“Altman’s Last Stand” Reviewed by Dan Berkowitz

The word “charming” has fallen into disuse, if not disrepute, in recent years. In our blockbuster world, every new entertainment must, by definition, be “the biggest” or “the loudest” or “the most.” On the other hand, the definition of “charming” – “pleasant or attractive” – lacks any superlative, and as such seems not to appeal much to twenty-first century sensibilities. “Charming” implies a quieter, smaller pleasure, a bijou rather than the Hope Diamond. It tends to be used as a putdown, an insult.

I, however, intend to use it as a compliment.

Altman’s Last Stand is a charming play, a small but thoroughly satisfying delight. Well-written by Charles Dennis, crisply directed by Charles Haid, and shrewdly acted by Michael Laskin, it amuses us, moves us, and (quietly) sends us home with smiles on our faces.

Michael Laskin. Photo: Ellen Giamportone

Michael Laskin. Photo: Ellen Giamportone

Franz Altman was born in 1900, and at the age of 90 he finds himself a modest media celebrity in New York City. He runs an antiques shop, and has been fighting a developer who wants the space. His refusal to give in earned him an interview with Morley Safer on 60 Minutes, which in turn has led us to now, a chat with an (unseen) female reporter from People Magazine who’s come to the shop for an interview.

It’s a tense time, as Franz has only until 8:00 the next morning to have the shop’s decrepit wiring fixed – a job which will cost thousands of dollars – or else face possible eviction. Phone calls are coming fast and furious – from the developer, from Franz’s long-estranged wife, from an agent at William Morris wanting to represent him, even from a TV network interested in giving this new celebrity a talk show.

In between the calls, Franz reminisces about his eventful life, which included being analyzed at age seven by Sigmund Freud, living through World War II as an inmate at Auschwitz, fighting for Israel’s independence, and finding love and loss in Florida.

Michael Laskin. Photo: Ellen Giamportone

Michael Laskin. Photo: Ellen Giamportone

There’s a strain of melancholy in Franz, but also a playfulness and sense of daring which made itself known early on. At age nine, a sour-faced, cruel nanny was hired to oversee the boy. After discovering her weakness – she was deathly afraid of heights – he concocted an elaborate scheme to trick her onto a giant Ferris Wheel: when the car reached the top, he opened the door and terrorized her with his claim that he was her Angel of Death and she was doomed. Only after she agreed to quit the family’s employ did he close the door – just as the Ferris Wheel resumed its rotation and brought them down to earth.

One of the leitmotifs of the play is that this same woman recurs as a guard at Auschwitz who becomes responsible for the death of Franz’s mother, and as an ancient refugee after the war in South America, where she dies after being confronted by the vengeful Franz. It’s a chilling series of coincidences, and provides the darkest moments of the evening.

The brightest moments come from Franz’s seemingly-offhand, but breathtakingly skillful, juggling of people on the phone to inveigle not only the Mayor of New York, but also the Prime Minister of Israel, to show up at his shop at 8:00 the next morning when the eviction is promised – and to have the whole thing covered by the New York Times and every major network. The poor developer who’s been hounding him won’t know what hit him!

Mr. Laskin is suitably low-key, but with an energy and likability which makes the audience cheer for Franz to succeed in his David-and-Goliath battle. Mr. Haid has wisely directed the show with an absence of treacle: the moving moments are made even more so by the refusal of director and actor to yield to easy sentimentality. Franz Altman is a character – a bit prickly perhaps, but that’s who he is, and he isn’t going to change.

Michael Laskin. Photo: Ellen Giamportone

Michael Laskin. Photo: Ellen Giamportone

The set is a glorious mess of books, papers, and other detritus; designer Yee Eun Nam also designed the projections, which bring to life the people Franz talks about. The lights by Toranj Noroozi, costumes by Jeffrey Kurland, and sound by Corwin Evans all make strong yet subtle contributions.

Indeed, the only cavil I have is that the intermission is superfluous in this short show. True, the first act ends on a dramatic note, but Mr. Laskin is a good enough actor that I’m sure he would have made a fine transition to the next beat without the necessity of the audience getting up to stretch.

Altman’s Last Stand isn’t big, loud, or “most” of anything. But it’s quite well-done and worth your time. Charming.

Altman’s Last Stand
Written by Charles Dennis
Directed by Charles Haid

Through March 13

Zephyr Theatre
7456 Melrose Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90046

Tickets: 323-960-4412


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