In Sundance drama, Silverman puts her darkness on display


The Sarah Silverman that the world knows and loves is a loudmouthed, foulmouthed, ribald comedian who tramples on the boundaries of social decency with sharp purpose and uproarious glee.

The Sarah Silverman who stars in the domestic drama “I Smile Back,” which premiered at Sundance, is stripped of both bravado and joy. In the movie, which marks Silverman’s first starring dramatic role, she plays Laney, a deeply depressed housewife who veers into self-destructive behavior. She snorts coke in the bathroom, cheats with a friend’s husband while the kids are at school, sneaks vodka on the sly and even masturbates with a teddy bear on the floor next to her sleeping daughter. The portrait of Laney that emerges is intense, raw and disturbing. It is also unmistakably, recognizably Silverman.

At least partial credit for that insight goes to Amy Koppelman, who adapted the screenplay from her own novel of the same name, along with co-screenwriter Paige Dylan. Koppelman didn’t know much of Silverman’s comedy when she heard Silverman on Howard Stern’s radio show talking about childhood depression. Instinctually, Koppelman felt that Silverman would be a perfect match for the novel.

“I felt she would understand what I was trying to say in the book,” said Koppelman at a post-screening Q&A.

Sure enough, Silverman met with Koppelman and agreed to sign up for the movie.

Silverman has spoken openly about her own struggles with depression, including saying that she never wanted to have children for fear that she would pass her depression on to them.

That alternate scenario is, in many ways, what “I Smile Back” depicts. Silverman’s character, Laney, simultaneously loves her children and feels deeply unworthy to be their mother, a vicious paradox that deepens as she lapses and relapses into addiction.

Though the movie can feel like an unrelenting, and at times predictable, slog, Silverman’s performance is unflinching. Through a series of brutal scenes, often in long close-ups, Silverman portrays her character’s struggles with depression with an intimacy and subtlety that are both powerful and unsettling.

It would be inaccurate to say that Silverman disappears into her character, because  so many aspects of Laney are recognizably Silverman — the sensuality, the sing-song Jewish cadences, the theatricality, the unmistakable intelligence. At the same time, Laney’s pain and bleakness resonate so uncomfortably in part because they are so clearly Silverman’s own, unguarded by the brassiness, earthiness and, yes, the humor of her public persona.

Of course, of course, all the caveats apply: Silverman is not Laney, and Laney is not Silverman, and one shouldn’t confuse the acting with the actor. By her own account, Silverman has been quite successful in her own struggles with depression, and she is not an addict. The fact that Silverman, like many comedians, like many artists, like many people, has battled depression is not news. The relationship between comedy and suffering is complicated, and has been debated and dissected to death.

But the vulnerability and melancholy that Silverman displays in “I Smile Back” are so clearly authentic that one can’t help reevaluating Silverman’s comedy, too. In retrospect, that pain has always been there, hiding in plain sight.

The fact that she can either sublimate that pain into comedy or bare it in her acting doesn’t make either one inauthentic. It simply affirms the scope of Silverman’s talent as an artist.

Noir drama ‘Mob City’ shines light on L.A.’s criminal underbelly


In the postwar 1940s, organized crime was rampant in Los Angeles, and the men behind the mob were Jewish, guys like Ben “Bugsy” Siegel and Meyer “Mickey” Cohen, who rubbed elbows with movie stars and reveled in their notoriety. These rather glamorous gangsters are the focus of TNT’s new noir drama, “Mob City,” with the first of six episodes premiering on Dec. 4. 

The series is the brainchild of writer-director Frank Darabont (“The Shawshank Redemption,” “The Green Mile,” “The Walking Dead”), who mixes fictional and real-life characters — including corruption-fighting police chief William Parker — to tell the story.

“People don’t realize how prevalent the Jewish mob was. It was huge. Like my friend Steven Spielberg says, they were tough Jews  — street kids that came up during Prohibition and the Depression, and they did what they had to do to survive,” Darabont said in an interview. “These guys had to break the rules to make ends meet and get ahead. They lived in an extremely violent world, the world that was bequeathed to them.”

Darabont’s main research source about the period was “L.A. Noir” by John Buntin, which is rich in detail, including about the relationship between Siegel and Cohen, who in the series are played by Edward Burns and Jeremy Luke, respectively. “They were terrific friends. Ben let Mickey get away with stuff he never let anyone else get away with, because he liked the guy,” Darabont said. “What struck me was there was never a power struggle between them, though the table was set for one.”

“Mob City” is set in 1947, when boomtown Los Angeles attracted enterprising criminals “like flies to honey. What stood in their way was William Parker [played by Neal McDonough] drawing a line in the sand, but first he had to clean up the police department. Half the force was on the mob payroll,” Darabont said. Other characters in the show are fictional, among them detective Joe Teague (“Walking Dead alumnus Jon Bernthal) and trigger-happy mobster Sid Rothman (Robert Knepper). 

Darabont, an avid fan of noir “thrillers with desperate men and dangerous women,” encouraged his cast to watch well-known examples of the genre like “Double Indemnity,” “The Third Man,” “Sunset Boulevard” and “True Confessions,” as well as more obscure ones like “Nightfall” and “Killer’s Kiss.” Luke zeroed in on films featuring Cohen as a character and read “L.A. Noir,” finding it revelatory. “Something that surprised me was his obsessive-compulsive disorder and how close he came to death a number of times.” 

Burns researched “just enough to get familiar with the time period and, specifically, Bugsy Siegel,” which informed his portrayal. “This guy needed to be larger than life, very cocky, but also charming. He says whatever comes to mind. He reacts violently, and that short fuse, combined with the ambition, is the thing that led to his downfall,” Burns observed. Being Irish-American was no obstacle. As a friend remarked to him, “If Liev [Schreiber] can play a Donovan, you can play a Siegel.”

For Darabont, getting the look and style of the period right was crucial to the success of “Mob City”: “I take such delight in the fashions of that time and the music and the cars and the tone and the vibe, and inviting the audience to admire what was a very stylish and sexy era.” Everything from vintage draped, slim-waisted suits to the rented old phones and typewriters at the police precinct lend the project authenticity, as do the settings, some of which were created digitally. 

Jasmine Fontaine (Alexa Davalos) in the “Mob City” premier “Guy Walks Into a Bar.”

“We have a beautiful view of Sunset Boulevard when Bugsy Siegel is pulling into the Clover Club in his big cream Buick Roadmaster, and most of it is digital, mixed with footage we shot on a back lot,” Darabont said. “It’s a magic trick that lets us create a past era.”

While interiors of City Hall and the adjacent police headquarters were meticulously re-created on a soundstage, Darabont used some of his favorite Los Angeles locations for exterior scenes, including Union Station, the Baldwin Hills oil fields and, for a shoot-out sequence, the merry-go-round in Griffith Park, near Darabont’s 1924 Spanish-style home in Los Feliz. “On concert nights, I hear the Greek Theatre from my house,” he said.

Born in 1959 in a French refugee camp to Hungarian parents fleeing the revolution there, Darabont grew up in Hollywood from the age of 5, attended Bancroft Junior High and Hollywood High School. “I’m not Jewish, but all my friends’ grannies would feed us kreplach soup after school, and I went to all the bar mitzvahs — the adopted goy,” he said with a chuckle. 

It’s not surprising that he relates to the Jewish mobsters, “having come here as an immigrant and seeing generations of families having to adopt and adapt and fit in. Whether you’re involved in crime or not, these are very real things for every generation that is new to this country. I think that aspect of it is tremendously potent.”

Darabont wrote the first two “Mob City” episodes, co-wrote the sixth, directed four of them and oversaw them all. He said he also has thrown in several plot twists that will surprise the audience. “I love being caught off guard, and when storytellers manage to surprise me, and that’s what I’m trying to do here,” he said, hoping he’ll be able to do a longer second season. “There are things about the Jewish mob that have not been explored. I’m hoping to get a couple of Hungarians into it at some point. Louis “Lepke” Buchalter was a killer for Murder Inc., and he was a Hungarian Jew.”

While Darabont has set aside a couple of months to have back surgery and then a few months off to relax and recuperate, he has other projects percolating, including an adaptation of a Stephen King novella called “The Long Walk.” He received Oscar nominations for his “Shawshank Redemption” and “Green Mile” screenplays, based on King’s stories. 

In choosing projects, he said, “I find the thing I’m most excited about and walk down that road, following the passion. It’s a philosophy that has served me pretty well.” 

Stage dramedy tackles interfaith marriage taboo


If you take Israel out of the equation, there’s little in the Jewish world that gets people as riled up as the idea of intermarriage. For most secular and liberal Jews, intermarriage, which once carried a huge social stigma, has become more acceptable. Visit any Reform synagogue in Los Angeles, and you’re bound to come across all kinds of intermarried families. Indeed, in the liberal Jewish world, intermarriage has even begun to be seen as an opportunity to bring more people into the Jewish community. But in the Orthodox world, the stigma of intermarriage is as strong as ever, and Maia Madison’s new play “Nobody Likes Jews When They’re Winning,” explores exactly what happens when a girl from a traditional family falls in love with guy who happens to be non-Jewish.

