Thursday, February 6, 2014 | return to: arts


Grumpy old Jew takes a wild ride in Charlie Varon’s new show

by dan pine, j. staff

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In “Feisty Old Jew,” Charlie Varon’s newest comic monologue, the protagonist, Bernie, lives up to his title. He’s cranky, irascible, a bit of a bear. But he’s also fearless and will not go gentle into that good night.

That might explain how 83-year-old Bernie ends up in a car full of San Francisco techies and betting them he could successfully surf on his first attempt, even though he had never before tried to hang 10.

Charlie Varon
Charlie Varon
Varon says he enjoys playing “a smart, feisty old character who gets free of the confines of the retirement home and winds up someplace he shouldn’t be. He’s sort of an octogenarian Curious George.”

The latest of Varon’s many one-man shows, “Feisty Old Jew,” begins its premiere six-week run Saturday, Feb. 8, at the Marsh in San Francisco. Varon’s longtime collaborator, David Ford, directs the show.

At 55, Varon is nowhere near his character’s advanced age. But could Bernie be a glimpse of Varon in the future?

“I hope not,” says the actor, “although I love his vitality. Of all the characters I’ve written and performed, I feel filled with energy when I take him on. His restless spirit keeps him going — and the fact that he’s always working an angle.”

In this case, Bernie finds himself ditching his fellow grumpy old men at the retirement home and, after growing impatient waiting for a cab in San Francisco, he sticks out his thumb and snags a ride with those latte-fueled tech workers.

It sets up a comedic struggle between working-class Bernie and the much younger neo-yuppies.

Berlie “is not a scholar, he is not a captain of industry, he is not a politician,” Varon says. “He made it by his wits and his guts. These men fascinate me. These Jewish men of my parents’ generation, who could take nothing for granted. Men who have something to prove in the world because of how little they started with.”

As in his previous works “Rabbi Sam” and “Rush Limbaugh in Night School,” Varon plays every character, including an all-knowing narrator. With no lighting, sound effects, costumes or props, “Feisty Old Jew” is basically raw storytelling.

“Sound, lighting and tech theater stuff would pull you out of the story,” Varon explains. “I focus on the simplicity of the narrator audience relationship.”

While writing the show, Varon interviewed many Jewish seniors in order to put himself in Bernie’s corrective shoes.

“I imagine myself in the hearts, minds and bodies of these old folks,” he says. “So it’s a love letter to my parents’ generation of American Jews, an attempt to imagine what they lived through. What is it like to remember the Depression and to see the truffle butter, coffee craziness and chichi restaurants of today?”

Like Bernie, Varon is a native New Yorker who came to San Francisco and adapted to the city’s bohemian tradition. When Varon moved here in 1978, life was affordable. The new play is as much a commentary on the gentrification of San Francisco as it is a meditation on aging.

“I don’t think I’m as angry as Bernie,” Varon says, “but certainly I see where he’s coming from. I’ve lived here 35 years. I know people who are benefiting from the tech boom and people hurt by the tech boom. In this show, people who see the city very differently wind up in the same car.”

The play is part of a larger cycle of monologues featuring Jewish seniors, which Varon calls “The Listener.” He has another show ready to go: “The Fish Sisters,” starring a female character, Selma Cohen, an 86-year-old Jewish prankstress.

As a performer, Varon has a large following in the Bay Area and beyond. He is also a voice actor and playwriting workshop leader.

But he seems to reserve his greatest sense of aesthetic wonder for the writing process. The improvisations that led to “Feisty Old Jew” still impact him.

“I was just carried along by the action,” he says. “This piece moves so fast, I was trying to write down what everybody was thinking and saying. Then I stepped back from it and said, ‘What just happened here?’ ” 

“Feisty Old Jew” runs Saturday, Feb. 8 to March 16 at the Marsh, 1062 Valencia St., S.F.


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