A New Blend of Chick-Lit Sleuth


 

“Sex, Murder and a Double Latte” (Red Dress Ink, $17.95)

Like her protagonist Sophie Katz, Kyra Davis has skin the color of a “well-brewed latte.” That’s why she has spent a large portion of her life fielding comments about her ethnicity.

There was her supervisor at a clothing store, for example, who asked about her Star of David necklace, since how could Davis be Jewish when she looks black? Or all the times people have assumed she’s Puerto Rican and lecture her on taking pride in one’s heritage when they discover she can’t speak Spanish.

“Occasionally, when people ask me where I’m from, I’ll make up some country in Africa and act really offended if they say they never heard of it,” Davis said.

Growing up black and Jewish has paid off for the 32-year-old Davis, whose debut novel, “Sex, Murder and a Double Latte,” manages to address issues of race and religion while blurring the lines between mystery and chick-lit fiction. “So many books with ethnic characters don’t make it in the mainstream,” said Davis, who will be reading at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books on Sunday, April 24. “But here, I’ve got this biracial protagonist and I’m thrilled that publishers are opening their minds. Of course, Sophie is both Jewish and black, so I guess she’s doubled her market.”

Davis, who signed a four-book deal with her publisher, joins a small-yet-growing group of new chick-lit authors like Laurie Gwen Shapiro (“The Matzo Ball Heiress”) and Elise Abrams Miller (“Star Craving Mad”), who write about distinctly Jewish characters. Due out next month, Davis’ novel stars mystery writer and frappuccino addict Sophie Katz, who’s convinced that someone wants to kill her by re-enacting scenes from one of her books. To complicate matters, she’s dating one of her murder suspects — a dashing Russian Israeli who likes making l’chaim toasts in bars. And, of course, Sophie’s mother piles on plenty of Jewish guilt as her daughter plays sleuth. “What is this, you’re discovering bodies now? Why can’t you live a nice, normal life like your sister?”

Margaret Marbury, executive editor of MIRA Books and Red Dress Ink, says she had been searching for the “perfect chick-lit mystery but most I saw either had too much mystery and too little girl stuff or vice versa. Kyra’s book has the perfect balance.”

Marbury, who rejects most of the hundreds of manuscripts she reads every year, adds that she’s “really picky about female protagonists. But the major draw of Kyra’s book was her main character, Sophie. She’s real, multidimensional, sympathetic and incredibly funny.”

In a telephone interview from her San Francisco home, Davis, gregarious and effusive, describes a rags-to-riches saga that bears some striking similarities to J.K. Rowling of “Harry Potter” fame. Like Rowling, Davis was a single mother with a precarious financial situation when she began writing her novel.

“My life was falling apart and I wanted to get lost in a fictional world,” she says.

Born to a black father and a Jewish mother, Davis primarily grew up in Santa Cruz. Raised by her mother and maternal grandparents, “we were a High Holidays kind of family,” she says. “But I’ve always felt at home in the Jewish community.”

Though her grandmother always thought that her granddaughter should be a writer, Davis originally wanted to be an actress. After graduating high school, she opted to pursue fashion marketing and merchandising and spent some time in New York before returning to San Francisco to study business and humanities at Golden Gate University. She married, had a son and found a job as a marketing manager of an upscale sports club.

In 2001, Davis filed for divorce and felt her life had “become a Woody Allen joke. I had all these plans and none of them worked out,” she says. “I was a single mother afraid of losing the house my grandfather built.”

When Davis began to write, she knew she wanted to create “escapist fiction” but considering her state of affairs, “definitely not romance. I had all this anxiety and that lent itself to writing a murder mystery,” she says. “Just take all your pent-up stuff and kill people off on the page.”

Davis consulted a few books on fiction writing, worked during her lunch hours and late at night and after two years of labor, had a completed manuscript. Her mother covered the expense for a writing conference and Davis traveled there to pitch her book. Davis soon found an agent who swiftly secured a deal at Red Dress Ink.

“It’s an American dream story,” Davis says. “But it never would have happened if I hadn’t gone through all these challenges. Let’s face it, I wouldn’t have written this manuscript if my life was going well.”

Now that she no longer needs a day job, Davis plans to write two novels a year and stay home with her 5-year-old son Isaac.

While she of course hopes that her books will be successful, more importantly “this whole experience has taught me that I have the strength and ability to get through some really bad stuff,” she says. “I can pursue my passions and dreams and demonstrate it for my son so that one day, he can do it, too.”

Kyra Davis will be at Borders-Brentano’s booth No. 201 on Sunday, April 24, at noon, at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. For more information, visit www.kyradavis.com or www.latimes.com/extras/festivalofbooks/.

 

‘First’ an Atypical New York Story


A brother announces to his sister that another sister has vanished, as “The First Desire” (Pantheon) opens. Nancy Reisman’s highly-praised novel is unusual in many ways, from its premise to the quality of writing to its setting. She follows the lives of the Cohen family, from the Depression to the years following World War II, not on the Lower East Side or in Brooklyn, but in a stately neighborhood in Buffalo, N.Y.

Sentence by sentence, this is an exquisite story of family. Reisman writes with assuredness and tenderness, as the story unfolds serially from five perspectives: three of the four Cohen sisters, the brother and their father’s mistress.

The Jewish Week spoke with Reisman by telephone at her home in Ann Arbor, where she teaches in the graduate creative writing program at the University of Michigan. She’s upbeat and both modest and grateful about the book’s strong reception. She speaks of her own family — her long-married parents and three siblings — with a depth of love and connection. Clearly, she understands the themes she writes of — the unbreakable though fragile ties among siblings; devotion to parents, beyond their lives; how a family is much more than anything any one of them might have created. But her own family sounds far less eccentric than the characters she has created.

When Goldie, the oldest Cohen sister, disappears one July day, there is no sign whether she has left town or perhaps tragically fell into nearby Niagara Falls. The book’s title is first mentioned in reference to Goldie, who was born in Russia and came to America with her mother in 1901, rejoining her father who had come earlier and settled in Buffalo. For Goldie, “the first desire was to be with her mother, the second to be invisible.” The title reverberates through the novel in all sorts of yearnings — for love and affection, for rootedness, for something that feels like happiness, for freedom — as the characters affirm their ties to the family and also seek to vanish and be independent of it.

Although Rebecca Cohen, the late family matriarch is absent through the novel, she has profound influence on all of the characters, sending “ripple effects through their lives,” as Reisman explains.