“The play is about an interfaith couple who want to get married and live happily ever after, as long as her Jewish family doesn’t find out,” said Madison, during a phone interview between rehearsals. Her main character, who draws a little from Madison’s own life story, “goes on a quest to find out the real meaning of her Jewish identity and the real meaning of family.”

Madison grew up in an observant home in New York City. Her parents were both from Orthodox backgrounds and kept kosher, to an extent, but Madison was also the first girl in her family to have a bat mitzvah.

“I’m a very strong-minded woman, I went to Northwestern University,” said Madison, noting that some in her family were disappointed she didn’t go to Stern College.

The idea that became “Nobody Likes Jews When They’re Winning” came to Madison when she watched a close friend’s relationship fall apart after her ill father moved in with her and her partner. “She picked her family over her relationship.”

The experience made Madison realize that sometimes we’re forced into tough situations where we have to choose between family and love.

“Now if you’re 30, you can’t get a job, even though you have an MBA,” said Madison of the economic situation that’s left many post-college grads living at home. According to Madison, that new dynamic has wreaked havoc with the notion of “leave and cleave” that’s presented in Genesis 2:24: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined (cleave) to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.”

An additional topic explored in Madison’s play is how Hollywood and the world at large sees Jews. Madison recalled getting a call from a non-Jewish friend at CBS who’d just been pitched a show that he described as “ ‘The O.C.’ meets Temple Beth Israel,” and wanted Madison’s opinion as a Jew as to why it felt “off” to him. “Nobody likes Jews when they’re winning,” Madison told him.

“There are no shows where likable Jews drive around in fancy cars, live in million-dollar homes and spend a $100,000 on a bar mitzvah at the Beverly Wilshire, the same way that the people on ‘Revenge’ do, for example,” Madison said. The question of why that’s so is one that dogs her, and she explores it thoroughly in the show.

But lest anyone think the play appeals only to Jews, the director, Diana Basmajian, a non-Jew, says that’s just not so.

“No matter what a person’s background was, they were still talking in that lobby,” Basmajian said of the audience from the show’s staged readings.

Basmajian and Madison have been friends for more than 20 years. “I’m half Armenian, and I think as I got to know more of my Armenian heritage that I was drawn to plays about the human struggle, and particularly the Holocaust,” Basmajian said. “I was always teased by Maia, because my early work as a director was all Holocaust plays and plays on Jewish families.”

Basmajian jumped at the chance to work with Madison on her latest piece, because she realized it was something that was close to Madison’s heart. “It kind of bridges that beautiful gap between drama and comedy. That’s real life — some things are hilarious and some things, you’re on the verge of tears at the same time.”

Producer Laetitia Leon was also eager to work with Madison, and coming from an intermarried family, the piece was particularly poignant for her. “I felt like I wish I’d had this story when I was younger. It’s not that I don’t appreciate religion, I just wasn’t raised with it,” said Leon, whose parents raised her as an atheist. She believes the play will spark dialogue, no matter a person’s background. “If you don’t want to talk about it, I don’t think you were listening,” said Leon, laughing.

“You don’t want to write a play that only has meaning for one section of the population,” Madison said. “All of my gay friends came to me and said, oh my God, this is a coming-out story. I didn’t even realize. Every one of my gay friends had to face going to their parents and knowing that they may turn their backs on them forever.”

Basmajian, for one, is bullish on the piece, and she hopes it will touch audiences of all backgrounds who come to see it at the Open Fist Theatre Company. “We need that other voice out there that watches and listens and says, ‘Oh wait, I agree, I disagree, here’s my opinion, here’s what happened to me.’ ”

“Nobody Likes Jews When They’re Winning” will be playing at the Open Fist Theatre Company through Sept. 8. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit openfist.org.  A scene from the play will also be performed as part of the Temple of the Arts’ (www.templeofthearts.org) Friday night service on Aug. 17.

Drama queens


One of the biggest and most obvious challenges in raising Jewish awareness and building Jewish connection is finding ways of getting your point across. Every week, across Los Angeles, there are hundreds of classes and sermons that aim specifically to do that: get a Jewish point across.

This could be a Shabbat sermon on the parasha of the week, or weekday classes on raising Jewish children, improving your marriage, refining your character, connecting to Jewish peoplehood and so on.

These classes convey plenty of valuable information, but rarely will they use the device of drama. And by drama, I don’t mean a speaker using a dramatic tone. I mean real drama, as in professional theater drama.

Like the drama I saw the other night at Rosanne Ziering’s home, performed by the Jewish Women’s Theatre (JWT).

For almost two hours, professional actors performed mini-plays that dealt, in dramatic ways, with the kind of subjects I often hear about in sermons and classes. The only difference is that here, I was spellbound. I couldn’t keep my eyes off the performers or wait to hear the end of the stories.

There was a woman whose husband had personal habits that drove her nuts, but who discovers the depth of her love for him on a birthday card; a daughter who was disappointed that her mother didn’t share words of wisdom as she was dying—until the very end, when the mother spoke about her lifelong preoccupation with her weight.

There was a single mother whose teenage son ignored her—until she was diagnosed with breast cancer; a husband who admitted to his wife that, 50 years earlier, a woman they both knew almost seduced him, and that he still had the ticket where she wrote down her room number; a Jewish woman who shows up at a local fair at a Catholic high school and realizes how much she needs a community of her own.

There was a dancer-turned-successful lawyer who has an epiphany and ends up quitting her profession; a Jewish family traveling with a Palestinian family who were stopped at the Jordanian border when the Jewish women’s vitamins are thought to be drugs; a Christian woman in jail who discovers Judaism and leaves behind her mother’s oppression.

There was a woman reading a communist manifesto who learns from her father, who lived under Stalin in the 1940s, not to take words at face value but to question. She remembers this on his yahrzeit. 

There were stories like that all night long. The title of the show was “The Moment You Knew,” and it was billed as “Jewish women share stories of discovery and awakening.”

The theater group started pretty much the same way—with three Jewish women sharing stories around a kitchen table. It was in spring 2007 when theater lovers Ronda Spinak, Ellen Sandler and Deena Novak gave birth to JWT as a way to explore themes of Jewish identity for women in America.

The format is what they call “salon theater,” and it is usually performed in intimate home settings for audiences of about 50 to 100 people, depending on the size of the home. Over the years, they have attracted many volunteers and professionals from the theater and entertainment worlds as well as community funders, who have helped them grow their program.

They now have several shows a year based on different themes. Their previous show was titled “Saffron and Rosewater,” and it explored the search for Jewish identity among Persian women. They’ve also produced shows dealing with the theme of gratitude and one titled “Eden According to Eve,” which re-examined Bible stories from a woman’s perspective.

Last year, the group performed at the Museum of Tolerance a play titled “Stories From the Fringe: Women Rabbis, Revealed!” which used interviews with female rabbis in Los Angeles and was written by Spinak and Rabbi Lynne A. Kern.

Themes for upcoming shows will be “The Art of Forgiveness,” “Woman Plans, God Laughs” and “Oh Mother.”

A big key to their success is that they use theater professionals. Most of the plays are based on true stories, but these stories can’t simply be told: They must be produced, written and performed for dramatic effect.

That’s why the stories enter you.

The dialogue, the body movement, the timing, the delivery of the words, the pacing: Just like on a Broadway stage, everything is geared to getting you to listen to a story and absorb it.

By “adding” to reality, they deepen it. By “performing” the truth, they help you understand it.

Maybe it was the fact that they weren’t trying to teach me anything that made me feel I learned a few things that night, in addition to being entertained. Among other things, I learned that a “women’s” show must absolutely be seen by men, if for no other reason than that the sexes need to understand each other better.

At the end of the show, I went over to Spinak, who runs the group and is the artistic director, and made a suggestion: Create a show for next year on “Receiving the Torah” and perform it on Shavuot night in an Orthodox synagogue in Pico-Robertson. The only restriction, I said, would be no music.

She smiled, and without any hint of drama, said it would be a great idea.

Arts in L.A. Quarterly Calendar: Cultural events through Feb. 2009


ALTTEXT

Robert Dowd — Pop Art Money — See Jan.17 listing

DECEMBER

Fri., Dec. 12
“Laemmle Through the Decades: 1938-2008, 70 Years in 7 Days.” It must have been an extraordinarily difficult task to select only seven films to represent the rich and diverse history of the Laemmle Theatres chain. But someone did it. For the next week, Laemmle’s Royal Theatre in West Los Angeles will screen the seven most iconic foreign-language films to have graced the company’s silver screens, each one representing a different decade of its existence. The lineup includes “Children of Paradise” (1945, France), “La Strada” (1954, Italy), “Jules & Jim” (1962, France), “The Conformist” (1970, Italy, France and West Germany), “Fanny & Alexander” (1982, Sweden), “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown” (1988, Spain) and “Y Tu Mama Tambien” (2001, Mexico). Films will screen several times a day. Through Dec. 18. $7-$10. Royal Theatre, 11523 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles. (310) 477-5581. ” target=”_blank”>http://www.ecogift.com.

