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The Jewish Questions

In 1982, Ronald Kohn visited Miami and sat his father down with a cassette recorder, asking him to reminisce about some of the places he’d lived during his European youth. These were not exactly tourist destinations, for Louis Kohn had spent World War II, from the Anschluss to the Liberation, as a Czech Jew confined to one form of prison or another — first as a forced laborer under comparatively benign Hungarian control, and afterward as an inmate at some of the most infamous Nazi death camps. The younger Kohn, who is 51, uses this memoir — narrated by Louis — for part of an hourlong solo show, Liberation Day, currently running at City Stage. The performance’s other component is Ron Kohn’s detailing his unsuccessful attempt to build an acting career in Hollywood.The evening is an unsettling encounter, and for unexpected reasons. Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Bergen Belsen — the brutal consonants of these names, which mark Louis Kohn’s forced migration across occupied Europe, still strike a deep chord of dread in many people. Yet, under a survivor’s stoic recall, they glide past as just another part of life’s inevitable sorrows, a barbed-wire landscape to be borne with a fatalistic shrug. Early on, Louis marvels at why his son — or anyone else — would be interested in what happened in the camps, as though he’d been asked to describe the engine of his first car. What emerges are accounts of small, day-to-day events — how the inmates were given coffee made from watered grounds and how it was almost certain that inmates who were strangers to manual labor during peacetime would perish. And there were the nice people Louis met along the way, including an inexperienced young tailor for whom Louis gets a safe job in Buchenwald and a Belgian priest who prayed for the inmates and who himself died. Ronald Kohn: Trying to fill his father’s shoes in Liberation Day Ronald Kohn’s own account of trying to make it in Hollywood, a story that he juxtaposes with that of his father as he switches back and forth, assuming each role, is startling for its mere inclusion. It requires an enormous amount of chutzpah to complain about having a weakness for Banana Republic shoes and getting dumped from a TV-contestant role in The Dating Game, then, a moment later, to assume the voice of a father who lives off raw potatoes and gets beaten by an SS guard. And yet, against all odds, Kohn pulls off this trick to present two histories of sorrow and quiet triumph.When, after moving to Los Angeles in the early 1980s, Kohn finds himself jobless, he enters theater grad school at UCLA. Acting instructor Delia Salvi may not have been as harsh as Louis’ guards, but to Ron she was part of a road of obstacles that formed his own private war. Kohn never pushes his comparisons and leaves it to us to gasp at the seeming hubris of a son trying to bridge the chasm between his and his father’s hardships; we leave the theater understanding that everyone is dealt a certain hand in life — concentration camp or grad school — and all we can do is make the best of that hand.Though there are some nice vignettes — about working a hospital takeout food counter, from where he can glimpse Ali McGraw and Barbra Streisand, and a rather raucous scene in which he applies his flair for European accents to get a blowjob from a Texas girl — Kohn seems too reticent to completely open up about his own life. There’s no turning point to suggest the epiphany that eventually led him away from acting and to a doctorate in clinical psychology.We are given tantalizing glimpses into a drinking problem — in one scene, Kohn is arrested on Venice Beach for public intoxication, after assaulting a pay phone. However, he quickly whisks us past this low point and soon wraps up the evening in a flurry of happy rehab talk — even though he never delves into that rehab or the details of his addiction.It helps the show that Kohn, intelligently directed by Carlos Lacamara, is a personable performer who is thoroughly convincing as his father without making the latter an overly sentimental construct. The new City Stage space is essentially a large studio fitted with lights and risers; Miguel Montalvo’s set consists of some old-fashioned furniture, rugs and mementos. It’s up to lighting designer Kathi O’Donohue’s light shifts and Kohn’s own gestures to demarcate the transitions from father to son, from one version of American success to another. Jamie M. Fox’s In Dependence is another solo performance that touches on dependencies and Jewish family life. Like Kohn, Fox is an engaging personality and is able to guide us through 65 minutes of familial turmoil without making the tour seem like shtick. Her stage alter ego, Alissa Golden, is a beaten-down personal assistant to a mid-level celebrity named Cheryl, who lives somewhere on Beverly Glen Boulevard and is so insecure she feels the need to cultivate a stalker to prove her popularity. At one point, Cheryl calls Alissa to tell her she’s discovered a new yoga class: “Would you make me do it every day?” she meows to her harried assistant.Cheryl is a stickler for white wicker baskets and cannot abide to hear electronic beeps and vibrations. She is also the kind of self-deluded “star” who is so painfully sensitive to failure that she must be protected from the real world by human shields like Alissa.The show begins with Alissa training a temporary replacement — she must head home to deal with her brother Sam’s pending trial for cocaine distribution. What she runs into is Hurricane Mom, a hyperactive controller who counts calories, and orders up a birthday dessert for Alissa — on a day that it isn’t her daughter’s birthday. This, then, is the crux of In Dependence — the anticipated liberation of a woman who works as a flesh-and-blood doormat while being treated as a Jewish Cinderella by her own family. It’s a familiar premise that is often difficult to pull off onstage; there are very few Julia Sweeneys — performers who can parlay the selfishness of others into a winning narrative, and many soloists mistakenly believe all they need to win an audience’s approval is to show how insensitively the rest of the world treats them.Under Jeff Weatherford’s smart direction, Fox nimbly darts from one scene to the next, from character to character and back again, without skipping a beat. Her biggest tormentor, it turns out, is not the airy-fairy Cheryl but her own mother, a jabbering yenta whose endless quest for approval and self-improvement, nevertheless, occasionally hints at a deep suburban pathos. In an evening of broad portrayals, perhaps the least successful is the Latina whom Alissa sits next to in a courthouse while awaiting her brother’s hearing. “Ethnic” impressions are a kind of foreign-language requirement for white comedians and performance artists. Danny Hoch and Eric Bogosian are among the very few Caucasian performers who can convincingly “do Hispanic” without their characters sounding like Jose Jimenez, 1960s comic Bill Dana’s insulting Puerto Rican doorman character. Let’s just say Fox’s Latina needs work.By show’s end, Alissa, mercifully, is able to gather the nerve to stand up to everyone and forces a reluctant Cheryl to give her time off, while facing down her mother in a memorably harrowing restaurant scene.Yet, like Kohn, she has a blind spot — her prisoner brother, whom she talks to but doesn’t impersonate. In this factually based story, Sam is perhaps the deepest source of pain and, because of it, deserves to be explored more fully. LIBERATION DAY | Written and performed by RONALD KOHN | Appears with Better Angels at the HAYWORTH THEATER COMPLEX, 643 Carondelet St., Westlake | Through December 4 | (213) 389-9860 IN DEPENDENCE | Written and performed by JAMIE M. FOX | At the COAST PLAYHOUSE, 8325 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood | Through November 9 | (310) 494-0115