The novelist captures the small moments of life — a grown daughter’s pleasure when her father calls her by a childhood endearment, the silent understandings between sisters as one washes the hair of another — and the emotional static that erupts in families.

Although Reisman shifts the storytelling angle among characters, she keeps the narrative in the third person. Of Goldie, who loves books and resents the responsibilities she has for caring for the others, she writes, “She found that slices of herself were missing and she imagines her body to be a variegation of solid stripes and empty space, like a wrought-iron fence.”

Sadie is the most grounded, the only sibling to marry and have children, who maintains a Jewish household and whose life is most connected to the Jewish community; she secretly refuses her father’s command to sit shiva for Goldie.

“You can’t erase a person,” she says.

Celia is impaired and needs the family more than any of the others. Irving loves to play cards and go out with women, often invading the petty cash box in his father’s jewelry store and turning to Sadie to repay his debts. For him, the name Irving is a cloak that doesn’t fit and he takes on a non-Jewish-sounding name, even sending himself postcards to a secret address as if to solidify that identity. Jo is perhaps the saddest of the group, trapped in many ways, suspicious of people and regretful of her own sharp speech; she glimpses happiness in her short-lived affection for another woman but ultimately hides her desires.

The patriarch Abe, who is bossy, elegant, ignoring of his children but still lovable, doesn’t get his own chapters, but Lillian — the sister of his best friend, Moshe, whom he begins to date while his wife is very sick, to the dismay of his children — has a voice.

There’s much that is timely in Reisman’s depiction of war, when America is “perched on the brink of emergency and war seeps “into the smallest corners of life.” Irving joins the Army, Celia volunteers at the Red Cross and a friend of the family persists in writing letters to her relatives in Poland, which are never answered, but the letters themselves are a kind of prayer.

When the war breaks out, Sadie’s daughter is mastering shoes and socks.

“It had been a relief to discuss socks, shoes after socks, the matching up of shoes and feet, finessing knots and bows…. For a time, Sadie tried to acknowledge Europe only after the girls were asleep, but even the attempt seemed absurd. There were temple meetings, committees for fundraising, committees for refugees; and the weekly arrival of worsening news she learned to hold in her mind, silently, while drawing the alphabet in huge blue letters and slicing apples to demonstrate fractions.”

For Reisman, one of the challenges of writing the novel was writing about the war in a way that acknowledged the power of what was happening, yet stayed within the context of the family dynamics she was examining.

“I think it’s a hard balancing act for all of us,” Reisman comments. “Protecting the things we cherish most and without tuning out the world.”

Reisman, 43, grew up just outside of Buffalo and left to attend college. Although she hasn’t lived there since, she visits several times a year. Her parents grew up in Buffalo and her grandparents spent much of their lives there as well. She writes of a time before she was born, “a time planted in my imagination when I was young. A sort of lost world,” she explains, adding, “I miss the storytellers who told me about it.”

The author of an award-winning collection of stories, “House Fires,” she writes in part from memory. As she explains, “it has to do with a sense of place. I mean the landscape, the sky, the way the wind comes in off the lake. I think that has really marked my sensibility. Here and there, bits and pieces of my own life are woven in, how a room in a house might have felt to me.”

Of the Cohen siblings, Sadie emerges as the most responsible, although she finds that being wife, mother, sister and daughter can be overwhelming. For her, “There’s always a feeling of hurry, of catching up, only glimpsing each moment before it shifts.”

Reisman reflects on mothers as “the secret heart of this book. The loss of one’s mother — either through absence and illness or death, or through a withholding of love — seems to me profoundly heartbreaking,” she says.

The book includes other mothers, too — Lillian’s mother, Sadie’s mother-in-law, other women in the community — some of whom withhold love, or mix it up with anger and disappointment.

“I’m also interested in the ways that the characters learn to care for and to some degree parent each other, how their incorporate their mothers’ best legacies into their own adult live,” she said.

A Skittish Homage to Cynthia Ozick


“Heir to the Glimmering World,” by Cynthia Ozick (Houghton Mifflin, $24).

Confession: It’s not Virginia Woolf I’m afraid of — it’s Cynthia Ozick. Even though she blurbed my last book (disclosure, disclosure) and once recommended me for a fellowship I didn’t get (thanks for the memories, Mr. Guggenheim), still I’m afraid of her. She reminds me of Virginia Woolf, is why.

And a little of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. And a lot of that odd-duck dyad, Charlotte Bronte«/Jane Austen-waif-like women who pack a wallop, whose impeccably mouse-like demeanors belie their blazing insights. Just when you resign yourself to the fact that they’re as meek and timorous as they seem, pow! comes the originality of their vision, the flammability of their passion, the cunning of their wisdom. (Others find them bold from the get-go, I realize; I’m only talking about how their aura reads to me.)

But mostly Ozick reminds me of Emily Dickinson. A Jewish Emily Dickinson, two dainty birdlike poets with great swoops of language, sharp claws of syntax. Small, gentle, delicate women who veil themselves with such fluttering modesty as to blindside you to the enormous stern force of their words.

Which is why I experience a fit and proper trepidation about critiquing Ozick’s latest novel, “Heir to the Glimmering World.” You won’t hear reviewers say this very often, but who am I to sit in judgment of my betters? Even if I entertain certain reservations (her plot strikes me as oddly inert, while her exegesis of the Karaites — an ancient Jewish sect of scriptural literalists — would be better off in some other book, preferably not a novel), still I stand and bow before such royal imagery as the following, which describes a man who’s aged since last seen: “His curly hair was dusted all over … as if a peculiar rime had grown over him, or out of him, like a coating of flour.” And this, about a man laughing: “It altered him. Hidden creases, bursting into folds, corrugated the long slab of his jowl, and there, behind the contorted lips, like secret things exposed, were his big ruined teeth.”

Sentence for sentence, her sense of place crackles with imperial, almost gleeful power. Here’s a character in the 1930s coming up from the subway onto 42nd Street “into a flowing gully of striders, gray fedoras like a field of dandelions gone to seed, hurrying women stuttering on Chinese heels. A denatured autumn wind smelled of trolley ozone.” Here’s rundown upstate New York of the same vintage: “half decayed, with its dilapidated farms, barns and silos rotting, and in the towns tired frame houses with warped porches pleading for paint, town after town sluggish in the dazing summer glare, the business district — three streets lined with sickly stores darkened by canvas awnings — surrendered to exhaustion.”

Even her throwaway lines have the incongruous firepower of a stun gun.

“He laughed as a scholar laughs, hearing absurdity.” “He screwed up the wistful torque of his half-smile and handed me two books; they smelled of cellar.” “The scraping of shovels on pavements rang out like bells grown hoarse.”