Sat., Dec. 13
“Smokey Joe’s Cafe.” With a long list of Top 40 favorites, such as “Hound Dog,” “Jailhouse Rock,” “Yakety Yak,” “Stand by Me” and “On Broadway,” this musical mishmash of Leiber and Stoller hits is ideally jubilant for the holiday season. Since its 1995 premiere on Broadway, the 39-song revue has been nominated for seven Tony Awards, won a Grammy Award for the legendary duo’s songs and featured special appearances by megastars such as Gladys Knight, Gloria Gaynor and Rick Springfield. Starring in this NoHo production of “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” are DeLee Lively, Robert Torti and a host of other talented stage veterans. Special performances include tonight’s opening night gala and two New Year’s Eve shows, one with a champagne reception, the other followed by an all-out party with the cast. 8 p.m. Wed.-Sat. Through Jan. 4. $25-$150. El Portal Theatre, Mainstage, 5269 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. (818) 508-4200. ” target=”_blank”>http://www.benjamintrigano.com.

Sat., Dec. 13
“Moonlight Rollerway Holiday Jubilee.” Charles Phoenix is addicted to thrift store shopping. Luckily for us, Phoenix has put together a collection of the goodies he has found. Now, Moonlight Rollerway, which calls itself Southern California’s last classic roller rink, is presenting Phoenix and his quirky, retro holiday slide show. The viewing event will be followed by a roller-skating revue spectacular, featuring 75 championship skaters and celebrating the entire year’s holidays, including Cinco de Mayo and Valentine’s Day. Snacks and an after-show skating party are included. 8 p.m. Also, Dec. 14 at 3 p.m. $35. Moonlight Rollerway, 5110 San Fernando Road, Glendale. (818) 241-3630. ” target=”_blank”>http://www.mbfala.com.

Sun., Dec. 14
Los Angeles Children’s Chorus Annual Winter Concert. There is an Academy Award-nominated documentary about this choir. It has toured Brazil, China, Italy and Poland, among other nations. And since its inception in 1986, the chorus has performed with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra and the Los Angeles Master Chorale. Approximately 250 talented and dedicated children between the ages of 8 and 12 make up the LACC. The angelic voices of these preteen choristers will bring to life works by composers such as Aaron Copland, Pablo Casals, Randall Thompson and J.S. Bach in a winter concert inspired by literary luminaries Robert Frost, William Shakespeare and others. The program follows the 2008-2009 season theme, “The Poet Sings,” and features a varied selection of classical, folk and contemporary pieces. 7 p.m. $24-$42. Pasadena Presbyterian Church, 585 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena. (626) 793-4231. ” target=”_blank”>http://www.lamoth.org.

Mon., Dec. 15
Reel Talk: “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” Stephen Farber, film critic for Hollywood Life magazine and The Hollywood Reporter, has been treating audiences to sneak previews of the industry’s hottest films for more than 25 years. The veteran film buff concludes this year’s preview series with a fascinating film adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story about a man who is born in his 80s and ages backward. Starring Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett and Tilda Swinton, the odd tale is already making waves and is set to hit theaters during prime-time movie-watching season, Christmas. The screening will be followed by a discussion with members of the filmmaking team, including Oscar-nominated costume designer Jacqueline West. 7 p.m. $20. Wadsworth Theatre, 11301 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. (213) 365-3500. ” target=”_blank”>http://www.lacma.org.

Tue., Dec. 16
Carrie Fisher presents and signs “Wishful Drinking.” It’s not easy being an action figure before you can legally drink a beer, but that didn’t stop Princess Leia from having one, or two, or many more. Fisher’s first memoir, adapted from her one-woman stage show, is a revealing look at her childhood as a product of “Hollywood in-breeding” and her adulthood in the shadow of “Star Wars.” After electroshock therapy, marrying, divorcing then dating Paul Simon, a drug addition and a bipolar disorder, Fisher still manages to take an ironic and humorous survey of her bizarre life. Meet Fisher and get a copy of her book signed at this WeHo book haven. 7 p.m. Free. Book Soup, 8818 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood. (310) 659-3110. ” target=”_blank”>http://www.ticketmaster.com.

Fri., Dec. 19
“Peter Pan.” Tinkerbell, Captain Hook, pirates, Indians — we know the cast of characters well. But how many of us have actually seen a full production of J.M. Barrie’s classic fantasy play, “Peter Pan” — especially one that features the complete musical score by Leonard Bernstein? Composer Alexander Frey — who helped reconstruct portions of Bernstein’s score that had been previously lost for a special CD — is flying in from Berlin to conduct the live orchestra. 7 p.m. Tue.-Sun. Through Dec. 28. $30-$70; $10 (seniors and students). Lobero Theatre, 33 E. Canon Perdido St., Santa Barbara. (805) 963-0761. ” target=”_blank”>http://www.ticketmaster.com.

Wed., Dec. 24
“49th Annual Los Angeles County Holiday Celebration.” Los Angeles’ biggest holiday show, featuring 45 groups and 1,200 performers, is a proud tradition — and it’s absolutely free! Running approximately six hours, the holiday extravaganza features the county’s cultural diversity. This year’s highlights include hip-hop group Antics Performances, South Bay Ballet and Grammy-nominated Lisa Haley and the Zydekats. Audiences will have the opportunity to listen to sounds and see sights from the world over, including Asia, Africa, South America, and the Middle East. For those of you who can’t make it to see the event in person, KCET-TV will also be airing the event live. Sponsored by the L.A. County Board of Supervisors and produced by the County Arts Commission. 3-9 p.m. Free. Dorothy Chandler Pavilion at the Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. (213) 972-3099. http:www.holidaycelebration.org.

Arts in L.A. Quarterly Calendar: Cultural events through November 2008


SEPTEMBER

Fri., Sept. 12
“A Blessing to One Another: Pope John Paul II and the Jewish People.” Angelenos can explore the legacy of one of the Catholic Church’s most beloved popes in a new Skirball Cultural Center exhibition. Through artifacts, photographs and audiovisual recordings that first appeared at Cincinnati’s Xavier University only weeks after the pope’s death in 2005, visitors can explore the life of Pope John Paul II and the historical and personal circumstances that led him to aggressively reach out to Jews worldwide. Pope John Paul II was the first pontiff to enter a synagogue, recognize the State of Israel and formally apologize for the Catholic Church’s past treatment of the Jewish people. The Skirball will also offer several public programs related to the exhibition: an adult-education course on “Jesus and Judaism” and film adaptations of biblical epics, among others. Through Jan. 4. $10 (general admission), free to all on Thursdays. Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 440-4500. ” target=”_blank”>http://www.thenewlatc.com.

Sat., Sept. 13
“Speech & Debate.” The town is Salem, Ore., and, as in countless other American cities, teenagers are on the prowl for like-minded adolescents via the Internet. However, the three teenagers who find one another in “Speech & Debate” don’t just bond over music, books and movies, but are linked through a sex scandal that has rocked their community. The three adolescent misfits do what anyone else would to get to the bottom of the scandal: form their school’s first speech and debate team. Check out the West Coast premiere of the play, which critics are calling “flat-out funny.” 8 p.m. Thu.-Sat., 2 p.m. Sun. Through Oct. 26. $22-$28. The Blank Theatre, 6500 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 661-9827. ” target=”_blank”>http://www.plays411.com/ragtime.

Sat., Sept. 13
Camarillo Art & Jazz Festival. Camarillo is offering visitors a one-day extravaganza filled with music, artists and gourmet food, all culminating in an evening concert under the stars. The 2008 Camarillo Art & Jazz Festival will include gospel and bluegrass music, a farmers’ market and more than 50 artists showcasing their work. By evening, retro-band Royal Crown Revue will warm the stage for a secret, Grammy-nominated headliner. 8 a.m. (farmers’ market), 10 a.m. (music and art walk). $20-$60. 2400 Ventura Blvd., Old Town Camarillo. (805) 484-4383. ” target=”_blank”>http://www.apla.org.

Fri., Sept. 19
“Back Back Back” at The Old Globe. There’s nothing poignant about professional athletes using steroids. Or is there? Old Globe playwright-in-residence Itamar Moses delves into the controversial topic and takes the audience beyond the newspaper headlines and congressional hearings to the sanctuary of sports — the locker room. With humor and insight, Moses unfolds the stories of three major league baseball players who struggle to compete in the unforgiving world of professional sports, as well as balance their personal lives and professional images. The up-and-coming playwright has “clearly demonstrated tremendous talent along with a willingness to tackle complex ideas in his plays,” said The Globe’s Executive Producer Lou Spisto. Moses’ other works include “The Four of Us,” which won the San Diego Critics’ Circle Best New Play Award last year and “Bach at Leipzig.” 8 p.m. Tue.-Sun. Through Oct. 26. $42-$59. Old Globe Arena Theatre, James S. Copley Auditorium, San Diego Museum of Art, Balboa Park, San Diego. (619) 234-5623. ” target=”_blank”>http://www.nhm.org.

