— Julius and Abby dance. Richard Newman and Pippa Mackie. Photo Tim Matheson.
Welcome back, John.
John Lazarus’ The Grandkid, getting its west coast premiere at Richmond’s Gateway Theatre, represents a welcome homecoming for one of Vancouver’s most successful playwrights.
His 1980s comedies Homework & Curtains, Village of Idiots, and the Arts Club’s long-running hit The Late Blumer were notable for their wit, warmth and intellectual depth. Lazarus also taught playwriting to a generation of Studio 58 acting students before leaving here in 2000 for a teaching job at Queen’s University in Kingston.
Life in the east has clearly not dulled his theatrical edge. The Grandkid is warm, witty and smart. Richard Newman and Pippa Mackie deliver delightful performances, and director Natasha Nadir has put together one of the handsomest, most charming productions of the season.
Newman and Mackie play a generational odd couple, grandfather and granddaughter Julius and Abby Rothstein. They call each other Rothstein, a quirk left over from Abby’s childhood in which grandpa Julius had a major creative role. They spent a lot of quality time together when Abby was a kid, bonding across their half-century age difference.
They can still sing all the verses of the Jewish version of “Frosty the Snowman” that Julius improvised one Christmas to sing little Abby to sleep: the deliciously clever “Rothstein the Snowman.”
So it seems a good fit for Abby to live in Julius’ house when she starts her first year at the university where Julius teaches film (evidently Queen’s, though it’s never named). Recently widowed Julius is very glad to have her. Abby is more wary–it was her father’s idea, not hers–but she’s clearly comfortable and affectionate with her gramps.
Naturally, comic conflicts quickly ensue. He’s a slob and she has to clean up after him (shades of Oscar and Felix). He assumes she’ll major in film; she has other ideas. He expresses his liberal views on her having sex; her reaction is “eeeeyoooo!!”
Sex will rear its uglier head later in the play. Their first significant disagreements involve religion and politics.
Seriously Jewish and a confirmed Zionist, Julius is upset to learn that Abby has no interest in religion and appalled that she sympathizes with the Palestinians. He’s happy when Abby finds herself an Israeli student boyfriend, unhappy when the boyfriend turns out to be pro-Palestine.
Passionate about trying to save a local heritage movie theatre from redevelopment, Julius enthusiastically organizes a campaign based on Abby’s joking suggestion that he turn it into a museum of Canadian film (“if Canadian movies didn’t suck so bad”). But when a student group including Palestinian activists vies for the same property, Julius and Abby find themselves on opposing sides again.
One of the slogans chanted by the students nicely showcases Lazarus’ wit: “Warmth and shelter, not William Shatner!”
What’s not funny for Abby is that her father–Julius’ son–is cheating on her mother, and adultery seems to run in the Rothstein male line. For his part Julius agonizes over his late wife and his failure as a filmmaker as he approaches the final stages of his life.
Who’s the more mature one in this relationship? The more reasonable? “Sometimes I think you’re the grandchild,” Abby tells Julius.
This Abby is one solid, grounded kid. Playing younger than her own age, Mackie makes Abby funny but never silly, volatile as teens can be but very likeable. If you wanted any kind of teenager living in your basement, she’d be the kind you’d want.
Julius is another interesting character. He thinks of himself as a free spirit, an artist, a progressive, proud of his own activist past, yet he’s deeply conservative in his religion and cultural politics. Newman’s expansive performance gives Julius a lot of range–the charming old codger with a quick wit, deeply in love with the women in his life and endlessly selfish at the same time.
I could have done with less of the “oy vey” style Jewishness that Lazarus builds into the character and a little more consistency around his age. Although Newman charges up and down the stairs, making lightning-quick costume changes, 68-year-old Julius sometimes acts as if he’s 90.
The costume changes are necessitated by the numerous scene changes marking the passage of time in the play. These could be momentum killers, but John Webber’s subtle lighting, Andrew Tugwell’s great choice of music (Cat Stevens to klezmer), and Jamie Nesbitt’s beautiful cinematic projections on the walls of Julius’ living room make them integral to the life of the piece. Lauchlin Johnston’s detailed domestic set is as solid as it is handsome.
An utterly feel-good evening of theatre, The Grandkid ends the Gateway season in style.