How can I feign a semblance of objectivity toward a writer who forever alters how I hear the pealing of a snow shovel?

The truth is, she’s no daintier than those other dames were. Like her sister church mice of literature, she’s surprisingly, shockingly, anchored in the corporeal. Who but someone who has the capacity to be ecstatically physical could pull off a passage like this?: “Running! It was the thrilling heat that propelled him, summer at the boil, steaming off his skin … strangely cold runnels of sweat dribbling down his shins. He was a flying bath, he was a fish hugging the tide, he was a wave!” Who could revel in reek, as she does here? “A radiant odor, just short of a stink, fumed out of the damp small of his back and his armpits.”

Ozick may write convincingly of a certain Frau Mitwisser, so incapacitated by anxiety that the mere trappings of a grand hotel cause her “to shake and walk with her hand on her chest to hide her fright,” but the same character is also revealed to be “a little woman with unknowable power.” Ditto the protagonist, Rose: She’s fragile enough so that three hours of typing leaves her enervated (“The tender balls of my fingers tingled, as if sparks had shot up from the keys; their glass shields had captured the light, and sent violet streaks into my pupils”), but her will is iron (“I would force her. I would press her with the force of an iron press”).

Mistake these characters — and their author — at your peril. Enough diffidence is at work on the surface that you hardly notice, until too late, Ozick’s aptitude for “thinking with a sublime ferocity” (a phrase she once pinned on the critic James Wood). Merry and warm she may be, and sweet in person, but never overlook that she’s capable (as she proved in her last collection of essays) of taking the world to task — in terms sulfurous enough to roast varnish — for sentimentalizing Anne Frank. She ain’t heavy. She just wears her gravity lightly, a trick worth the jereminds of a dozen blowhards.

Such, indeed, is the scope of her power, at this stage in a crowded career, that even her faults appear here to be strengths. Take, for example, a certain penchant for melodrama, manifest chiefly in the final sentences of various chapters. “His wife saw everything. He saw nothing.” “The ‘D,’ she said, stood for Death — what else did I think it could be?” “It was not there. My fortune was gone.” Never mind that the melodrama more than once turns out to be false (the fortune is found within five pages); still it seems a moral triumph that a writer of such high purpose should traffic in suspense and other equally plebeian, writerly wares.

Composing a page-turner seems an act of literary unsqueamishness. Or am I once more being unduly deferential?

You’ll notice, perhaps, that I’ve succeeded in fulfilling my allotted 1,200 words without dipping a proverbial toe into the novel’s plot — an ambitious and commotion-packed yarn about a jumbled-about German refugee clan ensconced in the far reaches of the Bronx, who orbit the feckless, grown-up subject of a children’s book (a character based on A.A. Milne’s Christopher Robin). I’ve also nimbly side-stepped the Karaites, who have remained obscure (with good reason, it seems to me) since the eighth century. For this reticence, I claim a time-honored reason: I’m chicken!

Cynthia Ozick will be in conversation with David Ulin on Thursday, Oct. 28, at 7 p.m. in the Los Angeles Central Library’s Mark Taper Auditorium, 630 W. Fifth St., Los Angeles. To R.S.V.P, call (213) 228-7025. Standbys are welcome.

Little Miss Shmutzy


Anne-Marie Baila Asner was concerned that Yiddish words were disappearing from the vernacular. After all, she only knew about 30 words, and most of her peers knew even fewer.

So she decided that she was going to reinvigorate Yiddish by writing and illustrating cute, brightly colored children’s books that would help people develop an affinity for the language.

“Yiddish words provide something that English words don’t, and they say something in a single word that no other word in English says,” said the Los Angeles resident, whose day job is a credit risk analyst. “I want people to understand what Yiddish contributes.”

Thus the first title to come out of “Matzah Ball Books,” Asner’s publishing company, is “Shmutzy Girl.”

Shmutz is typically translated as dirt, but what the Yiddish word really means is an amalgamation of dirty, messy and smudged all rolled into one.

In “Shmutzy Girl,” the eponymous protagonist is sad because she can never seem to keep herself clean, but she learns to love herself despite her shmutz.

“Everything the characters do is consistent with their namesake in order to teach the word,” Asner said. “And each book has a moral.”

Asner said her books were inspired by Roger Hargreaves “Mr. Men” and “Little Miss” series which were popular children’s books when she was growing up in Canada. She now has 30 titles planned for her series, including “Kvetchy Boy,” about a boy who learns when he should and should not kvetch (complain, whine); “Shluffy Girl,” about a girl who is always shluffing (sleeping); “Bubba and Zaidy Kvelly,” about two grandparents who kvell (heap praise) over their grandchildren; and “Meshuggene Hunt,” which is about a crazy dog who always follows people home.

“There is a feeling that comes with using and hearing Yiddish words,” Asner said. “[The word] clumsy is much less kind and endearing than klutzy, sleep sounds less warm than shluffy. It is this warmth and detail for which I am trying to spark an affinity in our youth.”

Asner will be reading from “Shmutzy Girl” on July 18, 1
p.m. at Storyopolis, 116 N. Robertson Blvd. To attend the reading, R.S.V.P. at
(310) 358-2512. For more information on the series or to purchase books, visit
www.matzahballbooks.comor call (310) 306-7741.

Curtain to Rise on Women’s Conflicts


In a rehearsal room at the Odyssey Theatre, Colette Freedman propped her electric-blue high tops on a chair and good naturedly laughed at herself. "I’m truly flawed," the 30-ish actress-playwright said. "I am totally a hypocrite."

Well, not totally. While her "Deconstructing the Torah," an evening of one-acts, skewers part of herself, it mostly dissects conflicts faced by Freedman and other modern Jewish women.

In "Serial Killer Barbie," a spurned seventh-grader plots to kill the popular blondes at school. In "First to the Egg," a nerdy sperm woos an ovum who prefers strapping Aryans. In "Shoshanah’s Shabbat," a woman placates her mother by inventing a fictitious beau, Schlomi Finkelstein, when she’s really dating a non-Jew.

While Freedman did feel like killing the cliquey blondes at her Baltimore high school, she didn’t lie to her Conservative parents about her Quaker boyfriend at Haverford College. But she could tell they disapproved.

"They thought he wasn’t ‘ambitious’ enough," she said wryly. "That was a euphemism for, ‘He’s not Jewish.’"