Sun., Sept. 21
KCRW’S World Festival. A remarkable, eclectic lineup marks the last week of KCRW’s World Music Festival. Ozomatli toured the world, engaging audiences with its blend of Latin-, rock- and hip-hop-infused music, as well as its anti-war and human rights advocacy. The multiethnic group headlines this special night at the Hollywood Bowl, along with Michael Franti, a former member of the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, and his latest band Spearhead. Mexican singer Lila Downs as well as Tijuana’s premiere electronic band, Nortec Collective and its members Bostich and Fussible, will make it impossible for anyone not to get something out of the mix. If you haven’t had the chance to catch this spectacular summer concert series, don’t miss this last opportunity. 7 p.m. $10-$96. Hollywood Bowl, 2301 N. Highland Ave., Hollywood. (323) 850-2000. ” target=”_blank”>http://www.lfla.org/aloud.

Wed., Sept. 24
Brad Meltzer signs “Book of Lies.” The New York Times best-selling mystery writer is back with a riveting new thriller that links the Cain and Abel story with the creation of Superman. Young Jerry Siegel dreamed up a bulletproof super man in 1932 when his father was shot to death. It may sound like a strange plotline, but trust Meltzer, who has written six other acclaimed page-turners as well as comic books and television shows, to produce a great read. The novel is already receiving major buzz and you can get in on the action in a variety of ways: By watching the trailer on Brad Meltzer’s Web site (yes, the book has a movie trailer), listening to the book’s soundtrack (yes, the book has a soundtrack) and by coming to a reading and book signing by the author. 7:30-9 p.m. Free. Barnes & Noble, 16461 Ventura Blvd., Encino. (818) 380-1636. ” target=”_blank”>http://arts.pepperdine.edu.

Sat., Sept. 27
“Skinny Bitch: A Bun in the Oven.” If there is one thing that doesn’t ever get old, it’s mocking our own culture. Authors Rory Freedman and Kim Barnouin do just that in their newly released “Skinny Bitch: Bun in the Oven,” a sequel of sorts to their best-selling cookbook “Skinny Bitch.” The book is a guaranteed laugh riot and today’s in-store reading and signing could offer a sassy twist as the two authors show up in the flesh to dish about expecting mothers. And don’t be fooled, just because the subjects of this book are in a more fragile state of mind, Freedman and Barnouin refuse to make any exceptions to their insightful and illuminating critiques. 2 p.m. $14.95 (book price). Book Soup, 8818 Sunset Blvd., Hollywood. (310) 659-3110. ” target=”_blank”>http://www.jamescolemanfineart.com.

Sat., Sept. 27
“Jack’s Third Show.” Long hair, dramatic eye shadow and electric guitars return for an ’80s afternoon. Billed as a benefit for autism education, radio station JACK-FM stages an edgy blend of retro and new wave rockers. Billy Idol joins Blondie, The Psychedelic Furs and Devo for a musical bash that will have you dancing all day long. 2 p.m. $29-$89. Verizon Amphitheater, 8808 Irvine Center Drive, Irvine. (213) 480-3232. ” target=”_blank”>http://www.931jackfm.com.

Sat., Sept. 27
Museum Day. Art and cultural institutions are hoping to attract folks from all walks of life by making them an offer that’s hard to refuse: free admission to museums across Southern California. Sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution, this event gives art lovers and art novices alike the opportunity to visit venues from the Getty Center to the Craft and Folk Art Museum, free of charge. Natural history and science museums, like the California Science Center are also participating in the event. Regular parking fees do apply and advance reservations are recommended for some exhibitions. For a complete list of participating museums, visit ” target=”_blank”>http://www.museumsla.org/news/asp.

Sat., Sept. 27
Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra’s 40th Season Opening Gala. L.A. Chamber Orchestra’s first musical director, Sir Neville Marriner, will conduct its current director, Jeffrey Kahane, in a piano solo to celebrate its 40th year. A symbolic bridge between the orchestra’s past and its future, expect to hear classical masters Beethoven, Schumann and Stravinsky, followed by dinner, dancing and a live auction for patrons. 6 p.m. $35-$125 (concert only), $750 (full package). The Ambassador Auditorium, 131 S. Saint John Ave., Pasadena. (213) 622-7001, ext. 215.

The Hollywood candidate is not Obama


If John McCain wins this election, it will be because of Hollywood.

It’s not that Hollywood is giving him big money (it isn’t); or that big celebrities are attracting attention to him (they’re not); or that star writers and directors are helping him with stagecraft and wordsmithery (again no).

It’s that the gradual appropriation by Hollywood of politics, journalism and practically ever other domain of modern life is reaching its apotheosis in McCain’s campaign.  His persona, and the story he is telling, and the media narrative that frames and delivers it to us, all come straight from the movies. 

Unfortunately, this movie may end really, really badly.

If you want to see how entertainment conquered reality (as the subtitle of Neal Gabler’s “Life the Movie” puts it), don’t look at Arnold Schwarzenegger or Ronald Reagan, or at Oprah or Jane Fonda.  Look instead at the inauguration day of the era we now inhabit: September 11, 2001.

“It was like something from a movie.”  It’s stunning how universal that reaction was, whether from eye witnesses or television viewers.  It is entirely plausible that the terrorists themselves intended us to experience it as a movie—a disaster film, a horror picture, an epic of spectacular destruction and mass helplessness.

From 9/11 until now, we have lived in a state of suspense, wanting to know how it will all turn out.  Are we living through apocalyptic times, heading toward nuclear terrorism and an “On the Beach” ending?  Will the anarchy of “Mad Max” be our fate?  Will the human monsters who hate us ravage us as mercilessly as the monster of “Cloverfield” or the aliens of “War of the Worlds”?  Or will we be rescued by a latter-day cavalry, like the improbable heroes of “Independence Day”? 

George W. Bush told us we were in a Western (“Wanted, dead or alive”), and in a World War II movie (“Bring ‘em on!”).  But the quagmire of Iraq, the persistence of al-Qaeda and the Taliban, and the return of Cold War Russia have prevented us from reaching – except in the President’s own mind, perhaps – the ultimate victory of the white hats and the good guys that those genres promise.

At the moment when things look most bleak, in rides John McCain.  Like Rambo, he has returned to rescue us, to make this war on terror end differently than that war in Vietnam.  Like Shane, he is a maverick, a loner, a reluctant gunslinger who arrives out of nowhere, back from political death.  Like Yoda, or the Wise Man of countless other science fiction films, he offers us wisdom and judgment accumulated over lifetimes.

Only that message didn’t work.  The hero of the Hanoi Hilton has used his POW history a dozen times too many to explain everything from not recalling how many houses he owns to charges that he cheated his way out of the Saddleback “cone of silence.”  The maverick who bucked George Bush turned out to vote with him 90 per cent of the time; the loner who denounced the “agents of intolerance” in his own party returned to Liberty University to pay honor to Rev. Falwell; the opponent of torture ended up supporting it; the sage turned out to be a hothead with a hair-trigger temper whose gut instincts are the problem, not the solution.

And then there was his opponent—the true outsider who made him look like Mr. Establishment, the young guy who made him look too much like Yoda, the leader of millions who made his own claims to leadership ring hollow.  Barack Obama, to be sure, has also been the beneficiary of Americans’ inclination to experience life via movie genres.  In Obama’s case, it’s the rags-to-riches saga, the only-in-America tale, plus the crusader quests of Gene McCarthy and Martin Luther King, Jr., of Bobby and Jack Kennedy – stories so burnished by Camelot mythology and an Age of Giants romanticism that the line between legend and life hardly matters.

McCain’s Rovian campaign fought genre with genre, trying everything to recast Obama into a different story.  They depicted him as a false prophet with literally Mosaic pretensions; a traitorous “Manchurian Candidate”; a demagogue, like Lonesome Roads in “A Face in the Crowd”; a rock star egomaniac, a celebrity airhead, a diva, like the characters in the serial melodramas that we call People, Extra! and TMZ.  But for all that, the race remained a dead heat.

In panic, McCain threw a Hail Mary pass—familiar to fans of sports comeback movies—and chose Sarah Palin as his running mate.  What he gets from this self-described hockey mom is a genre lift, the Hollywood fable of the un-politician who comes to Washington to straighten things out. 

She comes from a long line of movie outsiders.  Jimmy Stewart’s Mr. Smith starts out as the head of the Boy Rangers. “The Candidate” played by Robert Redford is a lawyer for hopeless causes. Kevin Kline, who impersonates the president (for the better) in “Dave,” runs a temp agency.  In “Man of the Year,” Robin Williams is a comedian who runs for the White House.  Reese Witherspoon’s Elle Woods, in “Legally Blonde 2,” is the underestimated Delta Nu chick who turns Congress around.

