer the door, how many hot cocoas to make, whether to sit on the carpet, and whether Mansfield’s niece is actually coming.

The niece (or nephew, we are never quite sure which) is said to be an erotic dancer. This causes a buildup of great excitement. She is ultimately revealed to be entirely normal; however her banality doesn’t dissuade Luther from his private fantasy of her. Minutiae of the plot, down to the number of spoons at the table or the sex of the dancer, require intricate detective work and intense cogitation to establish even small truths.

Words fail, to be replaced by the articulate substitute of quacking. A culminating event of great significance, which these small things should be building up to, never comes. And that, of course, is Dada.

Or else it’s absurdism. Playwright Misha Shulman claims a debt to Ionesco (with ducks replacing the rhino) as well as such Dadaist poets as Huelsenbeck, Hand Arp and Tristan Tzara. If you have to know whether its absurdism or Dada, the joke’s on you–this argument would fit well into the world of the play.

But to get serious about it, there are reasons why an activist playwright would pen a French farce cum Dada cum Ionescoesque romp. Shulman has written, “I think part of where this play came from was from the situation of the world, its wars–in Iraq and never ending in my homeland [Israel]–and a sense of needing to respond to it with nonsense, as Ionesco did, like the Dadaists did to World War I.

In the Dadaist way of thinking as I see it, part of what leads to wars is the strict adherence to logic, and as such this play would be an assault on logic, with language as its most prominent expression.” There are also some obvious references to gender politics.

Reflecting on the play, Shulman now realizes that the character of Mansfield was his riff on Hillary Clinton. Harlot Sierra O’toul stands for artificial excitement in the private American landscape, and the agitation it creates.

Misha Shulman, activist playwright and author of the Dada play, Brunch at the Luthers.
Misha Shulman, activist playwright and author of the Dada play, Brunch at the Luthers.

New York based playwright/director Misha Shulman was born and raised in Jerusalem and served in the Israeli army as a Commander in charge of Education. His first TNC production, “The Fist” (2004), portrayed the dilemma of Israeli Army refuseniks. Some of the dialogue was based on personal statements of Israeli army reservists who signed a public letter stating that they refused to serve in the West Bank and Gaza strip.

His next TNC production, “Desert Sunrise” (2005), was a “tragedy with hope” that portrayed an encounter in the South Hebron Hills between an Israeli soldier, a Palestinian shepherd and a young, tormented Palestinian woman, revealing possibilities for “ta’ayush” (living together). The play will be published by TCG as part of a volume named “Salam. Peace: An Anthology of Middle Eastern-American Drama.”

After debuting at TNC, it was produced at Northwestern University in 2007 and will be opening at the Lillian Theatre in L.A. in July. “The Fist” had originally debuted at the Public Theatre of South Florida and after its TNC production, had staged readings at Duke University, Charlotte, NC’s Theatre for Change, and at University of Melbourne, Australia.

Shulman acts frequently with The Living Theater and DADAnewyork and is founding director of the Boundless Theater, a company dedicated to socially conscious plays using contemporary shadow theatre technique. He has also worked with Bread and Puppet Theatre, Indonesian director Putu Wijaya, and others.

For the Board of Jewish Education of Greater New York, he wrote and directed several plays, including “A Sephardic Masquerade” and “In the Stomach of a Whale,” which are performed regularly in Synagogues and Jewish institutions in and around NYC. Shulman is currently studying under Mac Wellman for his MFA in Playwriting at CUNY.

DADAnewyork is a company of actors who hail from diverse backgrounds in Broadway, Barnum & Bailey, Samuel Beckett, The Living Theatre, jazz and classical music. Their collective palette of training and experience makes for a wild and nearly limitless canvas.

The cast includes Mort Kroos as Luther, Joanie Fritz Zosike as Ruth, Robert Hieger as the chef and Bette Laroe as Mansfield. The part of Harlot Sierra O’toul is not cast as of this writing. Mort Kroos, a DADAnewyork co-director, is equally adept at Shakespeare as musical comedy. His adaptation of Tzara’s “The Gas Heart” was performed at Los Kabayitos and PS 122. He will be seen later this year in “The Last Request,” a new film starring Danny Aiello.

Joanie Fritz Zosike, also a co-director of DADAnewyork, is a noted member of The Living Theatre and also appears regularly with Lee Nagrin, Protean Forms Collective and The Wycherly Systers. Robert Hieger, a long-time member of DADAnewyork, is also a member of The Living Theater and the Wycherly Systers.

The evening will also include, as an additional attraction, several one-to-three minute Dada plays including “Street Sounds, a Quartet for Words and Sounds,” “The Meaning of a Duck” and “They Flew Away Making Love,” all by Misha Shulman; “August” by Kurt Schwitters, “Forensics” by Normandy Raven Sherwood and “Literature Explained: by Rebecca Krell. “Brunch at the Luthers” runs 45 minutes and the entire evening runs 1:10.

“Brunch at the Luthers” is presented by Theater for the New City, Crystal Field, Executive Director. Performances are June 19 to July 6, 2008 at Theater for the New City, located at 155 First Avenue (between 9th and 10th Streets), Manhattan. Performances are Thursdays through Saturdays at 8:00 pm and Sundays at 3:00 pm. Tickets are $15. Online ticketing is available at www.theaterforthenewcity.net. Information and reservations are available at (212) 254-1109.

Jonathan Slaff writes on cultural events from the brainy, the edgy and the good. He helps us keep ahead of the curve in the world of the arts and culture.