Ronda Spinak (left) with actors, writers and directors of “Matzo Ball Diaries.”

Celebrating Jewish Culture With a Homespun Mix


For two evenings last week, Deborah Kattler Kupetz’s midcentury modern family home in the winding hills of Brentwood underwent a Cinderella transformation when it became a makeshift theater. With 85 chairs set up in the living room and ambient lights casting moody spotlights onto four barstools at the fireplace, this was the setting for the Jewish Women’s Theatre and the performance of “Matzo Ball Diaries,” foodie monologues revolving around Jewish identity.

“I host these evenings because not only is it a privilege, it’s the ultimate hospitality,” Kattler Kupetz told the Journal. Hers is one of many homes and venues throughout the city hosting this program. The next performances are scheduled for Feb. 3 at Temple Isaiah in Los Angeles and Feb. 12 at Congregation Tikvat Jacob in Manhattan Beach.

At 7 p.m., audience members began arriving at the Kattler Kupetz home with canned goods for a Jewish Family Services food drive and homemade cookies for a pre-show nosh.

“Who are we as a people? What defines us as a culture?” Ronda Spinak, artistic director at Jewish Women’s Theatre, asked the audience before the show. The answers came as four actors performed vignettes about Sephardic and Ashkenazi customs, kugel, tomato omelets, pancakes, pork chops in cream, cheese blintzes, and, as the finale, matzo balls.

Lisa Klug, a Jewish Journal contributor, wrote the matzo ball closer, a piece called, “A Jewish American Love Poem,” from her humorous book “Hot Mamalah: The Ultimate Guide for Every Woman of the Tribe.” Usually performing it as slam poetry, she had flown down from San Francisco specifically for the premiere of the show.

“This is the first time that my writing is being staged in a theatrical production, and I didn’t want to miss it,” she said. The fact that the production was staged in a home made the experience more thrilling for Klug, who has watched her poem evolve with each performance.

On this particular evening, Cliff Weissman, the only male among the actors, was in the middle of a monologue when the doorbell rang. This is how it goes with the Jewish Women’s Theatre; with performances held in homes, salon-style, phones sometimes ring. So do doorbells. But in the spirit of any performance, the show must go on.

“Partly, it was an economic decision to go into homes, and partly it was reviving and reinventing the tradition Jewish women have had,” Spinak told the Journal. The group also owns The Braid, a performance space and art gallery in Santa Monica, which now is showing “Nourishing Tradition,” an art exhibition with themes similar to those in “Matzo Ball Diaries.”

“What a wonderful way to perform!” gushed actress-writer Shelly Goldstein, an artist-in-residence at Jewish Women’s Theatre who performs in the show. “You don’t have to worry about sets and costumes or props. It’s the most honest, the most generous. It’s raw.”

The production is bare-bones. Actors read from binders, evoking the feeling of a cold-reading. At times, the spare presentation can feel uncomfortable and expository. In “My Lekker Figure,” a monologue adapted from Robyn Travis’ book in progress “The Tokoloshe,” actress Emma Berdie Donson talked about her eating disorder, her skeletal figure and protruding hip bones. The audience fell dead silent.

“Oh, dear” a woman gasped.

“What I love is how powerful the material is received when you just strip it down to the words and the performance,” said “Matzo Ball Diaries” director Susan Morgenstern. “We talk about the teeniest of things, the smallest of pauses, and the inflection and what they mean and how they’ll be received. So it’s really careful detailed work.”

There are moments of levity, as well, when the audience becomes part of the performance; because the venue is a home, the “fourth wall” between actors and audience is often broken.

“I love the piece about brisket,” said Morgenstern, referring to a monologue by Rene Moilanen, “The Secret to Brisket,” which chronicles a granddaughter’s sifting through her grandmother’s recipe book, only to find that each recipe is composed of instant mixes and microwave instructions.

The secret to her grandmother’s brisket? Lipton’s Onion Soup Mix. It’s a running joke throughout the monologue that catches on and soon has the audience chiming in, saying the catchphrase with the actors: Lipton’s Onion Soup Mix. Women in the audience laughed, nodding their heads, maybe because they, too, use Lipton’s Onion Soup Mix in their brisket.

It’s through these stories, about brisket or matzo balls or whatnot, that the narratives of Jewish women (and men) are told. “Stereotypes about Jews are everywhere in society, so we’re trying to hold up a mirror to ourselves in a way,” Spinak said. “We try really hard to offer up a full range of who a Jew is today. We have a very broad view of that.”

The Jewish Women’s Theatre tries to peel away the stereotypes through its productions. The 2017 season continues with “Exile: Kisses on Both Cheeks,” about the Sephardic traditions (March 18-April 3), and “More Courage,” about the correlations between Muslims and Jews (May 6-22). Also, on Feb. 16, Rain Pryor, the daughter of Richard Pryor, teams up with the   Jewish Women’s Theatre to present her one-woman, autobiographical show, “Fried Chicken and Latkes.” It will run for six weeks at The Braid..

Additional shows are being planned by the Jewish Women’s Theatre’s millennial group, NEXT @ The Braid, funded by Jewish Community Foundation’s Cutting Edge Grant and The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. The millennials are receiving writing submissions through Feb. 20 on the theme “The Space Between,” a show about divisions and finding common ground.

“We need to see our stories. We need to hear our voices. It would be nice to see a well-rounded representation of who we are,” Goldstein said.

Which brings up the question: Who is the Jewish woman?

“She is not one thing,” Goldstein answered.

She is an old family recipe. She is challah rising in an oven. She is a mother-in-law’s kugel recipe. She is Lipton’s Onion Soup Mix.

Egyptian actors, told they were on Israel TV, turn violent [VIDEO]


Egyptian actors on a hidden camera television show reacted violently upon being told they were being aired on an Israeli TV channel.

Excerpts from the show, part of satellite TV channel Al-Nahar’s special Ramadan programming, were translated and distributed this week by MEMRI-the Middle East Media Research Institute.

In one show, Egyptian artist Ayman Kandeel attacks the producer, who had identified himself as Israeli, and slaps the host, causing her to fall to the floor.

Realizing he has been pranked, Kandeel tells the host that she brought it on herself and offers to rub lotion on her back where she has been hurt.

Actor Mahmoud Abd Al-Ghaffar also reacts violently, pulling a producer by his hair and fighting with other staff members.

“If you weren’t a girl, the moment you told me you were Jewish … I hate the Jews to death,” he said.

“We are all Egyptian. Long live Egypt,” the show’s host says.

In another episode, Egyptian actress Mayar Al-Beblawi calls all Israelis whiners and complains that all they do is “continue to cry over the Holocaust, or whatever they call it.”

The show’s host later praises the actors, saying “I didn’t know there could be such patriotism, but it exists in every Egyptian who breathes the air of this country.”

[Warning: This video contains explicit content]

Theater: A generation’s history, one life at time


“Showing Our Age” is a play about stories, and the fact that everyone has one. It’s a project that I started more than 10 years ago, though not specifically as an idea for a play. I was a participant in a community outreach program in which we interviewed senior citizens, used their remarkable life stories to write monologues and then performed them for the seniors and their families. The simplicity of just the details of a life — without sets or costumes — created some of the most powerful theater I had ever been involved with. And I have been involved in theater for a very long time, as an actress, writer, director and teacher. I wanted more! I wanted to take this idea and expand it.