So why not Sarah Palin as Vice President?  To be sure, the notion that women, particularly Hillary Clinton supporters, would vote for her just because she has two X chromosomes, and despite her being on the opposite side from Sen. Clinton on every policy issue facing the country: that cynical tokenism is precisely the kind of affirmative-action-at-its-worst that the right never tires of accusing the left of committing.

But McCain isn’t betting everything on the hope that self-spiting Clinton partisans and undecided younger suburban women will identify with Sarah Palin’s gender.  He’s doing it to tap into the beloved American movie myth of the salt-of-the-earth outsider who ends up in power.  He’s gambling that we just can’t help loving plots like that.

The Labor Day news that Sarah Palin’s 17-year-old daughter is five months’ pregnant adds yet one more genre to the GOP movie arsenal: within minutes of the revelation, one media wag dubbed Bristol Palin “the Juno of Juneau.”

And what about the heartbeat-away issue? As critic Katha Pollitt wrote, “If life were a Lifetime movie, Palin would do just fine running the country should McCain keel over. Girls can do anything! And look great doing it!”

John McCain is 72, and he’s been operated on for malignant melanomas—the most dangerous kind of skin cancer—four times.

At this point in the campaign, it looks as though McCain has a 50/50 chance of becoming President.  And while I wish him 120 birthdays, it is no great stretch to imagine Sarah Palin ending up in the Oval Office.  This is the entirely possible outcome that the Republicans are putting on the table this week. 

Maybe Americans won’t want to take that risk.  But McCain could well win.  More Americans may vote for the real life movie about the moose-hunting Alaskan beauty queen who goes to Washington, than for the one about the charismatic half-black Hawaiian who ends up at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

If John McCain wins, it is entirely conceivable that whatever scares you most in the world, and whatever you care most about doing at home, Sarah Palin will be in charge of it.  But by the time we realize how dystopic such a movie might turn out, it will be too late for any of us to leave the theater. 

Marty Kaplan wrote and executive produced “The Distinguished Gentleman,” in which Eddie Murphy plays a con man who gets elected to Congress.  He now directs the USC Annenberg School’s Norman Lear Center, which studies the impact of entertainment on society, and blogs @

Dating dramas


I’ve decided to embark on an acting career, so I signed up for acting classes. Given that acting is such a competitive business, I comfort myself in the idea that I can also treat acting class as a form of therapy and thus gain added, nonprofessional value. So far, playing characters in difficult situations has allowed me to reflect on my own feelings and behaviors.

For my first assignment, I was asked to recreate, on stage, a personal environment (whether my bedroom, office or living room) — and engage in an activity I like (whether painting, cooking or playing music). The point was to get us actors to feel comfortable on stage so that we could react naturally when the phone rings with an imaginary crisis. The audience doesn’t have to know the identity of the crisis — it’s the reaction, not the story, that’s important.

Eager to do a good job and impress the teacher, I recreated my living room in Israel and thought of a crisis all too sadly familiar to me: A terrorist attack in my neighborhood. When the phone rang, I jumped from my easel, where I was drawing a horse, and went into crisis mode. I immediately began to call friends to find out who was hurt, to check the news on TV and online for casualty updates. I was frantic.

Then the teacher stopped me and said: “Orit! Just sit on the sofa.”

I followed his instructions. On the sofa, I contemplated, without words, the horror of the moment. And the teacher said that’s where I was effective and convincing. In that moment I wasn’t acting. I wasn’t trying to say the right things. I was being.

At my next rehearsal, at a cafe for a scene in which I play a woman trying to seduce an old flame, I repeated the same pattern. As my scene partner hinted to me, my reading was stiff, unnatural and predictable. I only worried that I uttered the lines in the right way. I didn’t capture the emotion of the moment by allowing the part of me who relates to the character influence my delivery of the lines. Then, when we put the script down and just talked, I reconnected with my natural way of speaking and gesturing and sought to bring that into the role.

That’s when it hit me. What applies to acting also applies to dating.

For instance, if I meet a really good-looking and charming guy at a party whom I want to impress, I go into acting mode. I ask myself: How should I behave? Should I walk up to him and say “Hi”? Should I stand there nonchalantly and wait for him to make the first move?

When I e-mail him, I overthink the timing and wording of the letter. I become a playwright. Should I think of a creative subject line or keep it casual? Should I open it with “Hey” or “Hi”? And how should I sign it? With “Best regards”? With just my first initial?

I know I’m really infatuated in a bad way when I actually think of implementing the advice of that lame book “The Rules,” such as: “Don’t stare at men or talk too much” or “Don’t call him or rarely return his calls” or “Don’t accept a Saturday night date after Wednesday.”

Then, if we go out on a date, I try to be, or at least act, put together, cool, perfect. I don’t allow myself to become vulnerable. I don’t honestly share my likes and dislikes, my strengths and insecurities. I worry too much about what the guy wants to hear rather than what I truly want to say. In short, I’m not myself. I’m acting.

Contrast this behavior with a guy I’d consider only as a friend. I can chat it up with him for hours and talk about whatever concerns me, without worrying about what he thinks of me. I write whatever I feel like in an e-mail without proofreading it 10 times. I complain about my day, my problems, my hopes, my dreams. Strangely, my guy “friends” are those who end up falling in love with me.

I think it’s because when I’m myself with the opposite sex, I create real moments — the Oscar-worthy moments that light up a screen or a stage because the audience sees the real character — her pain, joy, uncertainty, triumph. I let go of the script and show what’s between the lines — and what’s inside my heart.

So I’m learning to change my approach — not only in acting class, but in the real-life drama of my dating life. I think part of the challenge is finding the right “scene” partner — the supporting male who can bring out my true character, who doesn’t make me feel the need to read from a script or follow rules.

Maybe by learning to be more natural and hence creating authentic moments not only stage, but also over coffee or dinner with the men I date, I’ll earn my real Oscar — a shining golden man to take home.

Orit Arfa is a Jewish Journal contributing writer based in Israel who is spending the summer in Los Angeles. She can be reached via her Web site: www.oritarfa.net.

Israel’s ‘grande dame’ grows up on the big screen


There is a scene in Dina Zvi-Riklis’ award-winning drama, “Three Mothers,” in which Gila Almagor, once a popular singer, stages a comeback concert to raise money for her sister, Yasmin, who needs a kidney transplant. At the start of the concert, she introduces herself as one of three sisters. “Sixty years ago, my sisters and I were born in Alexandria, in Egypt. We’re triplets,” she says, with a coy smile. “Triplets are like twins, but a lot harder.”

In that moment, Almagor is Rose, a still-attractive, 60-year-old woman who has lived a remarkable life, full of mystery and adventure and an unusual bond with her sisters. It’s only when the movie ends that the viewer can detach from this vision of Almagor as Rose, a has-been cabaret singer who refuses to be daunted by what she and her sisters did to help one another.

For despite some similarities, Gila Almagor herself is anything but a has-been. This 67-year-old actress is at top of her game, working on several movies, the stage and two television series. She will be presented with a lifetime achievement award on Tuesday, March 6, at the Los Angeles Israel Film Festival, which runs March 7-22. But, perhaps, like Rose, Almagor is a woman who is able to focus on her own gifts while remaining dedicated to a force larger than herself. For Rose, that force is her sisters. For Almagor the actress, it is the world known as Israeli cinema.

“I started as a very young actress,” Almagor said in an interview. “When I was 18 or 19, I was already participating in Israeli films, and it was the beginning of the Israeli film industry. We’ve been working together ever since, and I feel more like a servant of Israeli cinema. I’m so happy that I’ve been here [from] the beginning and survived until now, when I see it flourishing.”

Almagor was a teenager when she first fell in love with the stage. She was living in a children’s home — her mother was mentally ill; she never met her father, a policeman in the British Army, because he was killed by an Arab sniper when her mother was five months pregnant with her. Her mother later remarried, but by time Almagor was 13, she was sent away to school. She wasn’t yet 17 when she moved to Tel Aviv, rented a room near the Habima Theater and took the entrance examinations for the drama school.

Her debut performance was on her 17th birthday, in the Thornton Wilder play, “The Skin of Our Teeth.” After working at both the Habima and Cameri theaters, Almagor studied acting in New York, returning in 1965 to Israel, where she has remained, performing in dozens of plays, movies and television shows.

“In acting and content and contribution as an actress, Gila is the most prolific actor in Israeli cinema; her contributions have been utterly fantastic,” says Katriel Shory, director of the Israel Film Fund. “You can’t think of Israeli cinema without Gila Almagor. You just can’t.”

For Almagor, the last year has been one of intense work, on stage and on small and large screens. Besides acting in “Three Mothers” and “Tied Hands,” both being screened at the festival, she also participated in Steven Spielberg’s “Munich” and Assaf Bernstein’s “The Debt.” She has performed in several plays and in two television shows, “Our Song” and “Therapy” (HBO recently bought the rights to create their own version of “Therapy,” which will be called “In Treatment”).

Almagor loves to work, particularly when the different roles demand versatility as an actor. For Almagor, this is the essence of being an actor: the challenge to change physically and mentally for the look and feel of each character.