Meeting her smart, funny Jewish fiance — "My first nerd," she said — on Matchmaker.com three years ago not only pleased the folks, it also inspired Freedman, then an actress and script reader, to write her first one-act, "First to the Egg."

With trepidation, she submitted it to Circus Theatricals under a pseudonym, Naomi Lefkowitz, but came clean when the piece was accepted for a 2002 production. More playlets followed, all featuring Jewish women who are "flawed but not caricatures," she said.

In the Odyssey rehearsal room recently, several 20-something actresses told the author they related to her characters. Jade Sealey, who plays a cliquey 13-year-old, recalled feeling "left out and kind of a weirdo" as one of two Jews at her Santa Fe, N.M., junior high. Another actress, Jamie Mann, who plays Shoshanah, said her parents deem her rock musician boyfriend "unsuitable," because he did not attend elite schools.

Zack Ruben, who grew up in Israel, said she hasn’t married her non-Jewish beau, in part, because of her distressed mother. "These one-acts capture the kinds of identity issues and pressures we face as young Jewish women," she said.

Freedman believes the characters work because they’re versions of herself. "I’ve put my foibles and my frustrations on paper," she said.

The play runs March 9-April 13 at the Odyssey Theatre. For tickets, call (310) 477-2055.

A Happy Ending Even for an Indie


One week after her 1998 wedding, New York actress Isabel Rose packed up her belongings and moved with her husband to London.

Although the Yale graduate had achieved some success in the theater, she said her parents had different expectations.

"I was raised to be a nice Jewish wife and hostess," Rose, 35, said.

So she scrapped performing to follow her banker hubby, figuring she’d write novels while he was at work.

"But I was wretchedly lonely and traumatized," she said. "I cried every day…. Finally I found a way to write myself out of that dilemma by writing a movie."

Her charming debut film, "Anything But Love," tells of Billie Golden (Rose), a Jewish aspiring singer facing a similar dilemma. She’s a Judy Garland wannabe addicted to Technicolor movie musicals, but her attorney fiancé wants her to give up performing to become a socialite-hausfrau.

"The story reflected the emotional truth of my life," said the now-divorced Rose, who is also addicted to 1950s musicals. "I felt I was being forced to give up my voice as an artist to have the stability of this great guy who just wasn’t my soulmate. And the movie is about a woman who stays true to her dreams while being urged to be practical and realistic."

Just as Billie persists at her sleazy lounge gig, Rose persevered as her movie was rejected from 17 festivals and deemed too upbeat for an independent film. Then came the success of other cheerful indies such as "My Big Fat Greek Wedding," and the multitalented Rose was suddenly hot. Samuel Goldwyn Films agreed to distribute "Love"; Rose appeared in a Vogue profile titled, "A Star Is Born," and signed a Doubleday deal for two Jewish-themed books, "The J.A.P. Chronicles" and "Member of the Tribe."

"It’s been like a fairy tale," the spirited actress said during an interview at her publicist’s Los Angeles office. "My life has paralleled my art in this crazy kind of way."

Like her silver screen alter ego, Rose, the daughter of a military history professor, has been infatuated with movie musicals since growing up Reform in New York. Every Friday in her Upper East Side apartment, there was a lavish, formal Shabbat dinner followed by retro entertainment: "We were like the von Trapp-steins," she said, punning on the family in "The Sound of Music." "I had a guitar and we would sing, and after we were exhausted with our singing we would retreat into the living room and my father would pull out the movie projector, and we’d see ‘An American in Paris’ or ‘Singin’ in the Rain.’ Always, attached to this religious meal, were these MGM movie musicals. And always, during the reel changes, I was the one imitating ‘Gigi’ or Ann Miller in ‘Kiss Me Kate.’"

Although Rose starred in all the plays at school and Jewish sleep-away camp, she said her parents hoped she would make acting a hobby, not a career. Her struggle continued as she portrayed musical theater leads at Yale.

"Isabel was always accused of being old-fashioned and mainstream while everyone else was doing experimental work," said Robert Cary, 35, her classmate and "Love" director/co-writer. "Like Billie, she marched to her own drummer, despite people saying critical things."

After graduation, Rose starred in productions such as the national tour of "Six Degrees of Separation," but life on the road eventually wore her down. She reinvented herself by earning a master’s degree in fiction from Bennington College.

"I imagined I’d write this starring role for myself and announce myself to the world," she recalled. Instead, she said, she bought into the "30 and no ring on the finger, oy vey," stigma and got engaged.

It was just before moving to London that Rose envisioned "Love" en route to meet Cary at an Eartha Kitt cabaret show at the Carlyle Hotel.

"Isabel ran out of the taxi and said she’d had this flash of inspiration," Cary said. "She was anxious to tell a story about a woman who wants to sing but has a problem with her [fiancé]."

The two friends worked on the screenplay whenever they were in the same city and pressed on when observers dismissed their project as an "anti-indie indie."

"The movie ran counter to what was perceived as the norm for independent film, which had to do with edginess, sex, language and violence," Cary said.

Even so, the filmmakers stuck to their happy ending, cobbling together the $1 million budget, in part from family and friends, and casting actors such as Kitt and Andrew McCarthy. They did make one concession to mainstream audiences, however: "I was supposed to be Billy Ryan, an Irish Catholic girl, but we did a screen test and Robert said, ‘You read ethnic,’" Rose recalled.

Her character became Billie Golden, a Jew from Queens, but don’t expect the heroine to get married in shul. "Love" pays homage to 1950s musicals (there’s even a "Singin’ in the Rain"-style dance sequence) and "can you see a chuppah in a Vincent Minnelli movie?" Rose said.

The actress, however, feels like a character in one of those blithe old films.

"The great thing about this kind of work is that you have an opportunity to rewrite your own story and change the ending," she said.

"Anything But Love" opens today in Los Angeles.

Good Timing Lands Luck in Director’s Lap


I’m sure that when Greg Pritikin made his first feature film, "Dummy," now in theaters, he had no inkling that he had inadvertently grabbed an indie-film brass ring. But when he cast Adrien Brody as a maladroit but sweet schlemiel who is obsessed with ventriloquism as the way to win a woman’s heart, Pritikin really lucked out. Up to that point in his career, Brody was a well-regarded young actor who had displayed a wide range in American independent films. Then came "The Pianist," the Oscar, the Kiss and, suddenly, Brody is a movie star. Which means that "Dummy," a film that would have otherwise slipped through the cracks, is making its way into theaters, and that is not at all a bad thing.

