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Theater review: ‘Esther’s Moustache’ at Studio/Stage Theatre

November 10, 2011 |  1:54 pm

An inherited genetic trait becomes a quirky metaphor for irritating but inescapable cultural legacies in writer-director Laurel Ollstein’s amiable comedy “Esther’s Moustache” at the Studio/Stage Theatre.

The errant titular follicles sprout without warning from the upper lip of Maddie (Joanna Strapp), a reclusive 25-year-old artist who specializes in magazine cartoons about bawdy goddesses. Retreating from the baggage of her Jewish family heritage and her father’s recent suicide, Maddie spends an unhealthy amount of time in the imaginary company of her principal creation, an amusingly empty-headed statuesque siren named Lilith (Mara Marini), who gives Maddie an outlet to draw great sex even if she isn’t having it.

Maddie finds her carefully insulated cocoon breached from opposite directions — first by Gerd (Burt Grinstead), a handsome German fan with a crush on her, next by her domineering grandmother, Esther (Ellen Ratner), a Holocaust refugee with a penchant for revising history to suit her own convenience. Arriving on an uninvited mission to “fix” Maddie, Esther embodies the cultural DNA Maddie is determined to escape (from pushy personality to facial hair).

In the resulting tug-of-war for Maddie’s affections, Ollstein’s play navigates loaded stereotypes with a refreshingly breezy refusal to settle for predictable outcomes. The script’s limitations — including an ambitious but labored plunge into Maddie’s cartoon world — are handily overcome by the likable cast and whimsically low-budget design team (Maureen Weiss’ set and Pamela Shaw’s costumes). The piece finds its way to some heartfelt truths about cultural acceptance, though when characters start describing Jewish cooking as “delicious” we’ve clearly crossed into fantasyland. 

— Philip Brandes

“Esther’s Moustache,” Studio/Stage Theatre, 520 N. Western Ave., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 5 p.m. Sundays. Ends Dec. 17. $20. (323) 960-7792 or Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes.

Photo: Joanna Strapp, Burt Grinstead, Mara Marini and Ellen Ratner in "Esther's Moustache." Credit: Michael Lamont.