During her early years as a young actress, she says, she was “cast only as a pretty face, with empty roles, empty characters and I had to fight against the stigma. They dyed my hair blonde for three years. It was torture to be a good-looking young actress when I wanted to become a very versatile actress. I knew I could do comedy [and] drama. I did so many things to fight against the stigma and to make sure that I could become the actress that I dreamed of. ”

In “Tied Hands,” Almagor plays a mother caring for her dying son, attempting to make up for a lifetime of benign neglect. The movie revolves around one night when Almagor goes on a journey to find marijuana for her son and discovers different aspects of his very different world in her search. Critics have called Almagor’s performance masterful, as she balances the mother’s stern, proper exterior with the expressions of a woman who is confused and despairing over her son’s terminal illness.

To Almagor, the best part of last year’s work was the range of roles she played: tortured mother and sometimes selfish sister in “Three Mothers;” retired psychologist in the series “Therapy;” police investigator in the fourth season of “Our Song;” as well as her ongoing stage work in both “Abandoned Property” and the Israeli version of playwright Eve Ensler’s “The Vagina Monologues.”

“Work is my open university,” Almagor says. “I learn by working on my characters or dealing with a period by doing research. But I try very carefully not to be affected by the roles I play – I know how to draw the line between my work and my life, otherwise I would have to be hospitalized.”

Then again, that has always been Almagor’s gift as an actress — her ability to physically and mentally morph into the look, sound and soul of the character that she is playing.

“For me, this is the essence of being an actress,” Almagor says. “It’s like being a comedian.”

What many people don’t know about Almagor, says the Film Fund’s Shory, is her commitment to the development of Israeli cinema, her dedication to the battles over what constitutes Israeli cinema.

The artist Elimelech, the comic David Steinberg


Saturday the 17th

” border = 0 vspace = ‘8’ alt=”Flight of Fancy”>

Fantastical images by female artists are on view at the Finegood Gallery in Flight of Fancy 2007 art exhibit, which opens today. With titles like “Samson and Delilah” and “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” the paintings include imagery inspired by religious and literary works, as well as music.

Feb. 18-March 11. Feb. 18, 1-4 p.m. (opening reception). March 11, 1-4 p.m. (closing reception). 22622 Vanowen St., West Hills. (818) 885-0430.

Monday the 19th

Two special events for families with special-needs kids occur this week: Today, at the Zimmer Children’s Museum, HaMercaz sponsors a Family Playday that includes a craft activity, play time and pizza all around. (Reserve early, as space is limited.) And, Sat., Feb. 17, at Shomrei Torah Synagogue, “Tefillah B’Yachad…Together We Pray” is a monthly Shabbat program with song, dance, prayers and storytelling.

“Family Playday”: 10:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m. $7.50 (adults), free (children). 6505 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. R.S.V.P., (323) 761-8800, ext. 1251 or sblitzstein@jfsla.org.

“Tefillah B’Yachad”: 11 a.m.-noon. Free. 7353 Valley Circle Blvd., Los Angeles. (818) 346-0811.

Tuesday the 20th

The golden age of Polish poster art is celebrated in venues throughout our city over the next three months. “Polish School of Posters” is California’s first large-scale exhibit of original work from the 1960s-1980s, an era of award-winning poster art in communist Poland.

The show will include 80 CYRK — Polish circus/art — posters at Track 16 Gallery in Santa Monica opening this week; 40 jazz posters at the Jazz Bakery in Culver City, opening Feb. 24; and 40 Jewish posters at the University of Judaism on Feb. 25.

In March and April, Weidman Gallery and Voila Gallery will participate, as well, and film posters will be displayed at Laemmle Theaters in conjunction with the Polish Film Festival LA and the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival. West Hollywood’s Bar Lubitsch and Santa Monica’s Warszawa Restaurant also get in on the action.

‘ target=’_blank’>www.tvland.com.

Thursday the 22nd

This weekend offers a last opportunity to catch Mark Kemble’s drama, “Bad Hurt on Cedar Street.” The play about an Irish-American family of characters, each with secret demons, has been well received — as has a performance by Israeli-American actress Iris Gilad, as a mentally disabled adult daughter.

$18-$22. Greenway Court Theatre, 544 N. Fairfax Ave., Hollywood. (323) 655-7679, ext. 100. David Copperfield makes patients’ cares vanish

Clues to family drama’s Jewish roots finally add up on ‘Numb3rs’


Add family drama plus FBI action, and the sum equals CBS’s hit drama, “Numb3rs.”The show, which just started its third season, is as much about fathers and sons as it is about using mathematics to solve crimes. Alan Eppes (Judd Hirsch) is the widowed patriarch to two disparate sons: son Don (Rob Morrow), an FBI agent, and Charlie (David Krumholtz), a math genius who works as a consultant for Don. The subtext is that Charlie the prodigy, is the favored son, while Don feels abandoned and bitter and yearns to connect with his father. The Oct. 6 episode deepens this dynamic while “outing” the family as Jewish.
 
This time, the brothers investigate a piece of Nazi-looted art that may belong to a Holocaust survivor who lost her family in the camps. Don is deeply moved by her story and by his father’s revelation that a cousin of theirs also lost all her relatives in the Shoah. The agent tells his father he would like to investigate what happened to them — an unusually emotional statement for a character who tends to repress his feelings.
 
“This episode gives us a glimpse into Don’s soul,” Morrow told The Journal. “Don feels a yearning to connect to his heritage, which reflects his longing for his father and for connections in life.”
 
At a time when crime dramas abound on prime time (think “C.S.I.,” “Law & Order” and their various spinoffs), “Numb3rs” stands out for its focus on family and “unexpected shades of character,” according to Newsweek.
 
Yet one aspect of the characters has been neglected, at least until tonight’s show — their obvious Jewishness. After all, these actors are well known for playing members of the tribe: Hirsch, 71, was cabbie Alex Rieger on “Taxi”; Morrow, 44, played Dr. Joel Fleischman on “Northern Exposure,” and Krumholtz, 28, portrayed numerous “neurotic shlubs,” in his own words, before landing the “Numb3rs” gig.
 
“When they cast the show, an executive said the poster was going to show the three of us emerging from shul triumphant,” Morrow says with a laugh.
 
Even the series’ creators, Cheryl Heuton and Nick Falacci, say they had envisioned the Eppes as Jewish since casting the show in 2004. (The first hire was Krumholtz, partly for his uncanny ability to make math sound cool, even though the actor had flunked algebra twice.) The producers say they were waiting for the right story to “out” the characters, and they found it in the headlines about Nazi-looted art. They feel the onscreen family chemistry works, in part, because the actors share culturally Jewish New York roots. A subtler dynamic helps the performers create the favorite son/black sheep son nuances on the show.
 
Neither Hirsch nor Krumholtz have previously worked with Morrow (although they enjoy doing so now), but they share a rich performance history together. Krumholtz got his big break playing Hirsch’s son in “Conversations With My Father” on Broadway 15 years ago.
 
Krumholtz was 13 at the time and had no previous acting experience, nor had he ever been to the theater. He auditioned on a lark — “something to do on a Saturday afternoon” — and landed the role, in some measure, because of his resemblance to Hirsch.
 
“I was frightened for David,” the older actor recalls. “His first production was going to be this extremely violent, emotional play, and he was going to be an ‘object’ in it.”
 
Hirsch’s character, a volatile Jewish immigrant, chokes, grabs and smacks his son, and also chases him around the stage with a strap. Hirsch worried the production might overwhelm the ebullient, novice performer.
 
Hirsch’s solution, Krumholtz recalls, was a form of theatrical “tough love.”
 
“Teasingly, he pointed out every little thing I did wrong,” the younger actor says. “I was extremely unprofessional; I had an opinion about everything, and every time I was loud or said something when I was supposed to be quiet, or missed a line, he was right there with a big ‘shut up’ or ‘That’s you, kid,’ or ‘get with the program.’ It was rough, but I knew he was doing it because he believed in me. By the end of the show I had learned about professionalism, and I loved Judd with all my heart. I now call him my ‘acting father,’ because I feel I owe him my career.”
 
When Krumholtz eventually left “Conversations” to pursue movies, he cried so effusively that Hirsch sat him on his lap to comfort him.
 
The father-son dynamic is still apparent as the two sit side by side over lunch in a studio cafeteria. The boyish Krumholtz avidly listens as Hirsch tells long stories, with relish, about thwarting anti-Semitism in the Army and how his own father chased him around the house with a strap. Both recount growing up in working-class homes (Krumholtz’s “Conversations” salary paid for his bar mitzvah reception) and describe Morrow as “more of a Westchester County [a.k.a. wealthy] Jew.”
 
In a phone interview, Morrow laughs ironically when told of the “Westchester” remark.
 
“I was as working class as they were,” he says, sounding a bit like his misunderstood “Numb3rs” character. Actually, he grew up comfortably middle class in White Plains, N.Y., until his parents divorced when he was 9, and his father, an industrial lighting manufacturer, moved to Manhattan and later to Florida. Morrow stayed behind with his sister and his mother, who went to work as a dental hygienist to support the family.
 
