When Prejudice Eclipses Pride
Don’t be misled by the play’s title.
"After Crystal Night," a comedy-drama now at the Odyssey Theatre in West Los Angeles, is not a story about the November 1938 Nazi rampage. Not literally, anyway. The Kristallnacht connection is metaphorical; a reminder that what happened once in not-so-long-ago Nazi Germany could happen again if Jews grow too comfortable and passive — even in America.
"I didn’t realize how well-structured it was, and how humorous it was, when I first read it," said the play’s director, Robert Walden, who first came across "After Crystal Night" shortly after John Herman Shaner wrote it. "It seems somehow to me more relevant now."
All of the drama in "After Crystal Night" takes place in the Beverly Hills home of Seymour (Joel Polis), a successful, if nebbishy, head of a business firm.
Spurred by obligation and nostalgia in equal parts, he yearns to reconnect with the tough street politics of his New York City youth and join the Jewish Defense League (JDL) in counter-demonstrating at a downtown L.A. neo-Nazi rally. But his spoiled wife, Joyce (Jennifer Gelfer), and brother Jacob (Stephen Mendel), who, in denial of his Jewish identity, insists on being called Jerry, both try to talk him out of it.
The various voices of Seymour’s Jewish community — represented by such characters as a trio of JDL vigilantes, a United Jewish Appeal fundraiser, a Yiddishe former iceman from the old country, and the assimilated members of his immediate family — all tug at Seymour’s conscience. They nag Seymour, warning him that by going to the demonstration, he may jeopardize his business, his community standing and his life.
Very telling is some character-defining dialogue.
"I’m proud of being a Jew," Jerry says. "I just don’t want to be Jewish." Meanwhile, Joyce insists on brunching in Marina del Rey and hitting a sale at Kmart.
"After Crystal Night" takes place circa 1984 — the year that author Shaner completed it. While some references — the California Medfly, the miniseries "Shogun" — occasionally remind us of the period, the play is not dated, and, unfortunately, its message has not fallen out of vogue. If anything, observeed Shaner, the fires of anti-Semitism have become stoked again since Sept. 11. And not helping matters, he said, is the eagerness of Hollywood Jews to explore the racial strife of every culture except their own.
"There has been only a handful of movies made about anti-Semitism, such as ‘Gentleman’s Agreement,’ and that wasn’t even made by a Jew. As for the great Jewish playwrights — Arthur Miller, Neil Simon, David Mamet — I challenge you to find anything overtly Jewish in their work," said Shaner, whose main bread and butter has been writing screenplays.
His film credits include "The Island of Dr. Moreau" (Burt Lancaster, Michael York, 1977), and Shaner just completed a script for "Goin’ South II: Moon Over Miami," a sequel to his screenplay for the 1978 movie starring John Belushi and Jack Nicholson, directed by Nicholson.
The event that inspired Shaner’s play occurred in the 1970s, when he took part in a Los Angeles picket march over integration.
"A couple of Nazis came out to counter-picket us," he told The Journal. "One of them held a sign that said, ‘Kill the Jews.’ I saw an old Jewish couple walk past him. They scrunched their shoulders and scurried to get past him. That killed me, because it looked like Europe in 1938."
He later knocked the anti-Semite down and fled — he did not fear the Nazi, but the heavy police presence.
Shaner has developed something of a running commentary on the institution of marriage in his work, from "Last Married Couple in America" (1980; Natalie Wood, George Segal) to "Goin’ South," and continuing with "After Crystal Night." Yet despite some of his pejorative observations, Shaner has been happily married for 40 years.
"It’s raw material for me. It’s a well that’s right outside my door," Shaner said. "I’ve found over the years that marriage is the most difficult institution devised by man."
In "After Crystal Night," Beverly Hills becomes a powerful counterpoint to the New York streets where the young Seymour learned to stand on his own, before social Darwinism stripped him of his survival instincts and made him soft. Worse yet, Seymour sees this disconnect manifesting in his coddled adolescent son, whom Joyce won’t even let ride a city bus.
The talent that rounds out the cast of "After Crystal Night" includes some seasoned character actors. Polis and Mendel deliver solid performances as the clashing, philosophically polarized brothers, and Larry Gelman’s brief turn as Uncle Morris is a scene- stealer. But what makes "After Crystal Night" compelling, with its balance of humor and drama, is the fact that, as Jewish as some of its details are, the play never pauses to explain various Jewishisms to the non-Jews in the crowd. It trusts that its audience will hang on and enjoy the ride.
"To me, the play didn’t mean as much about Jews and Palestine and issues in the news, as about a man making a stand and embracing his culture," said Walden, whose numerous TV credits as an actor include "The West Wing"and "Lou Grant." "The fact that it happens to be about a Jew doesn’t make it less universal to me, because of the nature of the play."
By the second act, Seymour finds himself at a crossroads. Will he join the JDL and demonstrate against the anti-Semites, or will he remain safely entombed in his warm, Beverly Hills cocoon?
See "After Crystal Night" and find out for yourself.
"After Crystal Night" plays at the Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., West Los Angeles, through Nov. 25. For more information, call (310) 477-2055.