Pritikin’s film takes place in a sort of every-suburb America of tract houses with manicured lawns and two-car garages, and is utterly devoid of anything to place it in historical time. Even the cars and the music — whether punk, show tunes or klez-punk — could be 20 years old, and the film’s story of a hapless schmo trying to find a way to express himself despite his suffocating Jewish family is a Philip Roth retread from the 1970s.

And yet, on a certain unadventurous level, it works. Steven (Brody) is fired from his job when he tries to give notice after deciding to surrender to a lifelong ambition to take up ventriloquism. He lives at home with his overbearing mother (Jessica Walter), omni-absent father (Ron Liebman) and chronically depressed sister, a failed singer-turned-wedding planner (Illeana Douglas). When he meets his unemployment counselor, Lorraina (Vera Farmiga), he immediately falls madly in love. With his deranged punk-rocker friend Fanny (Milla Jovovich) in a splendid against-the-grain performanc as his wildly inept guide, he tries to woo her, with disastrous results. Only when he begins to express himself through his dummy does the real, warm, sweet Steven emerge.

Although Pritikin seems to be laboring to tie up plot ends almost from the film’s opening shot, the film has a cheerfully dopey quality that can be quite winning. You know that Steven and his dummy are fated to bring happiness to Lorraina, his sister, Fanny and her cataleptic band and everyone else in the state of New Jersey (although Pritikin manages one hilarious and unexpected surprise during the final credits).

But for all its obviousness and the mechanical working-out of plot, "Dummy" has a certain tenderness towards its characters that is satisfying for its sheer unexpectedness. Pritikin starts out unpromisingly with a shrill, cartoonish tone, but once he gets the worst of the exposition out of the way, there is a warmth here that is quite pleasant. Moreover, "Dummy" has at least one really lovely moment of pure silence, a two-shot, held for nearly a minute, of a painfully awkward silence between the perpetually uncertain Steven and an expectant Lorraina; the discomfort in the air is palpable and moving.

It’s pretty hard to tell where a new director will go from the evidence of only one film, but Pritikin bears watching. After all, who could have guessed where Brody would land?

"Dummy" is in theaters now.

Fear and Self-Loathing in Atlanta


When Alfred Uhry was growing up in a German Jewish family in Atlanta, he didn’t know what a bagel was. The word, "klutz" was as foreign to him as Chinese.

"I never attended a bar mitzvah, much less had one," Uhry, 66, said from his Manhattan home.

Instead, he sang the lead solo in a school Christmas choir and celebrated the Yuletide around his family tree.

Although he wasn’t welcome at the Christian holiday cotillions, he attended the German Jewish ball, Ballyhoo, which in turn excluded Eastern European Jews.

The ball becomes a metaphor for Jewish self-loathing in Uhry’s 1997 play, "The Last Night of Ballyhoo," which opens South Coast Repertory’s 40th season Sept. 5. The comedy-drama revolves around two families preparing for Ballyhoo in 1939 as Hitler invades Poland and the film "Gone With the Wind" premieres in Atlanta.

Into the fray arrives Joe, a Russian American Jew from Brooklyn, who is so shocked by the family’s Southern airs (their names include Lala and Boo) he asks, "Are you people really Jewish?"

Another character in the play describes Ballyhoo as "a lot of dressed-up Jews dancing around, wishing they could … turn into Episcopalians."

For Uhry, Joe is the conscience of the play, a wake-up call for Jews who have turned Southern anti-Semitism on themselves and each other.

"It’s just like my childhood community, where we felt so negative about being Jewish," he said. "We should have tried to hold onto our heritage, but we tried to run away from it, which was like pretending you don’t have a lame leg. For years, I felt ashamed of being Jewish. I regarded myself as a Southerner first."

These days Uhry — dubbed "Atlanta’s Jewish soul poet" by one scholar — has a different reputation. His "Ballyhoo," along with his Pulitzer Prize winning play, "Driving Miss Daisy," has helped inspire an emerging body of work on Southern Jewry, including the documentaries "Shalom Y’all" and "Delta Jews."

Uhry "completely gets the nuances of Southern society and Southern Jews," said Warner Shook [see sidebar], who is directing "Ballyhoo" at South Coast Repertory.

Uhry has deep roots in the deep South. His father’s family dates to pre-Revolutionary War New Orleans; his maternal great-grandmother arrived in Atlanta as a baby around 1848.

His great-uncle owned the pencil factory that employed Leo Frank, the Jew lynched after being falsely accused of raping and killing a 13-year-old subordinate in 1913. "If anybody mentioned Frank when I was a kid, the older generation would just get up and walk out of the room," Uhry said. "They thought that since Frank’s wife was a German Jew, he’d be given special treatment. The big shock was that to all those country Southern people, German Jews were just ‘dirty Jews’ like everyone else. On top of what happened to that poor man, to have that social distinction rubbed in their faces was just too much."

The social distinction was also made clear when Uhry’s sister was asked to leave the restricted Venetian Club pool, an incident he describes in "Ballyhoo."

No wonder he played down his heritage until he arrived at Brown University and befriended a Jewish classmate, Robert Waldman, with whom he later collaborated on musicals.

"I started going to his seders and seeing the family traditions, which I liked a lot," Uhry said. "I gradually started to realize what I had been missing, and that there was a hole where the Judaism should be. I wanted to address that, somehow, as a writer."

He did so in three plays that have become his trilogy on Southern Jewry. "Driving Miss Daisy" (1988) was inspired by the relationship between his crotchety Jewish grandmother and her black chauffeur.

Ballyhoo began when the Atlanta cultural Olympiad commissioned Uhry to write a play for the 1996 Olympics.

"It occurred to me that the last time Atlanta was in the international spotlight was when ‘Gone With the Wind’ premiered there in 1939," he said of his inspiration. "I knew that Hitler was invading Poland at the same time, and I thought that would be the perfect milieu to talk about Southern anti-Semitism."

When Broadway director Harold Prince wondered why "Ballyhoo’s" characters rushed headlong to assimilate, Uhry told him about the Leo Frank case.

"Harold put his glasses on top of his head, stood up and said, ‘That’s a musical,’" he recalled. The result was "Parade," for which Uhry won a Tony Award in 1999.

His new play, "Edgardo Mine," is based on the true story of an Italian Jewish boy who was baptized and forcibly removed from his parents in the late 1850s.

Although "Mine" is set a continent away from "Ballyhoo," Uhry sees a connection.

"My wife says all my plays are about Jews who want to become Christian," he said.

Uhry, who now hosts an annual seder, is no longer in that category. "Writing plays like ‘Ballyhoo’ has helped me resolve my issues," he said. "I used to say I was Southern first, American second and Jewish a far third. Now I’m an American, Southern Jew."