That was when About Productions, a Los Angeles-based theater company I had worked with before, became involved. They supported the idea ” target=”_blank”>http://www.aboutpd.org/

Theater: Updated ‘Anne Frank’ production shows harder side, and tears


The Rubicon, Ventura’s ambitious professional theater company, offended a small number of local Jewish theatergoers last December by putting on a musical play, “Back Home Again: A John Denver Christmas Show,” a collection of the late singer’s holiday songs, which not surprisingly included some specifically Christmas melodies. Some thin-skinned Jewish patrons walked out in protest, which was a pity.

But the Rubicon has won back most of that wayward crowd with its latest production, “The Diary of Anne Frank,” with high-profile actors Bruce Weitz as Anne’s father, Otto, and Linda Purl as Mrs. Van Daan, the wife of one of the men hiding out in the concealed attic of Frank’s Amsterdam office in l944. Talented 14-year-old, Chicago-born actress Lauren Patten plays the 13-year-old Anne, who is 15 by the time the hideaway is discovered and they are shipped to concentration camps in the waning months of World War II.

Frankly, you can’t go wrong with “Anne Frank.” It’s such a powerful play even decades after it was first produced on Broadway, as adapted by Lillian Hellman. Her diary has been translated into 67 languages, and the book has become part of American students’ required reading list.

This production, which runs through April 1, is very much a family affair. James O’Neil, who founded the Rubicon with his wife, Karyl Lynn Burns, directs the play, and Burns, the driving force behind Rubicon’s success, plays Anne’s mother.

This version is Wendy Kesselman’s 1997 adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, “Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl,” which includes additional pages from Anne’s writings.

It is an updated, tougher, harder-edged story that emphasizes the teenager’s growing sexuality, as well as the family’s Jewishness, often previously de-emphasized in misplaced attempts at universality — which includes a heart-warming Chanukah celebration with the entire cast perfectly reciting the Hebrew blessings.

This version’s epilogue does not sugarcoat the story, with Weitz reporting in graphic detail on the terrible fate of the play’s protagonists, including Anne’s death in Bergen-Belsen at age 15.

For many, this is probably their first stage exposure to this classic story, although it has been mounted on stage and screens, big and small, many times since its publication.

O’Neil opted for a production with commendable emphasis on the humanity of the characters, with all their often contradictory virtues and failings. But the direction was sometimes muddy and the arrival of the Nazis veers toward caricature and is strangely anti-climactic.

Nevertheless, it is a first-class effort with some outstanding performances and a deep sincerity underlying the entire production. Well worth the trip to Ventura.

“The Diary of Anne Frank” runs through April 1 at the Rubicon, 1006 E. Main St., Ventura.

Ivor Davis writes for The New York Times and Los Angeles Times syndicates.

Theater: The Catskills, a sonata mit a tvist


Question: What’s vodka and orange juice?

Answer: A drink invented by communists living in Florida.

If that sounds like a Borscht Belt gag of the late 1950s, you’re in the right place and proper mood for a date with “The Catskill Sonata.”

The play, now in its world premiere run at the Hayworth Theatre, is directed by Paul Mazursky (“Bob&Carol&Ted&Alice,” “Enemies, a Love Story”) and written by Michael Elias (“The Jerk,” “The Frisco Kid”).

Both draw inspiration from their own Catskill days — Elias was actually born in the mountains, and both he and Mazursky passed their Borscht Belt apprenticeships as waiters and comedians.

Set a week before the season’s opening at Rosen’s Mountain View Hotel, a bohemian off-Borscht Belt resort that has seen better days, proprietor Anne Rosen (Lisa Robins) caters to left-leaning writers, musicians and artists, whose job it is to mingle with the easily awed paying guests.

However, this year the artists in residence are not as chipper and argumentative as in past seasons. The McCarthy-era blacklist of “communists and fellow travelers” has cast a pall over newly-ostracized artists and those fearing a similar fate.

Nevertheless, the resort has engaged hunky looking Dave Vaughn (Kip Gilman) as the year’s “intellectual tummler,” or funmaker. Dave, a comedy writer for Arthur Godfrey’s show, has a wonderful head of hair and a physical resemblance to a young Robert Mitchum.

Dave is also acerbic, unhappily divorced, a dedicated womanizer and heavy drinker, who carries around a bitter secret. He spends much of his time knocking down the aforementioned vodka and orange juice, seducing women, alternately counseling and offending fellow employees and guests and mentoring 17-year-old bellhop Irwin Shukovsky (Daryl Sabara) in the ways of sex and writing.

Sharing the stage with Dave are Rae Isaacs (Lisa Chess), a blacklisted concert pianist; Leo Schwartz (Zack Norman), a businessman who wants to convert the bohemian retreat into a Chasidic center; and Ernie Korn (John Ciccolini), the exasperated manager of the place.

After a slow start, “Catskill Sonata” picks up the pace and the punch lines, which are interlaced with telling observations on the political condition of the country and the human struggles of a failed artist.

One scene alone is worth the price of admission ($20), a dream sequence in which Dave teaches Stalin to cha-cha-cha. In turn, the old dictator, worried that the Soviet Union is falling behind Americans in comedy shows, offers Dave a job as the Kremlin’s chief comedy writer — until he learns that Dave and most of his ilk are Jewish.

“Catskill Sonata” plays Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings through April 14 at the Hayworth Theatre, 2509 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles.

“Catskill Sonata” plays Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings through April 14 at the Hayworth Theatre, 2509 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. For tickets or more information, call (800) 838-3006 or visit www.brownpapertickets.com.

Persian Jews break with tradition to break through in Hollywood


The generation of Iranian Jews who escaped Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution with their parents and traded a fearful existence for lives in New York and Los Angeles are now emerging in the entertainment industry.

Whether it’s producing Oscar-winning films, appearing on prime-time network television series or performing stand-up comedy, young Jews of Iranian heritage have been breaking with their community’s traditional norms and leaving their imprint on Hollywood.

Perhaps the most notable success came last year when Iranian Jewish film producer Bob Yari’s independent film, “Crash,” won the best picture Oscar and generated nearly $100 million in worldwide sales.

“I had a gut feeling that it would be something special, but you never know, so I was hoping and my hopes came to fruition,” said Yari, 45, whose four production companies have produced 26 independent films in the last four years.

Yari made his fortune in real estate development but is no novice when it comes to Hollywood. After receiving a degree in cinematography, he directed the 1989 film, “Mind Games,” for MGM. The litigation involved in the film and its lack of success drove Yari away from the industry until five years ago, when he returned as a producer.

“I’m always interested in telling stories that I think touch people and mean something to people,” he said. “One of the things that’s always attracted me to film is its power to influence people to put aside their prejudices or judging people based on their heritage or color of skin.”

Yari is not the only Iranian Jew doing well in Hollywood. Nightclub and hotel entrepreneur Sam Nazarian, 31, is financing and producing films through his L.A.-based SBE Entertainment Group. His production company, Element Films, has produced seven films in the last three years and is slated to release three more this year, according to the Internet Movie Database Web site.

Some Iranian Jewish filmmakers are trying to parlay their success to tell their own cultural narratives. Soly Haim, a L.A.-based independent producer, is seeking financing for a documentary about how Iranian Jews helped Jews flee Iraq in the middle of the 20th century.

“Documentaries are hard to get financing for because, unlike films, documentaries usually go for television broadcasts, and the revenues generated do not match the revenues generated from feature films,” said Haim, 45.

In the meantime, Haim’s production company, Screen Magic Entertainment, this summer will release the independent film, “When a Man Falls in the Forest,” starring Sharon Stone and Timothy Hutton. The film revolves around an unhappily married woman who shoplifts to relieve the suffering brought on by her boring marriage and to find excitement in a small Midwestern town.

