Esther's Moustache

Laurel Ollstein's goofy fantasy-satire examines the impossibility of denying one's past. She's talking specifically about the Jewish past, but she implies a broader view. Maddie (Joanna Strapp) is a young Jewish woman who has turned her back on her heritage and makes her living drawing a comic strip about her alter ego, a voluptuous blond goddess named Lilith (Mara Marini). Maddie has also become a recluse: She never goes out, ordering in her food and having her artwork picked up by messenger. But her solitary existence is threatened on several fronts. She seems to be growing a moustache. And her traditional Jewish grandmother, Esther (Ellen Ratner), suddenly appears, trundling her large steamer trunk filled with family baggage. She has left New York City following the death of her son (Maddie's father) and announces she's moving in with Maddie, who's appalled at the prospect. Esther, undeterred, unpacks a portable kitchen from her trunk, and she sets to work peeling potatoes and making kreplach.

At this point, Gerd (Burt Grinstead) arrives. He's a buff and strapping German lad and the new messenger, come to pick up Maddie's comic strip. Esther, who tends to see history as one long series of pogroms, immediately brands him a Nazi. Thinking he might succeed in driving Esther away, Maddie pretends he's her boyfriend, and soon they topple into bed for a bout of noisy, obstreperous lovemaking, and Gerd is cavorting around in a pair of colorful Superman underpants.

Maddie attempts to exorcise Esther, but she has just gone to stay with Gerd, who's won her over by his interest in Jewish culture and religion. Soon he's not only a convert but Orthodox, complete with black attire, fur hat, and fringed tallith.

Ollstein's play is zany and funny, and if there are gaps in the logic, perhaps that's beside the point. As director, she has cast it beautifully and stages it with vigor. Strapp is all wistful desperation as beleaguered Maddie, and Ratner is every inch the indomitable Jewish grandma, even when she returns from Venice Beach in stylish lounging pajamas. Marini is an exotic presence as the sex-obsessed Lilith, and Grinstead brings enough sexy charm and energy to enliven his every scene.

Maureen Weiss provides the semiabstract set, depicting panels from Maddie's comic strip, and Pamela Shaw supplies the hilarious array of costumes.

Presented by Gus the Dog Productions at Studio/Stage Theatre, 520 N. Western Blvd., L.A. Nov. 5-Dec. 17. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 5 p.m. (323) 960-7792.