Dysfunctional Schwartz family falls not so far from home

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Playwright Deborah Zoe Laufer remembers those tranquil days writing “The Last Schwartz,” her baby dozing contentedly on her lap while she typed away in a creative haze.

Now, several years later, the play has enjoyed a highly successful East Coast run, and is set to make its West Coast debut at the Marin Theater Company. But it turns out her second son, Charlie, 3, is a real pistol, and likes to scream and bang on mommy’s keyboard while she works on her newest play.

“He’s not a big fan of the theater,” says Laufer.

Juggling motherhood and theaterhood is no easy feat, but Laufer deserves a medal for the attempt. Fortunately, her work has been well received, with “The Last Schwartz” likely bound for the New York stage later this year.

The new Marin Theater production stars two venerable TV stars, Jill Eikenberry and Michael Tucker (of “L.A. Law” fame), and Laufer herself will fly in from New York to be here opening night.

Apparently, she likes keeping track of her characters.

The stage comedy centers on the dysfunctional Schwartz family, with the four grown Schwartz siblings (along with their mates) gathering for the yahrzeit of their father. The gathering turns into a messy free-for-all, as long-held family secrets begin to emerge.

Eikenberry and Tucker, a married Mill Valley couple, play Herb and Bonnie Schwartz, and Laufer is thrilled to have such distinguished actors tackling her work.

“I adore Jill and Michael,” she says. “They are brilliant actors. That’s the real final step. It’s not a play until it’s produced.”

Not that the Schwartz family wasn’t “real” in Laufer’s mind all along. Several characters are patterned after members of her own family.

“It’s really an amalgam,” she says. “Things wind up in my play and sometimes I don’t even mean them to. A lot of Herb’s speeches about Judaism I heard around my house. Anytime there was a news broadcast, no matter what it was about, my father would interpret whether it was good or bad for the Jews.”

According to Laufer, the play’s theme centers on the price one pays to maintain traditions. “There’s a tragic sense because they [the Schwartz siblings] are all spiraling away from each other. They’re generations apart in terms of Judaism and their heritage, and are increasingly affected by assimilation.”

That’s a matter of no small concern to Laufer, who remains proudly Jewish. In fact, unlike most Jews in America, Laufer literally grew up in the Borscht Belt. “I’m from the Catskills,” she says. “Liberty, N.Y., near Grossinger’s.”

Though her parents spent their teenage years working in the local hotels, the whole Catskill resort scene had begun to decline by the time Laufer came of age. No “Dirty Dancing” summers for her.

“Where I lived, it was very rural,” she recalls. “I spent a lot of time alone, writing.” She later went on to study theater, and built a career in New York as an actress and stand-up comic. Laufer co-starred in dozens of plays, all the while quietly thinking to herself, “I could write that.”

But her playwriting career only took off after enrolling in a course at Julliard several years ago. “I had no idea I could write,” she remembers, “until Marsha Norman told me I was a writer.” Norman, who is on the faculty at Julliard, is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “‘night, Mother” and “Getting Out.”

Since then, “The Last Schwartz” premiered at the Florida Stage and earned Laufer a 2002 Carbonell Award for “Best New Work” in South Florida.

Her connection to Florida Stage continues, as the company is set to produce her new play, “The Gulf of Westchester,” later this spring. “I’m really lucky,” she says. “The dream is to have a home where you’re comfortable beginning a new play, and I feel that way about them.”

As for her Jewish identity today, it remains rock solid, if a bit eclectic. “I’m not observant,” she says. “I would be an atheist, but I think that’s presumptuous. Still, I’m so Jewish. My father at 16 lied about his age to fight in World War II, the only Jew in his outfit. He raised us as freedom fighters.”

Meanwhile, Laufer says the most important thing in life now is raising her kids, though that doesn’t stop the Westchester, N.Y., resident from continuing to write, toddler or no toddler. “I wouldn’t know who I am if not working on a play,” she says.

And when her real-life kids get on her nerves, there’s always that universe of made-up characters in her mind, most of whom may someday wind up in a theater near you. “It’s a thrilling thing,” she says of those characters, “when they seem to know more about themselves than you did.”

“The Last Schwartz” by Deborah Zoe Laufer runs Thursday, Jan. 8 through Sunday, Feb. 8 at Marin Theater Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. Tickets: $28-45. For times: (415) 388-5208, or www.marintheatre.org.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.