"Ballyhoo" plays Sept. 5-Oct. 5 at South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. For tickets ($27-$55), call (714) 708-5555.

Murder and Intrigue in ‘Palestine’


Jonathan Wilson’s new novel, "A Palestine Affair," opens, quite spectacularly as Mark Bloomberg, a painter, and his non-Jewish American wife, Joyce, having just made love in their new Jerusalem home, go outside to their garden. A softly moaning, bleeding man in Arab dress rushes toward Mark, hugs him, then crashes to the ground dead. The man is Jacob De Groot, a Dutch Jewish poet, and his murder radically alters the lives of nearly everyone in the novel.

Set in 1924, Wilson’s gripping book follows six months in the lives of some half-dozen characters, most of whom have immigrated to British Mandate Palestine to escape the pain of their personal or professional lives in England. Several characters are reeling from the psychic wounds of World War I. For them, as for European Jews who immigrated to Palestine after World War II, the ancient land represents a chance for a new lease on life, one hopefully unhaunted by the tragic European past. But haunted their lives remain.

Mark, burned out emotionally and professionally, is encouraged to make aliyah by Joyce — whose ardent Zionism he considers "foolish but insignificant." But Joyce has her own ulterior motive: She aspires to cure her marital woes by relocating, pinning all her hopes on a Palestine she has never visited.

Indeed, most of the characters resettle in Palestine for reasons having little to do with heartfelt Zionism. Murder investigator Robert Kirsch, in part, hopes to escape his family’s intractable gloom over his brother, killed in the war. "He hadn’t thought about the Jews much at all; he’d been thinking about himself, his family … and finally, the prospect of decent weather."

Wilson is unusually qualified to write a knowledgeable novel about the British in Palestine under the Mandate. A British Jew who spent many years in Israel, he is the author of two other fiction books and chair of Tufts University’s English department. His deft portrait of 1920s Jerusalem and its diverse, bickering inhabitants is complemented by realistically flawed characters whose misguided behavior in Palestine comes to make almost perfect sense.

Harpist Susan Miron’s CD of Scarlatti sonatas has just been released by Centaur Records.

Clay Feat


It may have been a silent film, but Paul Wegener made an international noise with "Der Golem." The 1920 German Expressionist classic — screening April 21 at the Skirball Cultural Center — remains a popular incarnation of the Golem. But it was not the first, nor the last, interpretation of the Jewish folk tale to permeate pop culture.

According to legend, Rabbi Yehuda Loew created the powerful automaton from clay to protect Jews from enemies such as Emperor Rudolf II in 16th-century Prague. The cautionary tale underscores how Loew’s attempt to play God backfires when he loses control of it and is killed by his own creation.

Wegener’s film surfaced after Gustav Meyrink’s 1914 novel "Der Golem." Born Gustav Meyer, Meyrink, the illegitimate son of a baron and a Jewish actress, wrote "Der Golem" out of a fascination with the occult that developed following a suicide attempt.

While the Golem appears only briefly and symbolically in Meyrink’s novel, the legend clearly informs Mary Shelley’s 1816 masterpiece "Frankenstein." Gershom Scholem explored the myth in his essay, "The Idea of the Golem," as did Isaac Bashevis Singer in his novel "Golem." More recently, the Prague Golem was a subplot of Michael Chabon’s 2000 Pulitzer Prize winner, "The Adventures of Kavalier & Clay."

Literature notwithstanding, the Golem’s water-fetching fiasco inspired the "Sorcerer’s Apprentice" sequence of Disney’s 1940 animated feature, "Fantasia." The Golem has been a catalyst for superheroes like the Hulk and marked a memorable "X-Files" episode, in which a librarian misinforms David Duchovny that the Sefer Yetzira (Book of Creation) explains how to create a golem.

The Old-New Synagogue, the Golem’s long-rumored resting place, and Golem merchandise still generate tourist dollars in Prague. So what is the continuing fascination with this story?

"Mendy & The Golem" comics creator Tani Pinson believes that the secret of its enduring popularity lies with the character’s identity — as malleable as the clay that spawned it.

"He is so open to interpretation," Pinson said. "And people can seek the Golem within themselves."

The Skirball presents a newly restored print of "Der Golem," featuring a score by Israeli composer Betty Olivero and live accompaniment by the Armadillo Quartet, on April 21 at 8 p.m. $8-$15. 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. For tickets, call (323) 655-8587.

A Man Without Fear


When Marvel Comics founding father Stan Lee createdDaredevil in 1964, he tagged his blind superhero: “Man Without Fear.” Thenickname also applies to Avi Arad, head of Marvel Studios, Marvel Enterprises’film/television division. Israeli-born Arad rescued Marvel from Chapter 11 inthe ’90s, turning it into a major film provider with “Spider-Man” and now”Daredevil.”

“Daredevil,” starring Ben Affleck as Matt Murdock, thelawyer-turned-vigilante with heightened senses, symbolizes Marvel’s catch-up torival D.C. Comics, which for decades had the Hollywood edge with billion-dollargrossing franchises “Superman” and “Batman.”

“Prior [Marvel] management was really afraid of the moviebusiness,” Arad said. “They were run by financial people who had no interest inentertainment.”

That changed when Arad put Marvel on the Hollywood map.Marvel’s first smash in 1998 came with only a minor character, Blade. “X-Men”followed in 2000, and “Spider-Man,” which took in more than $403.7 milliondomestically, became the fifth-highest grossing film of all time.

Raised near Tel Aviv, Arad served in the Israeli army beforemoving to America, where a job driving a Nabisco truck connected him with a toycompany.

“I got a job in research and development and found out I hada knack for inventing toys,” said Arad, 55. “So I went on my own.”

“If you had a successful toy,” said Arad — the creator of”My Pretty Ballerina” — “you turned it into a cartoon. It was a naturaltransition for me to expand into animation.”

Since coming aboard as Marvel Studios’ chief in 1993, Aradplayed a key role in saving Marvel Enterprises from bankruptcy and untangled anearly two-decade web of courtroom battles over “Spider-Man’s” film rights, asdetailed in Dan Raviv’s 2002 book “Comic Wars.” Over that time, movie specialeffects have come a long way.

“I don’t know if we could’ve made the ‘Spider-Man’ that wehave today even five years ago,” Arad said. 

After “Daredevil,” 2003 will bring “X-Men 2,” “Hulk” and theshooting of Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man” sequel — with a Michael Chabon screenplay — for 2004. “Ghost Rider” (starring Nicolas Cage) and “Fantastic Four” will follow.