“Suddenly money was a real issue, but my mother was determined to keep up appearances, so we moved to Scarsdale and we were living on the fringes of this wealthy enclave,” he recalls.
 
Like the fictional Don, he says he felt somewhat abandoned by his father (“suffice it to say I spent a lot of years in therapy”), and he has channeled those feelings into his “Numb3rs” character.

Israelis Do the Riviera


Amid the celebrities and paparazzi crowding the Cannes Film Festival last week, Katriel Schory roamed the bustling boulevard Croisette like a proud parent.

“Israeli cinema has never had such a presence here,” Schory, director of the Israel Film Fund, said via the cell phone that seems attached to his ear.

Yes, Moshe Mizrahi was nominated for the top prize with his 1972 romantic drama, “I Love You, Rosa,” and Amos Gitai competed five times with his edgy, political films, winning a 2000 award for “Kippur.”

“But I’ve attended this festival for 30 years, and we have a higher profile now than ever,” Schory said. “We’re receiving unprecedented recognition in multiple sections of Cannes.”

The evidence may not appear earth-shattering by Hollywood or Cannes standards. By the time the 12-day extravaganza ends on May 28, almost 1,500 movies from more than 90 countries will have screened in the world’s largest international film festival and market. Yet, for the small but growing Israeli film industry, the progress is dramatic, Schory said. The festival will showcase 15 movies — up from nine in 2005 — some during the first-ever Israel film day, he added.

Two Israeli students, selected by a jury that includes American director Tim Burton, will vie against 15 peers in Cannes’ student competition, perhaps the most prestigious of its kind in the world.

Meanwhile, 40-something auteur Dover Kosashvili (“Late Marriage”), was bustling to meetings with more than 60 financiers — part of a 2006 festival program to help 18 promising directors complete new projects.

On the ground floor of the Palais des Festivals, visitors were streaming to Israel’s official booth, according to Schory: “People are asking, ‘What’s cooking?’ ‘What are the new titles?’ It’s completely different than even several years ago, when once in a while someone used to stop by.”

Schory said he is being wooed by leaders of other international film festivals, who previously ignored him.

“I used to have to beg them to take our movies,” he recalls. “But this year, the Locarno people insisted that I come to their party and that they want a closer relationship with us. And just a couple hours ago, the woman who schedules the Venice festival came up to me and said she wanted to talk as soon as possible about the latest crop of Israeli films.”

Schory’s Israel Film Fund finances up to 70 percent of all Israeli films with his annual budget of $7 million. He has theories about why Israeli cinema is generating interest at home and abroad.

Back in the 1980s, he said, homegrown cinema revolved around the Middle East conflict, a subject too specific to generate foreign sales. Even Israelis were sick of the topic from the news. In the 1990s, filmmakers focused on what Schory calls “navel-gazing” — movies so tediously personal they bored everyone. (Not to mention that the production values and storylines needed work, critics have said.)

In 1998, less than 1 percent of Israelis bothered to see Israeli films: “Our industry was practically dead,” Schory said.

Then came a new crop of artists armed with superior technical skills they had learned at Israel’s blossoming film schools or by working in the country’s bourgeoning TV industry.

“These directors are focusing on intimate dramas dealing with universal, day to day problems — family and social issues that are part of the life of every human being,” Schory said.

Kosashvili’s 2001 drama, “Late Marriage,” about a man torn between his lover and his immigrant family, was the first such film to “pull us out of our slump,” Schory recalls. It didn’t hurt, either, that the Los Angeles Times called “Marriage’s” hottest sex scene “the longest and most erotic, tender and passionate ever to occur in a serious film.”

The drama not only drew some 300,000 Israeli viewers, compared to around 15,000 for previous films; it also earned a slot in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard competition.

Also in 2001, France signed a co-production agreement with Israel that to date has generated 15 films, including Eran Riklis’ searing and highly acclaimed “The Syrian Bride.” Three years later, American distributors bought 9 of the 20 films produced in 2004, said Meir Fenigstein of the Israel Film Festival.

And Israeli movies sold 2.5 million tickets abroad — 1 million of them in France — the following year.

Many of the new directors depict unflinching critiques of Israeli society, a trend now reflected at Cannes. Yaniv Berman’s 30-minute student short, “Even Kids Started Small,” for example, dissects violence at public schools (see sidebar). Yuval Shafferman’s “Things Behind the Sun” depicts a family paralyzed by secrets.

Kosashvili’s new project, “Kishta,” is another kind of domestic drama, an erotic love triangle set in the third century. Cannes officials are providing invaluable help to the director and his producers as they hustle to raise the additional $3 million they’ll need to shoot the $4 million drama.

“The festival has set up meetings with bigwigs we would not have been able to get on our own,” producer Edgard Tenenbaum said by cell phone between appointments. “It’s also great because we don’t have to fly around the world to pitch.”

All this despite ongoing resentment toward Israel due to the Palestinian conflict — especially in European nations such as France. Schory believes this is one

case where art — and cash — transcend politics.

“No one invests in movies for philanthropic reasons or for any special affection for the Jewish state,” he said. “They invest because they’ve seen Israeli movies sell tickets, and they believe they can recoup their money.”

Not that politics are completely absent from the festival; they never are, he adds. Schory cites a panel discussion he just attended in which a Tunisian producer grilled him about the status of Israeli Arab directors.

Palestinian filmmaker Elia Suleiman, of the controversial suicide bombing saga, “Paradise Now,” is a judge in the top competition this year.

“That won’t affect us, because Israeli films aren’t participating,” Schory said. “But I don’t think Suleiman could be objective about an Israeli film.”

Even so, he adds, Jewish and Arab filmmakers are at least talking to each other, if only to lament the obstacles to co-production.

“At the end of the day, film is a universal language,” Schory said.

And with that, he headed off to meetings at the end of his day.

 

Treasury Mainstreams Dramatic Plights


Published plays — especially those in anthologies — tend to be dismissed by the casual browser as specialty items, of interest only to students of theater history or to actors in search of audition material. Ellen Schiff and Michael Posnick clearly had something else in mind when they compiled their lively new collection, “Nine Contemporary Jewish Plays.” Mainstream readers are encouraged to visit the drama bookshelf to locate this intelligent, probing collection filled with vivid examples of how dramatic literature can humanize moral and social dilemmas by embodying them in the personal irritations and intimacies of daily life.

Schiff and Posnick have chosen well, covering territory as diverse as the Argentine white slave trade, the plight of the Refuseniks in the Soviet Union, and the longstanding friendship between Marc Chagall and Yiddish theater legend Solomon Mikhoels. While all the pieces are well-crafted and insightful, some are so heavily dependent on choreography and stage effects that they fall a bit flat on the page. Other entries read like short stories, as absorbing in book form as they likely are in performance. Without critiquing all nine of the pieces, suffice to say that the more verbal and less visually driven pieces tend to be the most readable.

Not surprisingly, two of the standouts are by Jeffrey Sweet and Donald Margulies, who are familiar to American audiences from their Broadway and off-Broadway successes. Sweet’s “The Action Against Sol Schumann” examines one of the perpetually nagging questions of the Holocaust and its aftermath.

The time is 1985, and outspoken Aaron Schumann flies to Bitburg, Germany, to protest Ronald Reagan’s visit to a cemetery full of German soldiers. As the son of a Holocaust survivor, Aaron cannot countenance the president’s portrayal of Germans as victims. Aaron’s moral absolutes are tested, however, when another survivor identifies his father, Sol, as a former kapo. Desperate to put together a defense, Aaron and his brother, Michael, search far and wide. If they can find an eyewitness, they may be able to substantiate their claim that their papa had little choice and even used his position to help other Jews. Finally the two brothers locate an elderly survivor who remembers Sol, but not in the way they’d hoped. Sweet’s dialogue brilliantly mingles the universal and the painfully personal, and the plot moves along with the brisk pace of a good mystery. Unfortunately, the ending feels far too convenient: Aaron, an inner-city schoolteacher, is killed when he tries to break up a knife fight. Thus Sweet lets his protagonist, and the audience, off the hook too easily. A more fitting resolution would have shown Aaron struggling to maintain his sanity as he reconciles the cherished memory of a loving father with the terrifying image of a willing collaborator in his own people’s destruction.

A different kind of conundrum animates Margulies’s “God of Vengeance.” Although the play is adapted from a work by Sholem Asch, Margulies’s clash of dialects vibrates with the influences of Elmer Rice and Clifford Odets. In the tenements of New York City’ s Lower East Side, the 1920s roar with a decidedly Yiddish inflection. Jack Chapman, aka Yankel Tshaptshovitsh, runs a prosperous bordello. One flight up, he tries to maintain a kosher home and to keep his beloved daughter, Rivkele, pure and innocent. When he buys a Torah scroll for Rivkele’s dowry, he finds himself confronting a God whose dictates he has ignored all these years. Alternately frightening and hilarious, his ferocious outbursts are balanced by lyrical scenes of same-sex intimacy. At 17, Rivkele can no longer be tied down. Defying her father’s admonitions, she sneaks downstairs to the brothel. Here, Manke, a prostitute suffering from a different kind of loneliness, offers Rivkele the full embrace she cannot find anywhere else.