Yari, for his part, said he’s looking to develop a feature film about the events that led to the 1979 Iranian revolution and the collapse of the late shah’s regime.

Young Iranian Jews have also achieved moderate success working behind the scenes in television. The Academy of Television Arts and Sciences customarily honors the behind-the-scenes toilers, and at last year’s technical awards ceremony, Lila Yomtoob, a sound editor on the HBO documentary, “Baghdad ER,” became the first Iranian Jew to win an Emmy.

“I wasn’t expecting it at all,” said Yomtoob, who now lives in Brooklyn. “But when I saw that I was seated in the sixth row, I had a feeling I was going to win.”

“Baghdad ER” chronicles two months in the day-to-day lives of doctors, nurses, medics, soldiers and chaplains working in the U.S. Army’s premier medical facility in Baghdad’s Green Zone.Bahar SoomekhAfter completing film school in 2000, Yomtoob worked as a freelance sound editor on a variety of film and television projects, including “Two Weeks Notice,” which starred Sandra Bullock and Hugh Grant, as well as for the HBO series, “The Wire.” Despite her recent success, she said her family did not initially approve of her career choice in Hollywood.

“I would say that my decision to get into the industry was met with skepticism,” Yomtoob said. “My parents, my family, a lot of cousins are doctors and lawyers. My father wanted the same for me, but I went ahead and did it anyway.”

The acting bug has also bitten a number of young Iranian Jews. The best-known to emerge in recent years is Bahar Soomekh, who made her film debut in “Crash” in the role of a young Iranian woman named Dorri.

“It’s really scary with acting because there is no guarantee,” said Soomekh, a 30-something L.A. resident. “It’s so different than anything else, because in the corporate world, you do something and you see your success, but with acting you could go to audition after audition, and 90 percent of the time there is rejection.”

Since “Crash,” Soomekh has landed roles in other major films, including last year’s “Mission: Impossible III” and the horror thriller “Saw III.” Last year she also played the role of Margo in the ABC television series, “Day Break.” She said she has been showered with support for her career from other Iranian Jews.

“Wherever I go, people I don’t even know grab me, hug me and tell me how proud they are and how exciting it is for them to see someone on the big screen from their community,” Soomekh said. “It’s unbelievable how many people my age in the community tell me, ‘It’s always been my dream, and I’m living vicariously through you’.”

Another Iranian Jewish actor, Jonathan Ahdout, 17, was a regular in the 2005 season on the Fox television series, “24,” playing the role of a young Iranian terrorist.

“My biggest fear is becoming typecast as the Muslim Middle Easterner, because I think society today has their sights set on the Middle East, and it’s become a much bigger part of American culture,” said Ahdout, who lives in Los Angeles. “I don’t want to necessarily fuel any type of stereotype.”

Ahdout made his acting debut four years ago in the acclaimed film, “House of Sand and Fog,” which was about an Iranian family in the United States, starring Oscar-winners Jennifer Connelly and Sir Ben Kingsley. In 2005, Ahdout also played the role of Ike opposite Forrest Whitaker in the independent film, “American Gun.”

Thrown For A Loop


“Avi we’re doing some looping for a movie called, ‘The Mount of Olives.’ It was filmed in Israel and we’re looking for Hebrew and Arabic speakers.”
Being an actor and comic in Los Angeles, you run into some interesting gigs. When my friend, Joey, himself a Christian Arab from Lebanon, called me about this one, I couldn’t resist.

Looping is plugging in background sound for movies after they are shot so they sound more realistic. I had done some looping sessions before, but they were all in English. While this movie was also in English, there were plenty of scenes with Hebrew and Arabic in them. My Hebrew is far from perfect, but I can still pull off the Israeli accent so I was pretty sure I could do the job.

I got to the soundstage early in the morning, and the first person I met was a really nice guy named Sayid from Egypt. He was an accomplished actor, and I even recognized him from the movie, “The Insider,” with Al Pacino.

As everyone else arrived for the looping and we filled out paperwork, we began schmoozing a little. (I’m guessing the Arabs would use a different word to describe it.) There were people from Egypt, Sudan, a really sweet girl from Iraq, a Druze from Lebanon whose family lived in Haifa, and four other Israelis beside me. There were Christians, Muslims, and Jews with all different levels of religious observance. I myself had to leave a little early because the session was on Friday, as I observe Shabbat.

The first few scenes were harmless enough — we covered small background conversations, mostly in Hebrew. I immediately noticed that while we were all very friendly with one another, when it came to where we all sat, all the Israelis were on one side, and the Arabs on another. I didn’t read too much into it and figured it was just out of convenience as most scenes were in either one language or another.

“OK guys, I need all five Hebrew speakers. This is right after a bus bombing, and I need as much sound as possible. You’ll notice paramedics, victims, etc.”
All five of us approached the microphone. We watched the scene with no sound and it was pretty gory. There was blood everywhere. We each decided who we would cover on the screen and got started. When the cue came, we all immediately started screaming our parts. You heard shouts in Hebrew of “My leg, my leg!” “I’m bleeding help me!” “Where’s my father!” “Out of the way, move, move!”

The one Hebrew-speaking woman was doing a great job crying in agony. When the sound cue was over we all stopped, and Joey chimed in, “I don’t know what you guys were saying but … man. Really intense guys.”

I looked over toward the Arab speakers, and I noticed them all staring back and forth at each other. The Iraqi girl named Yasmin Hannaney, who couldn’t have been nicer, finally just looked at us all and said, “Wow guys.”

I could tell they were affected by it, but oddly enough we sort of weren’t. It just seemed like we were almost too used to seeing it.

Shortly after there was a scene at a gravesite where Kaddish was being said. Two women displayed prominently in the shot were answering “amen,” and they needed to be dubbed. The only two female voices we had were Yasmin and the other Israeli woman. Yasmin smiled as she asked us, “How do I say it, aymen or amen?” As we told her the right way she just smiled and thanked us.

The next few scenes shifted to shots of Palestinians at various rallies, and Joey asked if he could get as many guys up as possible: “OK guys, we need a lot of volume to cover the chanting. Sayid, why don’t you lead.”

I suddenly found myself, along with all the other Israeli men, chanting “Allah Akbar,” and various other chants about God’s glory in Arabic. I couldn’t help but grin as I was doing it. Here I was, an Israeli-born Jew raised in a hugely Zionistic family, chanting at a Palestinian rally. I’d even spent the last three years leading a group of comics to Israel to perform to help support the state. I was at least hoping I would get a good joke out of all of this.

I’m not sure how I would have felt had I had to do some scenes where the chants were “Death to Israel” or something similar. Luckily it never came up. The time just seemed to fly by. Before I knew it I had to leave, and Joey told me it was fine. He completely understood, as opposed to most Jews I deal with in Hollywood who seem to always give me problems over my observance.

I felt badly that I had to sneak out so quickly, not having said goodbye to everyone, but I’ve kept in contact with some of the people from the session. Yasmin and I have e-mailed back and forth, and she’s started an organization dealing with making films in the Middle East.

I was honored when she asked me if I wanted to be involved and immediately accepted. I invited her and some of the other guys to some of my upcoming shows.

It seems ironic that if you want to make a movie about Arabs and Jews fighting with each other, the only way you can make it work is if you have them getting along.

‘Hybrid’ Actor Crafts ‘Everyman’ Show


Is it possible for an everyman to be a leader? Can an everyman be a woman?