“He really cares about these characters,” Stan Lee saidabout Arad. “He gets the best writers and the best directors.”

So, will “Daredevil” attract a mass audience on a”Spider-Man” level while placating some diehard fans who feel that the movie’scasting choices and costumes stray too far from the comic?

As Arad told a reporter, “Ben Affleck looks good in even apaper bag.”

“Daredevil” opens in theaters Feb. 14.

Fear and Loathing in ‘America’


Iris Bahr is pretty, but you could watch her for the full
span of her 54-minute one-woman production and still manage to miss that.Â

With the help of a masculine hairdo (she cut her hair for
the show, and wears it slicked back) and some minimal wardrobe changes, Bahr
morphs into no less than seven different characters, each with individual, and
often hilarious, accents. The show is called “Planet America, or Are You
Carrying Any Fruits of Vegetables?” and Bahr’s characters bring differing
perspectives to the themes of American isolationism, xenophobia and racism.Â

The issues are particularly timely, but for Bahr, who was
recently nominated for an L.A. Weekly best solo performance award, they were
also personal. She said she’d finished the first draft prior to the Sept. 11
terror attacks. Growing up in Riverdale, N.Y., and Herzliya, Israel, she said,
“I have the advantage of having lived in two very different cultures.” It made
her conscious of issues like terrorism and immigration long ago.

The homogeneity of Israeli society when compared with
heterogeneous America was something else that resonated with her. So was the
American term for illegal immigrants: “aliens.”

The story centers around Violet Star, a repressed
25-year-old virgin, who aspires to work for the Immigration and Naturalization
Service to help rid her country of “hypersexed Latin sluts” like the one whom
she blames for her parents’ divorce. Her first day on the job brings encounters
with a colorful bunch. It also includes many telephone calls from her nagging
Israeli mother, who, to Violet’s acute distress, also happens to be a recent
and enthusiastic Christian convert.Â

The exaggerated characters emphasize various points.
Muscovite Svetlana reminds Violet that “you only have one mother.” Black-hatted
Yankel tells of his rebbe’s favorite isolationist saying, “If curiosity kills
the cat, it slaughters the Jew.” Paraplegic Jimmy O’Riordan’s brogued verbal
seductions reveal to Violet her own handicaps.

In the end, Bahr’s appearance may get lost to her
characters, but her piece still bears a personal stamp. “I’m not kind of
wishy-washy and new agey. I don’t think everyone could get along,” she said.
“It’s really hard not to sound preachy,” but one message is that “isolation is
a basic part of the human condition and it’s common to everyone.”

8 p.m. $15. Tuesdays through Feb. 4 at the Elephant Theatre,
6322 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. (323) 858-7535.

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.

Un ‘Common’ Characters


Two garbage bags full of dead birds separate four Brooklyn buddies from their dreams in actor-playwright Matthew Klein’s debut production, "The Common Man."

Japs Peretti (Klein), estranged son of a Mafia don, looks to rival mafioso Joey the Saint for the half-million dollars he needs to open a mob-themed restaurant and nightclub. Japs is a talker, given to self-deluding motivational speeches ("tomorrow is the beginning of the new forever."). With his pathological-liar brother Stanley (Kevin Brief), neurotic failed screenwriter Leonard Rosenblatter (Carl J. Johnson) and Sinatra-wannabe Peter (Greg Littman), Japs is sent to earn the money that will finally send each on the fast-track, by retrieving a safe-deposit key hidden in one of those dead birds.

The characters are bumbling failures. The Mob story, while entertaining on its own, really serves to set up the darkly seriocomic second act. With failure yet again knocking on their door, these "common" men must answer to the sympathetic hit man (a sly and understated Art LaFleur) sent to their living room. Very little of the great suspense in "The Common Man" comes from the plot. The many twists and turns in the play are the logical outcome of these four dreamers, forced at gunpoint to confront their failure and come up with a reason for living.

Klein, 30, a native of Flatbush, Brooklyn, graduated from Yeshiva University before turning to acting full time. After his early work at Manhattan’s Neighborhood Playhouse, Klein came out to California three years ago and has landed roles on stage and in television shows including "Chicago Hope." With an enthusiasm akin to Japs’, Klein makes light of the mafia angle and implied violence in his play. "I always start writing from pain — that’s where the comedy comes from," he says. "The violence in the play is really secondary to the characters." It’s those characters — sad, funny, and too recognizable for comfort — who will stay with the audience long after the "common" mafia story fades to black.

"The Common Man" at The MET Theater, 1089 N. Oxford Ave., Hollywood. $20. Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; Jan. 24-March 2. For reservations or more information, call (323) 957-1152.

Leave the Czech


Vivien Straus grew up on a 660-acre kosher, organic dairy farm on the outskirts of a town of 50 in Marin County. She once ran away from home when her parents told her that she had to marry someone Jewish. But the life-changing experience that inspired her play, “Getting It Wrong,” was a date she had with a Czechoslovakian refugee in San Francisco. It started one night in 1979 — and ended one day in 1982.

“Getting It Wrong” is Straus’ true-life, one-woman show about this man who came to dinner and stayed. Boleslav, the Czech political refugee she met one night, fit her father’s description of the man she should be looking for.

“To find a husband, you must look for two specific things,” he had told her. “He must have sparkly eyes and a soul.”

For Straus, this meant a European, like her Hamburg-born father. So she let Bollie walk her home. He kissed her goodnight, then stayed at her apartment. For much of the play, Straus cannot decide if she wants him to leave.

Though she eventually tries various schemes to get him out of her life, Bollie’s limited English, wonderful cooking and apparently unconditional love for her makes escape difficult.

In all, 12 characters flow in and out of this story, including mom and dad back on the farm, a quirky San Francisco neighbor and a voice in the sky that tells her: “This is your fate.”” Straus plays each role with subtle changes of posture, lighting and, of course, voice to define the different characters.

Though she is still nervous about playing her own parents, she said, ” A person like Bollie is very easy. He’s such a distinct character and so bizarre.”

And, remember, he is real. Though Straus finally went to New York (before moving to L.A. in 1987) in part to end the relationship, she still occasionally trades e-mail with the man she calls Boleslav in the play. He lives in Italy now and is married with two children.

Straus, 44, remains single. “I guess I haven’t learned my lesson,” she said.

