Droll, life-affirming monologist merits a look-see

Charlie Varon adopts multiple identities, including the title character, in “Feisty Old Jew.” Photo: Myra Levy.
Charlie Varon adopts multiple identities, including the title character, in “Feisty Old Jew.” Photo: Myra Levy.

Charlie Varon changes his voice and face and characters as fast as Miley Cyrus can twerk.

In “Feisty Old Jew,” his new one-man show at The Marsh in San Francisco, he portrays twentysomething surfers and members of a retirement home breakfast club.

But easily his most memorable character is the cranky Bernie to which the title refers.

Varon being 55 didn’t stop me from totally accepting him in the mind and body of a gutsy 83-year-old determined to go out fighting.

The plot of the comic monologue involves a mega-rich Indian techie reared in California, his best-selling author sister and a white surfer who pick up hitchhiking Bernie in their Tesla, haul him across the Golden Gate Bridge, and watch him try to ride a wave near Bolinas — the outgrowth of an 800-to-1 bet that could net him $400,000.

It’s a droll theatrical exercise grounded in reality, yet encompassing multiple touches of exaggeration that made me smile again and again,

And I was not the least thrown by its surprising, fantastical wind-up.

A Jewish background isn’t necessary to enjoy the show, because it’s more about the changing human and cultural landscape of the Bay Area and the aging process than Jewishness.

Take that as gospel from this feisty old Jew (even though I don’t hate yoga studios or medical marijuana outlets as Bernie does).

Yes, he can seem to be the ultimate curmudgeon, especially during descriptions that indicate he despises young people in general and Tony Bennett in particular (for singing with Lady Gaga).

But Varon insists the play’s “about a city in flux…about what I see when I step out of our theater and walk down Valencia Street — the hipsters, the techies, the restaurants serving truffle butter and pink aioli. When I moved to the Mission District in 1978, my rent was $70 a month. Now people pay $70 a month just for lattes.”

The life-affirming show was developed, like other Varon works at The Marsh over 23 years, with director-friend David Ford.

And with additional heavy lifting from Varon’s life partner, Myra Levy.

The program guide credits no craftspeople for costumes, props, sound effects or lighting — because, as usual, Varon relies solely on his rubbery face, gift for mimicry and ability to write impressively descriptive passages and poetic prose.

This tour de force is similar to previous Varon outings I’ve seen — “Rush Limbaugh in Night School,” “Ralph Nader Is Missing!” and “Rabbi Sam” — in which he narrated tales through numerous characters, all of whom he ingeniously portrayed.

This one is different, though, because there will be future links — he’s working on an entire series of vignettes about geezers.

Indeed, because “Feisty Old Jew” runs only 45 minutes long, Varon added several minutes by performing a portion of “The Fish Sisters,” a work-in-progress featuring Selma, an 86-year-old prankster who’s time-traveled to age 11, peeking through a keyhole at a naked woman dubbed Queen Esther.

The first complete reading of that piece — a two-hour “tale of mischief” — took place March 9.

The night I caught “Feisty,” it was preceded by a dramatic extract of “The Disappearance of Alfred Lafee,” written and performed by Peter L. Stein, ex-TV producer-writer, documentarian, actor and director of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival who, Varon explained, “is finding his legs as a solo performer.”

Stein told me later that he’s been working on it for two years, and expects at least six more months of tweaking — with assistance from Ford, Varon’s director.

But “Lafee” is already enthralling as it uncovers a painfully true story about the secret life of a closeted 22-year-old San Francisco rabbi murdered in 1923.

If Stein’s piece still needs work, the lone problem with an evening with Varon is that street parking near The Marsh borders on impossible (although space normally is available at the nearby New Mission Bartlett Garage).

I’m 117 percent confident, however, that seeing “Feisty Old Jew” is worth the trouble.

“Feisty Old Jew” is scheduled to run at The Marsh, 1062 Valencia St. (at 22nd St.), San Francisco, through May 4. Performances, Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 2 or 7 p.m. Tickets: $25 to $100. Information: www.themarsh.org or (415) 282-3055. 

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