Theatre Nova’s "Mazel Tov, John Lennon" engages with an odd couple true story
In 1972, John Lennon and Yoko Ono sought help from an immigration lawyer to extend their visas by six months so that Ono could continue to make her case in custody proceedings for her 8-year-old daughter.
They were put in touch with a mild-mannered, admittedly “square” immigration lawyer who had never heard of John Lennon, though he did know a little about The Beatles. Leon Wildes would find himself drawn into the muck and mire of the Nixon administration, a landmark immigration case, and a friendship with the mercurial, brilliant, and troubled rock star, cultural icon, and political activist.
Mazel Tov takes place in Wildes’ office in January, March, and November 1972 and October 1975.
Wells uses humor to contrast the famously snarky, quick-witted Lennon with the decent but stolid Wildes. But as time goes on, and the issues become more complicated and dangerous, Wells uses the past to comment on the present. At heart, the play is about the misuse of the law for political purposes as Lennon and Ono became targets of the paranoid Nixon and his regime of dishonest henchmen. Nixon saw Lennon’s anti-war activism as a threat to his re-election because of Lennon’s appeal to young voters. Wildes slowly learns that everything he valued in the Constitution was under threat.
Director Carla Milarch is restricted to a small set and two characters in telling an epic story. But she is able to get movement from the contrast between the middle-aged, uptight lawyer and the moody, at ease musician. She finds the right balance between the inherent comedy and the deeper, darker issues at hand. Most importantly, she gets excellent portrayals from her two-person cast.
Phil Powers gives a bravura performance as Wildes. His timing and bewildered facial expressions capture Wildes lack of savvy about the world beyond the law that he cherishes. Powers creates a warm portrait of a man centered by his occupation, his family, and his Jewish faith, as far from the avant-garde art and pop music world of John and Yoko as someone could be. Powers never overplays the naivety or underplays Wildes’ legal intelligence. He is also convincing in his despair when Wildes realizes the deep dishonesty of the government and betrayal of the Constitution.
Perhaps, Forrest Hejkal has the harder role. John Lennon was one of the most famous persons in the world. His voice and his movements were well known. Hejkal resembles Lennon, and he has that easy slouch. He is dressed in the fatigues that 1970s Lennon preferred. The voice is close. But more important, Hejkal does an excellent job of catching Lennon’s shifting moods. In some scenes, it’s clear that a manic Lennon has probably been using cocaine, and Hejkal has that rapid-fire talk and bouncing off the wall manner that cocaine users get. In a scene where Lennon is drowning his sorrows in rum, Hejkal captures that very different sluggishness. He also portrays Lennon’s warmth, sharp wit, and basic decency as he relates the pain of his youth and a growing rift with Yoko.
Hejkal also designed the handsome office set. He shows his drawing ability when doing a caricature of Wildes in Lennon’s famous style.
Wells’ play is a sharp take on the Wildes-Lennon relationship. It allows time for each of them to expose a bit about who they are. It also uses this relationship and Lennon’s immigration problems to comment on our current political situation. Immigration is again at the center of political turf fighting. We again have a president whose actions have raised complaints of government overreach. The play drags only briefly when Lennon goes on a tangent about the evolution of fear that runs just a bit too long. But Wells uses humor and outrage with equal skill.
The play has an Ann Arbor moment with the mention of Lennon’s support and participation in a rally for Ann Arbor poet and activist John Sinclair, who was sentenced to jail for possession of marijuana.
Lennon’s music from the period is played before the show and during breaks. This works well as the music reinforces some of the emotional struggles that Lennon was going through at the time.
Hugh Gallagher has written theater and film reviews over a 40-year newspaper career and was most recently managing editor of the Observer & Eccentric Newspapers in suburban Detroit.
"Mazel Tov, John Lennon" continues at 8 pm on Thursdays-Fridays and 2 pm on Sundays through April 14 at Theatre Nova, 410 W. Huron St., Ann Arbor. For tickets, call 734-635-8450 or visit theatrenova.org.