October 20, 2018

Up Front

Cast members from “The TenthMan.”

A woman in a fancy hat approaches Bert Dragin at Spago. She wantsto know if he is an actor, someone from “Dallas” or “Falcon Crest.”

Actually, the distinguished, sixtyish Dragin is not an actor; he’sa film producer who sold his Cleveland-based furniture business andmoved out here to get into the movies in 1981. But he is “doinglunch” at Spago to talk about his latest, very non-Hollywood project:directing Paddy Chayefsky’s “The Tenth Man” at the West Valley JewishCommunity Center.

Bronx-born Chayefsky, author of the Oscar-winning screenplays for”Marty,” “Network” and “The Hospital,” often wrote about hisfirsthand knowledge of the lives of American Jews. His 1959comedy-drama, “The Tenth Man,” which recalls the legend of “TheDybbuk,” takes place in a run-down, dwindling Long Island synagogue,where the elderly members gather each morning to pray, although theyare constantly searching for a 10th man to make a minyan. Thus, theyensnare Arthur Brooks, a young man in the midst of existentialcrisis, a role Dragin twice performed when he was doing theater at aCleveland JCC in the 1960s and 1970s.

Dragin, between bites of a cobb salad, says that he actually spoketo the playwright before he first played Brooks in 1967. “A friend ofmine grew up in the same tenement with Chayefsky,” he says. “She gaveme his telephone number and said, ‘Just tell him Mrs. Glucken said tocall.'”

Dragin, then a young man, had never before spoken to a famousauthor. But by the end of the half-hour conversation, Chayefsky hadhelped him understand his tortured character as “a man who believesin nothing.”

Today, Dragin insists that while the play is four decades old,”the themes of assimilation and the conflict between Orthodox andnon-Orthodox Jews still resonate,” he says.

For tickets and information about the shows, Feb. 7, 8, 14 and15, call (818) 587-3300.

Chekhov and Checks to UJF

Last November, émigré Milena Albert was struck by anad that ran in The Jewish Journal about poor, elderly Jews back inher native Russia. So the director, who emigrated in 1989, promptlytelephoned the United Jewish Fund of The Jewish Federation: Shewanted to donate 5 percent of the profits from her production ofChekhov’s “The Seagull,” which is currently playing at the HollywoodCourt Theatre, to help.

It’s no ordinary production of the classic, says Albert, who haswanted to stage “The Seagull,” the tale of a doomed writer, sinceseeing it at the Moscow Art Theatre as a girl. The Los Angelesproduction will feature Albert’s new translation of Chekhov’soriginal 1895 manuscript, the one that existed before czarist censorstampered with the play.

Albert came across the nine pages of censored dialogue in variousfootnotes and appendixes while working on her own translation, whichshe began “after reading seven English versions that weren’t true tothe “Russian spirit” of “The Seagull.” The censors apparentlyrequired Chekhov to tone down risqué elements in the play,among other changes, because the notion of extramarital affairsoffended their prudish sensibilities, Albert says. Chekhov was so fedup with the censors that he let a friend handle the matter after nineexasperating months.

The missing dialogue rounds out the supporting characters, so “theplay is much more an ensemble piece,” says Albert, who is putting up$9,000 of her own money to mount the play.

“The Seagull” runs through Feb. 15. For tickets, call (888)566-TIXX.

A scene from”The Seagull.”

all about brecht


Above, Bertolt Brecht. Below, David Catanzarite, artisticdirector of the Brecht centennial celebration.


When director-performance artist David Catanzarite was 8 yearsold, his mother, a Holocaust survivor, told him how her parents dugtheir own graves at Berdichev and were shot into mass pits. All thetown’s Jews perished that day, but the young woman survived the warby posing as a Christian.

The tale madean impression on Catanzarite, who, all his life, has been preoccupiedwith the stories of survivors, of people who endure. The obsessionled him to work in the political theater, conducting workshops withblacks from the townships of South Africa and performing inCzechoslovakia on the eve of the Velvet Revolution.

Of late, it has motivated him to plan an ambitious West Coastcentennial festival that honors Bertolt Brecht, perhaps the greatestpolitical playwright of the century.

Brecht, of course, was a Marxist who spurned romantic andexpressionist trends and experimented with new forms. He called hiswork “epic theater”: Often his characters directly address theaudience, commenting on the action, so that they “are in the streamand yet above it,” Brecht has said.

“The Threepenny Opera,” with music by Kurt Weill, was a hit in NewYork in mid-century, and the writer himself was a central figure inthe German exile community of Los Angeles, to where he fled from theNazis.

Since the 1960s, when social criticism was chic, however, somehave deplored Brecht’s work as didactic, Marxist grandstanding. Andthe playwright, who promoted himself as a communist martyr, wasexposed as less-than-heroic. Author John Fuegi, for example, stirredcontroversy by charging that the writer stole from his womencollaborators; at one point, Fuegi charges, Brecht’s wife, mistressand ex-lover lived unhappily under one roof.

Nevertheless, “The Threepenny Opera” remains a classic, and Brechtis still considered one of the most famous German authors of thecentury.

One can learn more about the man and the artist during thefestival, which runs Feb. 5 to 10, with two dozen free events thatwill include music, cabaret and a Brecht-a-thon — a reading of fiveplays, from “Mother Courage” to “The Caucasian Chalk Circle,” at theMidnight Special Bookstore.

At Villa Aurora in Pacific Palisades, where Brecht was a frequentguest in the 1940s, professional actors will read “Edward II.”

There will be a Caribbean-Creole version of “The Caucasian ChalkCircle”; a translation of “Baal,” influenced by the beat poets; and aJapanese American actress will play “The Jewish Wife,” a vignettefrom “The Private Life of the Master Race.”

“I sought the broadest possible range of directors andtranslations, to see how many ways we can make Brecht happen,” saysCatanzarite, who also heads the directing program at Pomona College.

If “Mother Courage” and “The Good Person of Setzuan” are survivorsof sorts, so was Brecht. He found himself near the top of the Nazienemies list; he fled with his Jewish wife across Europe and finallyto Santa Monica, where he was appalled by the status of “art ascommodity” in Hollywood, Catanzarite says. He was dissatisfied by hismodest success in the film business. By 1947, he had had enough ofAmerica.

Brecht was summoned to testify about his ties to communist circlesbefore the House Un-American Activities Committee; he appeared at thehearing with airline tickets in his pocket and left the country forgood the next day. Excerpts from his taped testimony will be playedat the “Brecht-on-Brecht” reading on Feb. 10; apparently, Brecht gotthe better of his interviewers by playing the fool. Some time later,he remarked that his interrogators were better than the Nazis: “TheNazis wouldn’t have let me smoke,” he quipped.

For more festival information and a schedule of events, call(909) 607-4385.