She is in closer contact these days with her director, local solo theater guru Mark Travis. Travis, who has helped shape solo shows like Chazz Palminteri’s “A Bronx Tale” and Wendy Kamenoff’s “Undressing New Jersey,” agreed to direct “Getting It Wrong” while Straus was still developing the story in his theater workshop. Betty Barlia is the producer.

When she is not working on the play, Straus gets it right at her full-time job as marketing director for the Straus family dairy farm. From her Echo Park home, she writes the newsletter for customers and keeps the web site, www.strausmilk.com, up to date with butter, yogurt and cheese news.

She has always been an actress, though. Her film roles have included “Thirteen Days,” “Heaven and Earth” and “Peggy Sue Got Married.”

Straus is still not sure if she’ll have told her former doppelganger beau about the play by the time it opens on Jan. 11.

“I don’t think he’ll be upset,” she said. “I just don’t want that pressure — at least until I talk to a lawyer.”

“Getting It Wrong,” Jan. 11-Feb. 17 at Two Roads Theatre,
4348 Tujunga Ave., Studio City. $15. Fri. and Sat. at 8 p.m., Sun. at 7 p.m. For
reservations or more information, call (310) 289-2999, or visit www.gettingitwrong.com.

The Right Type


David Krumholtz has a theory about why he’s played so many charming but zhlubby Jewish guys in film and on television. "I must be a zhlub myself," jokes the boyish, amiable, 23-year- old, who was named one of 10 actors to watch by Variety last year. "I’ve tried to play dashing types, but I don’t think that translates as well. It comes much more naturally to me to play the underdog, because that’s sort of what I am."

Krumholtz, who says he grew up "very working-class, almost poor" in Queens, played the dopey older brother in an impoverished Jewish family in "Slums of Beverly Hills." He was the teenager who bleaches his hair to "pass" as gentile in Barry Levinson’s 1950s-themed saga, "Liberty Heights." In Edward Burns’ smart new romantic comedy, "Sidewalks of New York," he is Ben Basner, a doorman-musician ardently wooing a waitress, played by Brittany Murphy. Like a cuter, sweeter version of Woody Allen, he stammers while trying to convince her he’s the "man in uniform" her horoscope predicts is her true love ("unless it’s your mailman," he adds, apprehensively). While complaining about his romantic woes, he laments, "I’m a nice Jewish boy…. These kinds of things shouldn’t be happening to me."

Krumholtz’s gift for playing characters who are hapless yet appealing is one reason Burns granted him the role, sans audition, after watching a videotape of "Liberty Heights" last year. "Originally I wrote the part for my ‘Saving Private Ryan’ co-star, Adam Goldberg," the actor-writer-director told The Journal. "Then I saw ‘Liberty Heights’ and I thought, ‘David’s the one. He is just too funny."

Krumholtz says he was surprised to receive Burns’ call, but quickly came to realize he had much in common with the "Sidewalks" character. Like the fictional Ben, he didn’t date until he was 19. "I was very unlucky with women, maybe because I was too forward," admits the actor, who is now happily involved with an entertainment publicist. "I’d bring flowers and chocolates, which didn’t work because the women ended up feeling embarrassed. So I’ve only dated two people in my life, not for lack of trying."

Krumholtz believes that Ben, a struggling artist, is a portrait of the man he might have become had he not lucked into a showbiz career. That happened by accident when, with zero acting experience, he tagged along with friends to an open casting call for Herb Gardner’s "Conversations With My Father" — a play about self-hating Jews and anti-Semitism. By the age of 13, he was playing Judd Hirsch’s younger self in the Broadway production.

His paycheck helped pay for his bar mitzvah: "We couldn’t afford to rent a hall, so we had the reception in the synagogue’s basement — lox and bagels only," Krumholtz recalls. He says his father, the son of Polish immigrants, didn’t have a problem with his career choice "because for him, my acting success felt like, ‘Finally, we are making a name for ourselves in America.’"

While still in his teens, Krumholtz began landing roles in films such as "10 Things I Hate About You" and "Slums," in which his character stole a scene by belting out a Frank Sinatra song in his underwear. In the short-lived Fox series, "Monty," he portrayed actor David Schwimmer’s brother.

Along the way, he says, "I’ve had a really hard time getting away from the Jewish typecasting thing. I’d like to play a range of characters and not just do ethnic roles."

He’ll get his chance when he portrays a skateboarding crook in the upcoming independent film "Scorched," and an average guy caught between two gorgeous women in Brian Burns’ "You Stupid Man." "My co-stars are Milla Jovovich and Denise Richards — Can you believe that?" he asks, incredulously. "Not bad for a nice Jewish boy from Queens."

Searching for ‘Esther’


Wendy Graf’s new comedy “The Book of Esther” focuses on a central character named Mindy, who, like Queen Esther, bravely declares her Jewishness in the face of opposition. Unlike Esther, Mindy doesn’t save the Jewish people, but confronts her ardently secular family and friends when she discovers her religion.

Young Mindy and Adult Mindy are portrayed by two different actors, who sometimes share the stage. Young Mindy was raised by somewhat self-hating Jewish parents — they sent her to a Christian Science Sunday school. The spiritual void of her childhood follows young Mindy into adulthood.

After a ’70s-era fling with guru-style enlightenment, Adult Mindy settles down, marries and has children. When an acquaintance dies, the rabbi’s comforting words and in-depth knowledge of the departed has Mindy questioning, “Who’s going to know me when I die?”

What follows is a rapid engagement with Orthodox Judaism, plunging her Christmas tree-decorating family into chaos. Torn between her mother’s distaste for “those real Jew-y Jews on Fairfax Ave.” and her Chasidic mentor’s “Ya wanna do it right, or ya wanna do it all facockta?” Mindy searches for a balance of tradition and contemporary life.

Throw in a fashion-conscious friend who disapproves of Wendy’s tzniut-conscious style, a daughter who expects presents for the holiday of Shabbat, and a brief argument with Santa Claus, then “The Book of Esther” becomes at once an introspective quest and a whimsical contemporary tale.

Playwright Wendy Graf has done her own share of searching. Her current careers as private investigator and playwright follow stints as a teacher, actress, comic and TV writer (“ALF,” “Murder, She Wrote”). Graf also shares with her protagonist a rabbi who helped her discover Judaism. The spiritual discovery in the play is based on Graf’s experience with Kehillat Israel’s Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben. In 1998, with Reuben’s guidance, Graf became a bat mitzvah in a joint ceremony with her daughter.

“The Book of Esther,” through Aug. 5. Theater East, 12655 Ventura Blvd., Studio City. For reservations or more information, call (818) 788-4396.

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