Ameenah Kaplan, who calls herself a “hybrid” — the product of an African American mother who converted to Judaism and a Jewish father — is directing, choreographing and co-producing “Everyman for Himself.” Appearing weekends at the Unknown Theatre in Hollywood, the show is a hybrid itself, in that it blends music, dance, theater and capoeira, an Afro-Brazilian dance form that incorporates self-defense maneuvers. Kaplan also wrote and conceived the production and, indeed, thinks of herself as an everyman.

Shaped by Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man,” Kaplan, 31, grew up in Atlanta, where she was bat mitzvahed and confirmed and where, she says, she would “float into different communities and never really fit into any of them.” As the only non-Christian among blacks, the only black among Jews, she says, “you’d be in a room and nobody sees you.”

Everyman, the title character in her show, played by Michael Gallagher, is both invisible and conspicuously visible. Where the other ensemble players paint their faces and wear togs like members of an African or Indian tribe, Everyman looks like a stiff businessman, donning a tie, starched shirt and long pants.

“Go with the flow,” is one of the adages he reads from a book, yet Everyman never quite fits in. He is singled out by one female character, who engages in a kind of martial arts match with him that is equal parts seduction and boxing.

None of Kaplan’s characters have traditional names; instead, they sport generic titles like Ball Girl, Judge, Bee and Boss. With the beat of African drums playing in the background as the ensemble characters teach Everyman to dance, there is the sense that we are witnessing an ancient ritual among primal beings.

In the production notes, Everyman is billed as a Buster Keaton/Charlie Chaplin “genius/fool”; he appears awkward, a modern man, exposed as if for the first time to the world of conformity that dates back to our days as early Homo sapiens in the Horn of Africa.

“People are essentially primal anyway,” says Kaplan, sitting on a couch in a lounge down the hall from her actors’ rehearsal hall. Wearing a head wrap that conceals her afro, Kaplan says, “We’re all simple and alike at the bottom. My acting training taught us that. Come into the room, get your shoes off and build the actor from the ground up.”

We share more than not, she says, pointing out “the visceral body connections celebrating those things that bring us together — sound, energy, drums, heartbeat, blood flowing.”

Kaplan has the slim, athletic body of a dancer; she has played numerous TV and legitimate theater roles, and sees herself first as an actor. She smiles when asked if she was somewhat conflicted over not playing the lead role herself, but she says that Gallagher embodies Everyman. She also stresses that every actor in the show contributes as much as the others. All of the actors play multiple roles: “The ensemble is the show. There are no supporting roles. No one’s playing crossword puzzles backstage. There are no cigarette breaks.”

One scene flows into the next, each one carrying totemic significance. The smallest prop — whether it’s a book, a jacket, a ball or a handkerchief (a nod perhaps to “Othello”) — becomes a talisman in this primordial landscape, where the characters speak very few words and those they do are often monosyllabic.

Everyman may be more Jesus than Adam. He must choose whether to fight or kill another man. Unlike the others, he is consumed with grief.

“What he’s going through is the human condition,” says Kaplan, whose work ethic really comes through in person. Reluctant to leave her actors for an interview, Kaplan never loses her graciousness and generosity; she has the maturity and seriousness of one who knows that, without her, the play will not proceed. Even during the brief interview, she wants to make sure that the actors are OK. At one point, she tells the stage manager that the actors will need her to be there for the next scene, involving some dance routines that they have not tried before.

As the interview ends, Kaplan, the everyman, springs to her feet with the physicality of Keaton. She will direct her cast without any crossword puzzle or cigarette breaks. She is anything but invisible.

“Everyman for Himself” plays Friday and Saturday nights at Unknown Theater, 1110 Seward St., near Santa Monica Boulevard, through April 29. For tickets and information, call (323) 466-7781.

 

Writer Kaufman Brings Offbeat to Stage


During the period he lived in New York and worked odd jobs, Charlie Kaufman once had a conversation with a colleague about Jews and height.

“I said Jews are small, she said Jews are tall. But I really couldn’t conceive of that,” he said. “I’m short, plus I had these uncles who had really shrunk and I knew that was my future if I lived that long. I guess I identified a lot with the Woody Allen version of being Jewish.”

Kaufman’s ingrained notions of Jewishness may have something to do with his highly idiosyncratic yet award-winning screenplays. He can’t say for sure, particularly since he’s no fan of definitive statements about his work or life.

“I don’t like to dictate how others should think,” he said. “Let people view things like a Rorschach test, and let them make up their own minds.”

Famous for penning those darkly comic and surreal films such as “Being John Malkovitch,” “Adaptation” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” the 46-year-old Kaufman has recently branched out into theater, where he continues to apply his open-ended ambiguity.

His latest project, called “Hope Leaves the Theater,” kicks-off UCLA Live’s season on Sept. 14 and stars Meryl Streep, Hope Davis and Peter Dinklage, who perform without sets, costumes or even eye-contact.

“It’s a sound play,” Kaufman said. “And I had to be very conscious of writing a script that wouldn’t work as a movie or a conventional play.”

Collectively titled “Theater of the New Ear,” the UCLA performances feature both Kaufman’s play and a new work by Frances Fregoli. Both plays rely on a technician responsible for simulating numerous sound effects. There’s also live musical accompaniment composed by Carter Burwell, who conceived the “New Ear” concept, which combines music, sound and text with minimal visual effects.

In Kaufman’s play, the three actors play three actors getting ready to perform a play. Later, Davis becomes an audience member, who voices every thought running through her head and eventually leaves the theater. Streep and Dinklage then portray characters that Davis meets on the street.

“With this medium, you’re limited by what you can present visually, but there’s also a certain freedom,” Kaufman said. “The actors can go anywhere, even thought they never leave the stage.”

Kaufman grew up in Massapequa, N.Y, and later in West Hartford, Conn. While his family belonged to an Orthodox shul, Kaufman didn’t have an especially religious upbringing. Jewishness took the form of reading Kafka or laughing at the humor of the Marx Brothers, Woody Allen and Lenny Bruce.

After graduating from New York University, where he studied filmmaking and acted in student productions, Kaufman spent the ensuing decade in a series of odd jobs that included working in the circulation department of a newspaper and in an art museum. After “turning 30 with no prospects,” Kaufman moved to Los Angeles and try his luck in TV. He broke into show business because of “luck and persistence.”

“An agent who repped a friend of mine had agreed to read a script I wrote,” he recalled. “I called him every week for a year to see if he had read it. Finally, his assistant read it.”

Several years and various TV gigs later, Kaufman hit it big with “Being John Malkovitch,” a film he did not expect to get produced but which earned him his first Oscar nomination. Some six years later, he maintains that his life “hasn’t changed all that much” and that his writing process remains the same.

“I don’t like to show my scripts to people when I’m working on them,” he said. “I get deflated very easily. I still spend a lot of time ruminating and getting stuck. I’m not the type of writer who has a routine.”

Kaufman added: “Rewrites are getting easier and yes, it helps to have taken someone’s money when you’re trying to finish something. It’s very hard to take yourself seriously as a writer when you have no way to prove it in some external way to people. So I guess it does make a difference that I know there’s an audience for my work.”

Kaufman, who’s married and has a young daughter, remains vigilant about keeping his private life exactly that. “You want to find out about my personal life?” he asks with a chuckle. “Just watch my movies.”

“Theater of the New Ear,” featuring “Hope Leaves the Theater,” Sept. 14-16, 8 p.m. at Royce Hall, UCLA. Tickets $38-$60. For information, call (310) 825-2101 or visit href=”http://www.uclalive.org” target=”_blank”>www.uclalive.org.

