‘Feisty Old Jew’ makes modern audiences laugh, despite making fun of them

The Marsh Theatre/Kenny Yun/Courtesy

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Vigorish: Known in some circles as “the cut,” it refers to the sum charged by a bookie before he takes a bet from a gambler. Playwright and longtime artist-in-residence Charlie Varon — immediately after bringing his brilliantly offbeat monologue “Feisty Old Jew” to the Marsh on Saturday, March 14 —  elucidates in a post-performance Q&A upon the genealogy of the term, which is a Russian-originated word that resembles the Latinate “vigor” phonetically.

Once Varon successfully corrals the predominantly middle-aged, white audience into giddily yelling out “vigorish” to give them a momentary jolt of excitement, Varon made it clear that, to him, “vigorish” and “vigor” are one in the same.

“Feisty Old Jew,” Varon’s collaboration with director David Ford, is a critique of San Francisco’s lightning-speed transition from its cultural landscape as a domicile for the eclectic and diverse to a goldmine for upper-middle class tech-oriented millennials — a thoroughly nuanced barb on post-iPhone culture from a startlingly self-aware geezer all too eager to linger in the rotary phone age.

Varon’s “Feisty Old Jew” chronicles the journey of crotchety octogenarian Bernie Schein as he ventures out of his cushy assisted-living residence, abandoning the early-rising compatriots he shares his mornings with, and journeys onto the invariably gentrified San Francisco streets.

Two facts about Schein are made sufficiently apparent within the production’s first 10 minutes: First, Schein abhors the yuppie culture co-opted by the hordes of 20-somethings who have turned San Francisco into a haven of bourgeois kitsch and weed dispensaries. Second, Schein is quietly devious — a bookie turned broker whose mental cogs, even at 83, still operate at peak efficiency.

Upon failing to hail a taxi on Post Street, Bernie hitchhikes a ride across the Golden Gate Bridge, an endearingly antiquated notion in the Uber age.  Not one to linger in the outdated like the elderly persona he puts on, Varon injects the “mysterious wanderer” trope with a smidge of Silicon Valley excess and a dash of tomfoolery. The strangers Schein hitchhikes with? A tech mogul of some Facebook data-mining startup, his coupon-critiquing writer-sister and a mostly-anonymous third-wheel surfer bro. Their vehicle of choice? A Tesla — with two surfboards placed on top and a built-in cappuccino machine. Of course.

Throughout the car ride, Schein further stupefies the passengers in the car, who originally perceive him as an Alzheimer’s-riddled, senile buffoon whose elderliness has rendered him incompetent. Schein’s bookie background provides a layered nuance of mad genius into the otherwise embittered grouch’s bearing. His slyness manifests itself as he feigns sleep and eavesdrops on the passengers and their discourse revolving around him, sizing them up in the Tesla to find an angle to deceive them.

In the midst of his internal monologue denouncing the plague of foamy coffee drinks upon the WASPy masses and unveiling the not-so-secret, never-expiring Bed Bath and Beyond coupon, Schein stumbles upon the opportunity of a lifetime to scam the youngsters — gaining $400,000 in company stock by riding a surfboard and catching a wave for the first time in his life.

Does he succeed? That’s beside the point. Schein’s 20th century craftiness was sufficient in deceiving the Tesla-riding yuppies he viewed with the utmost disdain — a testament to the resilience of the AARP crowd.

Varon serves up the cunning elderly wisdom of Schein with an indescribable charisma, dizzying and vivacious and filled with the unwavering energy required to capture an audience with a single tale for an hour. Yet the faux Indian affectations he incorporates throughout are leery, his satirical stunts venturing into essentialist, stereotypical ground.

“Feisty Old Jew”’s most enlightening pleasures come in its afterword, where Varon describes his play as a paean to his parents and the lifelong adoration of theatre they instilled in him. Varon invested hours in convalescent homes, requesting feedback from the elderly Jewish folks to substantiate upon his work. Embedding a sentimental sincerity to “Feisty Old Jew”’s witty, rapid-fire recall makes it a worthwhile bet — a sweet “vigorish” worth spending your weekend on.

“Feisty Old Jew” will be playing at the Marsh in Berkeley until March 22. The play will return for an extended run from April 4 to May 16.


contact Joshua Bote at [email protected].