 

One Voice Gets Alexander’s Vote


For Jason Alexander, best known as Jerry Seinfeld’s hapless sidekick, George Costanza, a grass-roots peace initiative to promote Israeli-Palestinian peace is more than just “yadda yadda yadda.”

Alexander visited Israel this week to help launch One Voice, a project that hopes to empower people on both sides of the conflict through a public, electronic referendum.

As of Tuesday, Israelis and Palestinians will be able to cast ballots that allow them to present their positions on the key issues of the conflict. From their answers, a synthesized peace proposal will be crafted and then presented to leaders on both sides.

Alexander said the idea spoke to him because it held the promise of tapping into the majority on both sides who do want peace.

“The vision was so specific, so well-worked out about how to reconnect the sort of silent majority who have been silenced by the violence and get them reinvigorated and reinvested,” he said.

Speaking Tuesday at a news conference in Petach Tikva, Alexander predicted that he would be able to bring his children to Jerusalem and the West Bank city of Ramallah without fear within a year.

Alexander first heard about One Voice from its main organizers during a meeting at the home of fellow actors Danny Devito and Rhea Perlman last year. Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston, who are on the organization’s U.S. advisory board, were also at the meeting.

Organizers are planning to bring other celebrities to Israel to help promote the project and have established an entertainment council to help mobilize actors, writers, producers, directors and others to back it. Among entertainment industry members who have signed on in support of the idea are Ed Norton and Mili Avital.

While in the region, Alexander is planning to meet Israeli actors and members of the entertainment community in Tel Aviv and their Palestinian counterparts in Ramallah.

Daniel Lubetsky, a U.S. businessman, leads One Voice together with its Middle East director, Mohammed Darawshe, an Israeli Arab long involved in coexistence efforts. Lubetsky said the project is different than other recent alternative peace plans, because the plan’s specifics come from the grass-roots.

“We’re essentially a democratic process, where we are going straight to the people and asking them to express themselves,” Lubetsky said.

Participants in the poll will vote either by Internet at the site, www.silentnolonger.com, or via remote control on television sets, telephone, newspapers or voting booths. The organizers say results would then be tabulated by a computer system donated by IBM to the project. Those results would then be used to produce a consensus-style mandate that organizers say would accurately reflect the will of Israelis and Palestinians.

The referendum asks voters to comment on a series of proposals, including a two-state solution, the possibility of setting the 1967 borders as final borders and the evacuation of most Jewish settlements as part of a peace deal.

After Alexander toured Israel in 1991 at the end of the first Gulf War, “Israel went from absolute zero in my life to something I really became concerned with and passionate about,” he said.

The actor said Jews in Hollywood seem to be reluctant to speak out on the subject of Israel. Some, he said, think they will immediately be seen as choosing the Israeli side because they are Jewish if they say anything. Others, he said, priding themselves as leftists, choose to overtly side with the Palestinians.

“In both cases I guarantee you that most of them do not understand the history or nature of this conflict,” Alexander said. “American secular Jews distance themselves from Israel; I was just as guilty before I came here.”

Part of what draws him to Israel, Alexander said, is what he described as the passionate involvement of Israelis in their country. He said he misses seeing that involvement in the United States and that his character, George, was void of it altogether.

“George would not know Israel was on the map,” Alexander said. “George and his cohorts were the most supremely selfish people in the history of television, and anything that did not happen in their apartment and diner was outside of their field of experience. So the best you could get was he’d come here and try to recruit a ballplayer for the Yankees.”

‘House’ of Oscar Fever


Jewish talent and themes scored only modestly in the Oscar nominations announced Tuesday.

However, there was recognition for the critically acclaimed “House of Sand and Fog” by Vadim Perelman, a 39-year old native of Kiev, in his first feature film.

Although Perelman did not make the best director category, the film won three nominations: Ben Kingsley, who told this reporter that he had a Jewish grandparent on his mother’s side, was nominated for best actor honors for his role as a proud Iranian immigrant.

Shohreh Aghdashloo, playing his wife, was nominated for best supporting actress, and James Horner for the musical score.

In the nonexistent “Jewish role by a non-Jewish actress” category, Diane Keaton was nominated for best actress as a playwright romanced by Jack Nicholson in “Something’s Gotta Give.”

The documentary feature category, which has been traditionally hospitable to Jewish and Holocaust themes, includes two nominees: “Capturing the Friedmans” about a highly dysfunctional Jewish family on Long Island (N.Y.), and “My Architect,” chronicling the professional triumphs and unorthodox personal lifestyle of American architect Louis Kahn, created by his son Nathaniel Kahn and Susan R. Behr.

“American Splendor,” about Jewish comic book cult favorite Harvey Pekar, earned an adopted screenplay nomination for writers Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Behr.

Among foreign language films, neither Israel’s “Nina’s Tragedies” nor the Palestinian entry “Divine Intervention” made the cut.

My Parents, Magic Makers


When I was young, my brother and I were trained to enter our house through the back door because, in all probability on a Wednesday afternoon, a rehearsal was taking place in the large living room of our Burbank house.

The den, which was equally large, had a round maple table that sat six, a beige couch, an enormous hutch, an upright secretary, an easy chair and bookshelves overflowing with books on Judaism, philosophy, theater and art. The living room had nothing. Not even a chair. My parents could not afford to furnish two rooms. (The den furniture was mostly castoffs from my grandparents.) But the main reason the living room was empty is that my parents were actors and needed a place to rehearse.

I remember once peeking through the crack in the sliding door that separated the living room from the hallway and seeing my mother and father sitting cross-legged on the floor drinking imaginary tea out of imaginary tea cups and thinking, “How can I ever explain to my friends what it is that my parents do?”

It was embarrassing: my parents weren’t real actors; they didn’t perform in plays or on television or in film. They stood behind two black stands that held their scripts and they pretended to be different characters. Their regular venues included Hadassah, B’nai B’rith, National Council of Jewish Women, ORT, The Jewish Federation, United Jewish Appeal, the Jewish Community Centers and Hillels. The fact that they worked steadily didn’t impress me. That they had a loyal following and received fan letters didn’t count. Real actors memorized their lines, wore costumes and played only one character, either on stage or in front of a camera.

My father, Stanley, looked like Tyrone Power. With his matinee idol good looks and a solid background in theater and radio, he had moved to Los Angeles with my mother, Rena, after the war to pursue work in film. While mom put her career aspirations on hold to raise my brother and me, dad’s career took off. He costarred in several movies and was on his way to becoming a movie star when his career was abruptly cut off by the Hollywood blacklist that swept the industry in the mid-’50s, taking with it the livelihood of hundreds of actors, directors and writers.

When the dust cleared, my father was selling furniture in a store on Western Avenue. Mom, scrambling to help make ends meet, developed a unique form of play-reading: she took contemporary Broadway hits, cut them down to 45 minutes and presented them in a one-woman show, playing all the parts. She was hired by Jewish women’s organizations. This earned her a solid reputation in the Jewish community and, before long, she had more work than she knew what to do with. It was then that dad quit his sales job and became part of her act, taking over the male roles. Since they were working outside the film industry, they weren’t vulnerable to the blacklist.

After a time, they stopped performing Broadway plays and performed material that they wrote themselves, building a program around a common theme using poetry and dramatic excerpts from plays. They wrote “Behold the Beautiful,” “For Better or For Worse,” “Behind Every Man” and “How Do I Love Thee.” Then they stopped using the work of other writers entirely and created their own plays. “Miracle at Midnight” is about the conflict between a Danish couple when the husband wants to hide a family of Jews from the Gestapo. “Please Call Me Sol” is about a widow committing to a new relationship. “The Affair” is about the temptation of a shipboard romance and a renewed commitment to marriage. “A Table for Two” takes place in the airport restaurant after Hal and Bella put their last child on a plane to college. “Welcome Home” is about a terrible argument between Lil and Jerry after they return from a wonderful vacation. “Boxes” is about a husband and wife discovering their past as they clean out the attic. “Yellow Daffodils” is about what happens when a man’s mother comes to live with him and his wife.

I now realize what I couldn’t appreciate as a girl: my parents used their art to hold up a mirror; their stories reflected what they — and their audience — were experiencing, each play a depiction of what they were going through in their own lives. Furthermore, they were working actors — not in front of a camera; not with props and costumes on a stage. Rather, turning the curse of bad luck into gold, they carved out a unique career where they actually logged more hours acting than I dare say many a movie actor.

Three of their plays were published. “Miracle at Midnight” became a television movie starring Sam Waterston and Mia Farrow. But my parents never achieved the kind of glory reserved for “real” actors. Instead, they reveled in the very real appreciation of the thousands and thousands of people who, over 30 years, had the good fortune to experience the magic Rena and Stanley Waxman created on stage.


Stephanie Waxman, a professor at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, is the author of several books, including “A Helping Handbook : When A Loved One Is Critically Ill” (Marco Press, 2000).

A State of ‘Jewtopia’


"We’re nice Jewish boys who love our mothers," Sam Wolfson said. "We don’t mean any harm," said his pal, Bryan Fogel.

Wolfson and Fogel feel nervous because they’ve written and are starring in an irreverent play, "Jewtopia," about a Jew who dislikes Jewish women (Wolfson), and a non-Jew who adores them (Fogel). They’ve included over-the-top riffs on clichés such as theme bar mitzvahs, cheesy Purim carnivals, JAPS and the politically incorrect word, shvartze. They say they intended to humorously but lovingly exploit Jewish stereotypes the way plays like "Nunsense" exploit Catholic ones — but they’re aware viewers could take offense.

"We never meant the play to be taken seriously," Wolfson said. "We’re poking fun at ourselves."

"Jewtopia" began when the struggling actors, now 30, sat down to write a scene to perform at one-act festivals last year. They envisioned two guys at a singles mixer with "Hava Nagila" pumping in the background and "decided the gentile, Chris, was there because he likes Jewish girls, and the Jew, Adam, [was there] because of family pressure," Fogel said.

When ex-Paramount chief Frank Yablans saw the piece and urged them to write a full-length play, the actors mined their lives for material. Fogel’s non-Jewish Hungarian wife became Rachel, the Mongolian, who shocks Adam’s parents at the family seder. Adam’s mom, like Wolfson’s, insists it’s his duty to marry Jewish. When the characters surf JDate, Wolfson also drew on his recent experience.

"’Firetushy’ is real," he said of one woman’s screen name. "’Jewable’ is real.’"

Mining stereotypes struck gold for the novice playwrights when Yablans agreed to raise one-third of "Jewtopia’s" $80,000 budget and to produce it at the prestigious Coast Playhouse. Acclaimed theater director Andy Fickman ("Reefer Madness!") signed on because the characters "reminded me of my Jewish family," he told The Journal.

Nevertheless, while fiddling with his briefcase full of allergy medications — another stereotype in the play — Fogel worried about being perceived as a "bad Jew."

Wolfson had a different concern. "Please say in the article that I’m looking for a nice Jewish girl," he told a reporter. "And send all inquiries to my mother."

The play runs through June 8. For tickets, call (800) 595-4849, or visit www.jewtopiaplay.com. n

(From left) Bryan Fogel, Lin Shaye and Sam Wolfson star in the world premiere of "Jewtopia." Photo by Michael Lamont

Chabad rocks!


Chabad of California’s 22nd annual “L’Chaim to Life Telethon,” hosted by Dennis Prager, was humming along nicely with a long roster of talent that included classic actors James Caan and Elliott Gould, comic actor Dom DeLuise and Israeli singer David “Dudu” Fisher. Then 10:30 p.m. rolls around and the KCET soundstage — where the telethon is broadcast — went amok. Enter the Sand Man.

Yes, Hollywood’s most bankable comic actor, Adam Sandler — as in “The Waterboy,” “Big Daddy” and “Mr. Deeds.” While he didn’t pander to his Jewish audience with a performance of “The Chanukah Song,” Sandler did show some support for his pal, Arthur Brooks, who belted out his soothing-as-chicken soup rendition of “My Yiddishe Mama.”

“You dance amazing, rabbi,” Sandler told Chabad patriarch Rabbi Boruch Shlomo Cunin onstage, as Cunin and sons whirled around the bewildered “Happy Gilmore” star.

Sandler, who is known for not giving interviews, nonetheless said a few words to The Circuit.

“I’m glad to be here and I’m honored to be here,” he said.

Sandler was not the only surprise guest of the evening. Arguably the most triumphant moment of the evening came when singer Neil Diamond melted hearts by singing “America” from “The Jazz Singer.” Hot off his performance, Diamond told The Circuit that his Chabad experience was “terrific. It was a wonderful time.”

In the VIP room, The Circuit caught up with other notables happy to support Chabad.

“Their persistence intelligence, energy, spirit, heart and soul” is what attracted Gould, who played legendary gumshoe Philip Marlowe in Robert Altman’s “Long Goodbye” and looked very Chandleresque in his floppy gray Stetson.

Caan, the gritty actor who shined in “The Godfather” and “Honeymoon in Vegas,” told The Circuit that Chabad’s drug rehab facilities helped his late sister, Barbara Caan Licker, who lost her battle with leukemia in 1981.

The “Brian’s Song” star affectionly recalled being prodded by her to attend High Holiday services. “She used to tell me, ‘Put on your blue suit, go to the Beverly Hills Hotel.'”

Also touched by Chabad’s good deeds: Dmitriy Salita, who will be fighting at Mandalay Bay in Vegas on Sept. 13, told The Circuit, “Chabad is what got me involved in Judaism. They turned my life around,” said the 20-year-old junior welterweight and Russian immigrant who gave props to Rabbi Zalman Lieberoff of Chabad of Flatbush in Brooklyn for showing him the Jewish way.

Looking grownup in his suit and tie was 10-year-old Daryl Sabara of the “Spy Kids” movies.

“I’m here to say some Jewish prayers and talk to the crowd,” said the redheaded Sabara, of German and Russian Jewish descent. Later onstage, the dancing Chabadniks turned the spy kid into a sky kid when they began hoisting him up in the air.

Onstage, freewheeling rap sensation Casanova was cool as a cuke as he stalked the phone banks and freestyled rhymes about the volunteers. But behind the scenes, the starstruck Casanova freaked when he recognized Gould. Gould came over and the two shared a moment of conversation.

“It’s an honor to be here again among my Jewish brethren,” said the rapper, who was once a wrestler named Oscar for the former WWF and has played the telethon on many occasions in the past decade. “I find Chabad awesome, and I look forward to coming back again,” he said

The Circuit also hung out between performances with Sephardic singing sensation Jo Amar, who flew in from Israel just to sing his signature “Barcelona” on the seven-hour program, reggae singer Elan and members of Rebbe Soul. Elan, who sang “Nothing Is Worth Losing You (Jerusalem)” and “Praises” on the telecast, is a reggae-rooted pop-rock-soul pastiche being groomed in the Shaggy tradition, with two tracks on the upcoming Santana album.

Elan’s connection with Chabad is personal. While on tour in Australia during Passover 1997, Elan found himself at Coffs Harbor, four hours from Brisbon.

“We were literally in the middle of nowhere,” Elan said. That’s where Chabad of Byron Bay came in, including him in their holiday services.

Ditto on an occasion when Elan and wife, Orly, were vacationing in Hawaii over Simchat Torah.

“They attend shul in Hawaiian shirts and Bermuda shorts,” mused Elan of that Chabad’s constituency. “If I’m on tour, I always have a place to go.”

Actor Robert Guillaume (“Benson”), game show host Peter Marshall (“Hollywood Squares”) and California Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Dist. 24), were among the recognizables circulating through the VIP room. Also greeting fans was Fyvush Finkel (“Boston Public”), who has been the telethon’s master of ceremonies for the last three years, and was now the recipient of Chabad’s L’Chaim-To Life! Humanitarian Award.

Honorary Chabadnik and Oscar-winning actor Jon Voight once again proved himself the “Midnight Cowboy,” staying up and partying till the telethon’s midnight close, when Chabad scored its biggest grand total ever: $5,473,793 (edging last year’s $5,104,533).

As usual, Chabad knew how to throw a fundraiser party. Those in attendance stayed all night long. Perhaps Cassanova summed up the evening’s spirit with his economical exclamation: “Chabad rocks!” — Gaby Wenig contributed to this report.

About 200 people attended the gala dinner for the Southern California Jewish Center gala at the Beverly Hilton for the 22 Israeli victims of terror visiting Los Angeles. Attendees included a wide roster of celebrities and community members, such as Buzz Aldrin, Tom Arnold, Jaime Pressly, Renee Taylor, Joseph Bologna, Susan Blakely, Lanie Kazan, Charlene Tilton, Tina Louise, Leah Remini, David Suissa and Shelley Ventura-Cohen.

The event was chaired by Rabbi Shimon and Rebbetzin Vered Kashani from the Southern California Jewish Center. CNN anchor Jim Moret was the master of ceremonies, and Oscar-winner Jon Voight gave the keynote address.

Each of the victims of terror was awarded a medal in commemoration of their visit to Los Angeles, and a video presentation was shown of the impact of the terror attacks on the lives of the victims.

“I think it’s very important that we support the victims of terror,” Voight said. “It is important to put a face to the events and to realize the horror of them and stand up and speak out against them.”

“Normally we are here to honor people who play heroes,” said Arnold, referring to the fact that the Beverly Hilton is the home of the Golden Globe Awards. “So it’s good to be here to honor actual heroes themselves.” — GW

Stanley Gold has been elected chairman of USC’s Board of Trustees replacing John C. Argue, who died Aug. 10. The president and CEO of Shamrock Holdings Inc. and nine-year USC boardmember will assume leadership immediately.

Gold, who graduated from the USC Law School in 1967, joined the USC board in 1993 and has been vice chairman since June 2002.

He is a governor and former chairman of the board of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and serves on the board of councilors of the USC Law School, board of overseers of the Keck School of Medicine of USC and the board of the Walt Disney Company.

Gold, with his wife, Ilene, has two children, Jennifer and Charles (a USC master’s of business administration graduate). The Golds reside in Beverly Hills.

Fundraising veteran Wallace “Bud” Levin has been installed as national major gifts chairman for Jewish National Fund.

“While I knew that over the past 100 years, JNF has helped to reclaim, restore and nurture the Jewish homeland,” Levin said. “When I was in Israel this summer, I really saw how vital their immediate work is — both responsively and proactively.”

Levin began his career as a lay leader 40 years ago in St. Louis with the St. Louis Federation, United Hebrew Congregation Capital Campaign, and National United Jewish Appeal.

The Problem With Julie


Like the know-it-all self-help guru in her neurotic comedy, "Amy’s Orgasm," 28-year-old filmmaker Julie Davis had never had what you’d call an actual boyfriend back in 1998. But she liked to dish out relationship advice. "I had all these theories," says the effervescent writer-director, whose debut film, "I Love You, Don’t Touch Me," featured a 25-year-old virgin holding out for Mr. Right. "Like, ‘save yourself for the one,’ and ‘a woman doesn’t need a man to feel complete.’"

Then she met her husband-to-be, Scott Mandell, a hunky movie executive. "I slept with him right away, which was the first complete no-no," Davis, now 33, says with a groan. "And then I just thought, ‘You’re an idiot, now you’re so vulnerable…. You’re not being yourself because you’re afraid of being rejected.’ All the stuff I was telling people not to do, I had done it. I felt like a fraud. I was really confused, so I started writing a script."

The script turned into "Amy’s Orgasm," starring Davis as a smug, chastity-preaching author who realizes her theories are baloney when she falls for a radio shock jock (Nick Chinlund).

Like "I Love You," "Amy’s" places Davis in the realm of female independent writer-directors, such as Nicole Holofcener and Tamara Jenkins, who use their lives as fodder for their films.

The central character, Amy Mandell, is Jewish — evidence that at least one of Davis’ theories about women remains unchanged. "Jewish women are seldom romantic heroines," she says. "But there’s a whole world out there of young, sexual Jewish women who are romantic leads in their own lives. And that should be mirrored in film."

Miami native Davis — who after "I Love You" was hailed as "the female Woody Allen" — says her old-fashioned views about sex began in an unexpected way in junior high. "I started dressing really sexy because I loved Marilyn Monroe and all these old movie stars, and I loved to play dress-up," she says, wistfully. "Then I was called a slut — girls can be so mean — so that kind of made me go the other way."

By high school, Davis had found an outlet in acting; she studied filmmaking at Dartmouth, moved to Los Angeles in 1990 and had a disastrous, relationship with a suave older director ("It was such a cliché," she says). After a serious car accident, she attended the editing program at the American Film Institute and got her first full-time job editing erotic promos at the Playboy Channel. That also felt like a car wreck. "There I was, with all my ideals, holding out for the one, looking at porn all day and being turned on," she says. "I still felt that sex had to go with love, but I was really challenged. I didn’t know what to do with myself except write a script."

Her well-received debut film, "I Love You, Don’t Touch Me," turned out to be "the most expensive personal ad ever placed," according to Davis. It put her in touch with Mandell, the postproduction chief at Orion Pictures, who was withholding her $500,000 check until she finished all elements of her movie. "He made me redo my video transfer, my sound mix, everything," she says. "He was such a thorn in my side; I just hated him."

For months, Davis and Mandell did business strictly by telephone. Then she walked into his office one day in 1998. "It was love at first sight," she says. The two were married in an Orthodox ceremony in Florence, Italy, in 1999: It was beautiful, even though "they had to cover me up with a shawl because my wedding dress was too sexy," she says with a laugh. The couple now have a 1-year-old son, Holden.

Davis’ next dissection of postfeminist sex: a Showtime pilot, "The Daily Grind," based on her Playboy experiences. And the character’s name? "Jodi Fishbein," she says matter-of-factly. "Of course she’s Jewish, like all my lead characters, because, to one extent or another, they’re based on me."

"Amy’s Orgasm" opens next month in Los Angeles.

A Century of Strasberg


Lee Strasberg, who shaped three generations of actors, playwrights and directors, was born 99 years ago, and to mark the upcoming centennial, his heirs are burnishing his legacy in Los Angeles and New York.The man who introduced “method acting” to America and taught the likes of Paul Newman, Al Pacino, Marlon Brando, Marilyn Monroe, John Garfield, Jack Nicholson, Robert DeNiro and hundreds of other luminaries, was born Israel Lee Strassberg in the Polish part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.He arrived in New York when he was 8 years old, made his professional acting debut in 1924, co-founded the legendary Group Theatre in 1931, and, after a Hollywood interlude in the 1940s, co-founded the equally famous Actors Studio in 1950.

In the 1960s, he reached out to a larger public by establishing the Lee Strasberg Institute, first in Los Angeles and then in New York. Today, 18 years after Strasberg’s death, his work is carried on by his wife, Anna, as artistic director, and son David Lee as CEO of the Lee Strasberg Creative Center in West Hollywood and the Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute in Manhattan.

Teachers at the bicoastal centers, with a combined student enrollment of nearly 1,000, perpetuate “The Method,” in which actors are encouraged to use their emotional experience and memory in preparing to “live” a role.

Anna Strasberg has a pithier definition. “The Method is really so simple,” she offered in a recent interview. “It’s telling the truth of the character simply under imaginary circumstances.”

In Los Angeles, the year-long centennial celebration has been inaugurated with the formation of an in-house production company, called The Group at Strasberg (TGAS). TGAS is drawing its talent from both coasts and, the 29-year-old CEO hopes, will evolve into a permanent ensemble group.

“TGAS will carry on the tradition of the famed Group Theatre, which gave birth to such notable voices as Eugene O’Neill and Clifford Odets, among others,” said Anna Strasberg.

Its base will be the newly renovated 96-seat Marilyn Monroe Theatre in West Hollywood, honoring the memory of one of Strasberg’s favorite pupils.

Two smaller 49-seat theaters are housed in the same building.

“Our mission is to produce new works from today’s bravest young theater artists in a fully produced season,” said David Lee Strasberg.

The season will consist of three shows and three workshops, with “Molly’s Delicious” by Craig Wright and directed by Dan Fields running through Dec. 3 as the opening production.

Strasberg also announced the appointment of Jay Dysart as TGAS’s director of production, and creation of a distinctive logo for the company.

Reminiscing about her husband before returning to her New York base, Anna Strasberg described him as an artist whose first thespian exposure was at the Yiddish theater and who worked with the Habimah Theatre in Tel Aviv in the 1960s.

“As a Jew,” she added, “Lee felt good in his skin.”

For tickets or more information, call TGAS at (323) 650-7777.

Uncle Vanya’ Hits Sour Note; ‘Amadeus’ in Perfect Harmony


No one ever said Anton Chekhov was an easy fit for American actors. In Chekhov, there may be scoundrels, but no villains; interesting, appealing women, but no heroine; a central figure perhaps, but flawed. Under the surface, it is the human condition that he unfolds for us.

In the present Americanized version of “Uncle Vanya” (an adaptation by Vanessa Burnham), we have everyone flattened out in a perverse kind of social realism. As with many of Chekhov’s great plays, we are called upon to witness the dimming of a familiar world. Vanya and his niece, Sonya, have toiled in the provinces, running the family estate and sending the income to Vanya’s elderly brother-in-law (Sonya’s father), a university professor of art. Now, the professor, involuntarily retired, and his young wife, Yelena, have come to live in the provinces, creating great distress for Vanya and Sonya (among others), whose lives are consumed by the management of the estate.

There are delicious comic sequences, moments of sad absurdity and a sense of life proceeding on its irrevocable course. In Vanya, the characters are wonderful precisely because they are seen in the round — ambiguous figures caught in a changing world that is as real as they are.

The problem with this production is that it is cast somewhat like a television drama — all two-dimensional characters and little context. Sonya (Megan Follows), who toils away at the country estate and whose love for the country doctor, Astrov, is unrequited, is played (wrongly) as an ingenue. Her stepmother, Yelena (Christina Haag), the bored, empty beauty whose life is as wasted in the city she has left as are Vanya’s and Sonya’s and Astrov’s in the provinces, is here presented as a Hollywood seductress (an error). Both women are miscast. All the emphasis is on character and motivation and none on the society that is passing by — which is at the center of the play.

Vanya (Robert Foxworth, an excellent actor), defeated and depressed by his inability to accomplish anything, suddenly has supplanted Astrov as the play’s chief intellectual, with more energy than any two other people in the cast. Meanwhile, Dr. Astrov (Stephen Pelinski) is the country doctor who drinks too much — sort of like a Kennedy who has taken the wrong road and wound up in the provinces. The end effect is a pleasant enough TV program, but not Checkhov.

Michael Langham, a most gifted director who has probably put on more Checkhov plays than I have ever seen, brings his British expertise and his many years in the theater to our Western shores. Perhaps he was looking for novelty — something new, say Chekhov with an American voice. Anyway, I hope that was his intention, because that is what he has achieved. It was a wrong choice.

‘The Threepenny Opera’ Exceeds Its Grasp


In its five years of existence, A Noise Within, the classical-theater company, has given audiences many of the most enjoyable performances to be offered anywhere in Los Angeles.

The Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle recently recognized this sustained level of excellence by handing out two of its top awards to the Glendale company.

To reach such peaks, artistic directors Geoff Elliott, Julia Rodriguez Elliott and Art Manke have readily taken risks, which, by definition, implies occasionally falling short of the mark.

In bravely tackling the complex “The Threepenny Opera” by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill as its first musical presentation, the company’s reach appears to have exceeded its grasp.

First, for the problems:

* The limited physical space, meaning that the theater’s small central stage is not designed to accommodate a cast of 33. When everybody is on stage, the cast all but overwhelms the small audience.

* Most of the principals are better actors than singers.

* Geoff Elliott, a standout in many of the company’s past productions, is too nice a guy as Macheath, and he rarely gets across the coldblooded menace of the murderous Mac the Knife. The same criticism applies to most of the whores, who do not convey the lewdness and cynicism of the Brechtian characters.

* Finally, the production, directed by Walton Jones, shares the problem faced by all English translations of “Die Dreigroschenoper.”

In adapting John Gay’s 18th-century “Beggars’ Opera” to the milieu of 1920s Berlin, Brecht endowed his murderers, beggars, hookers, thieves, pimps and corrupt cops with a biting underworld argot that loses much in translation.

Michael Feingold’s translation, used, for the first time, in this production, may be a bit grittier than earlier versions, but it still cannot match the punch to the solar plexus of the original.

Now for the good news. The best is Mitchell Edmonds as Jonathan Jeremiah Peachum, who obviously revels in the role of the entrepreneur who organizes London’s beggars into a well-run, profitable enterprise.

It is interesting that in his voluminous annotations in the German version of the play, Brecht ranked Peachum above Macheath as the chief protagonist. Peachum stands for Brecht’s favorite target, the bourgeois businessman, without scruples and without illusions, and Edmonds gets it just right.

Other satisfying character performances are by Deborah Strang as Mrs. Peachum; Becca Rauscher as Jenny; John A. Billingsley as the beggar Filch; and Erika Ackerman as a naïve, if somewhat pale, Polly Peachum. The six-piece band and ballad singer Matthew Henerson give expressive renditions of Weill’s score.

The costumes of the Peachums, as well as of most of the other characters, are a joy to behold, thanks to Angela Calin. Similar compliments go to Dick Ortenblad, who somehow expands the stage beyond its narrow confines by his imaginative, two-story sets.

“The Threepenny Opera” runs through May 4, in repertory with Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale” and Luigi Pirandello’s “So It Is!…If So It Seems To You.” For tickets, call (818) 546-1924.

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