Lesser known but equally talented, Marilyn Clayton Felt brings a Shavian intensity to her penetrating study of the Middle East peace struggle. Inspired by true events, “Asher’s Command” concerns a friendship between Arab car mechanic Samir and young Israeli draftee Asher. When Asher’s car breaks down in the territories, Samir is happy to help and shows no animosity toward the young soldier. The problem turns out to be a potato jammed into the tailpipe; hardly an act of ruthless terrorism, but certainly an omen of what’s to come. The friendship continues through the years, but is put to the test in the 1980s when Asher becomes commander of occupation forces. Although he truly believes he can make a difference from within, he receives little support from either side. Arabs suspect trickery behind the peaceful overtures, and Jewish hardliners see him as a traitor to his nation. Tensions erupt when a group of Israeli youths enjoy an outing in Nablus in defiance of regulations. Stones are thrown, shots are fired and Samir’s auto shop becomes an unintended battleground. As Asher is called on to enforce the law, he ends up on the opposite side of his longtime friend. Although a melodramatic subplot proves somewhat distracting, Felt’s well-crafted allegory provides a mature and unflinching portrayal of Israel’s continuing internal and external conflicts.

As for the more experimental pieces, the most affecting is Corey Fischer’s “See Under: Love,” a play within a play within a play adapted from a Hebrew novel by David Grossman. In America, young Neuman neglects his wife and son while speaking to the ghost of his grandfather, Herr Wasserman. Once a popular Polish author, Wasserman is now interned in a concentration camp. Here he’s commanded to be S.S. officer Kurt Neigel’s personal Sheherazade. Each night he invents a new chapter of a surreal adventure story, which Neigel transcribes into letters to his wife. The Nazi is having trouble at home, as Frau Neigel no longer wishes to be touched by hands that stink of death. As the story deepens, Neigel’s conscience slowly awakens. When he truly encounters the horror of his actions he can no longer function, and takes his own life. Fischer skates on thin ice here, dangerously close to a relativistic worldview in which we’re all victims. But by the end of “See Under: Love,” Neigel’s crisis becomes less a moral acquittal than an existential song of lament. Evil, Fischer seems to say, consumes everything in its path, including what little claim to humanity its perpetrators may hope to make.

Unfortunately, only one of the nine plays — Jennifer Maisel’s touching “The Last Seder” — can really be called “contemporary.” Re-examining the past is a worthy task for any dramatist, but the inclusion of a few works that take place in today’s world (“Brooklyn Boy,” “Modern Orthodox,” “Jewtopia”) would have made this collection feel less like a history book and more like the up-to-date dispatch its name suggests.

Article courtesy of The Forward.

Ethan Kanfer is a playwright and theater critic living in New York.

 

‘Cabaret’ Glides Into Shoah-Era Tango


Once, when I was on an all-night bus ride in Brazil, an Argentine man sitting in the rear strummed a guitar, singing one tango after another. The slow, emotional music, its lyrics filled with loss and nostalgia, seemed the appropriate soundtrack. But after a while the Brazilians aboard had enough.

One passenger finally yelled, “Don’t you know any sambas?”

Another shouted, “He doesn’t know any sambas! He only knows how to cry.”

Yes, tango is sad music. No wonder that Jews, and Jewish musicians, have been drawn to it. With its melancholy passion, it’s a vehicle for expressing the mournful side of the Jewish soul … and experience.

Jewish Tango Cabaret — a performance at the New JCC at Milken in West Hills on Saturday, May 13 — takes this link a step further. The show uses dance, music and song — as well as drama and narration — to trace high and low points in Jewish history from the mid-1930s to the late 1940s. The live music will be performed by a five-piece tango band headed by Argentine-born Pablo Goldstein; the dancing is by Tango for Three Dance Company — all of whom are Jews originally from Argentina.

Goldstein got the idea for the show three years ago when he saw a recital/lecture that demonstrated the musical links between tango and Jewish music. He then spoke with Arnold Kopikis, an Argentine-born rabbi who had already researched the topic.

“The tango began in Argentina, of course,” Kopikis said in an interview with The Journal, “in the brothels and lower-class bars, often played by Italian and Jewish immigrant musicians. By the 1920s, the tango had radiated out from Argentina to North America and Europe. It became the rage in Paris and London and Berlin.” By the 1930s musicians were blending tango with the popular music of each region. Jewish musicians did this as well, combining it with traditional Jewish music.

Kopikis said that tango was a part of Jewish life even in the ghettos and concentration camps: “There was a Jewish poet who was assigned by the Nazis to gather an archive of poetry for a museum that the Nazis hoped would display the relics of a disappeared culture. What happened is that this poet found a whole series of tango lyrics in Yiddish. He hid them, escaped, and was able to get to Israel with the lyrics. These were not translations. These were tangos originally written in Yiddish.”

These tango lyrics, Kopikis added, harshly describe daily life in the ghetto, and even in the death camps.

“I’m a musician,” said Goldstein, the show’s music director, “and the knowledge that there was this connection, that tango had been a part of Jewish life moved me deeply. I wanted to put this concept together in a total musical-theatrical presentation, one that includes dancers and a real tango band.”

Goldstein also realized that some songs in Hebrew from Israel’s early days had tango roots.

“Yaffa Yarkoni and others sang tangos — like “Habibi” — that inspired a young Israel in the 1950s. So for Jewish Tango Cabaret, I wanted a vocalist who not only sings in Spanish — the language of most tangos — but also in Yiddish and Hebrew.

His singer, who goes by the single name Elisheva, is Mexican and Jewish, heavily steeped in Yiddishkayt. She grew up absorbing these songs, without even knowing they were tangos.

“Her voice is beautiful and pure and melodic,” Goldstein said.

The show’s setting is a fictional cabaret in Berlin whose owners and customers are Jewish. It starts during the early 1930s, the elegant but ominous years between the wars. As the interplay among song, instruments and dancers evolves, so too does the drama. We see the cabaret after Kristallnacht, its furniture in ruins. The scene shifts to a ghetto, then to a concentration camp, where — Kopikis said — the tango continued to be played and danced, in improvised locations, offering a bit of hope in the face of death.

Jewish Tango Cabaret’s only spoken words are a narration (in English) before each scene. The narrator is an old man remembering his life story, what he’s experienced, and the dancers, musicians and singer perform that man’s memories.

“The show is not just artistic, it’s also educational, and for all ages,” said Teresa, Goldstein’s wife and one of Tango for Three’s dancers, who also prefer, for their performance work, to use only their first names. “We want people to know an aspect of Jewish culture and history that’s not known at all. But we also emphasize the triumphant periods after the war, the founding of Israel, as well as a celebration of Jewish life in the U.S. The same characters who are at the cabaret in Berlin in the 1930s, and later in the ghetto and the concentration camp, meet in a nightclub in New York in 1948.”

The show is only being performed on one date in the Los Angeles area, so I had to rely on a taped preview to get a sense for it. What I saw includes part of the New York 1948 reunion dance and song, set in a Manhattan nightclub. There’s bust-out energy in the music and dance, tangos in Spanish and Yiddish, and swing-dancing — an emotional and exciting reaffirmation of life.

“We did the show at the San Diego Jewish Arts Festival and at Temple Emmanuel in Beverly Hills,” Teresa said, “and got wonderful responses.” The day after this interview, the Jewish Tango Cabaret went to Argentina to perform there.

Omar Zayat, director of the Latin American Jewish Association, which is presenting the show, said the show is a natural fit for his group’s efforts. Who better to sponsor a performance about tango and Jews than an organization that caters to Latin American Jews?

Jewish Tango Cabaret will perform on May 13 at 8 p.m. at The New JCC at Milken, 22622 Vanowen St., West Hills. $25-$40. Jewish Tango Cabaret will perform on May 13, 2006 at 8 p.m. at The New JCC at Milken, 22622 Vanowen St., West Hills. $25-$40. For more information, call (818) 464-3274 or visit

Forget March — Try Midseason Madness


The Olympics drama is over. The Oscar drama is over. The TV ratings drama is just beginning. Now that the networks have a handle on what worked in the fall (ABC’s “Commander-in-Chief”) and what didn’t (CBS’s “Head Cases”), it’s time to make room for some midseason replacements that — if they do well — will return to the schedule this fall.

ABC

With shows like “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Desperate Housewives” and “Lost,” ABC is now the place to be for dramas and dramedies. But how will a new family comedy fare on a network that was once home to uber-sitcoms “Full House” and “Growing Pains” — and is now the place to find “Freddie” and “Rodney” (yeah, we haven’t seen them either)?

“Sons & Daughters” (Tuesdays at 9 p.m.), created by Fred Goss (who also stars) and Nick Holly, is ABC’s answer to critically acclaimed but ratings-deprived “Arrested Development.” The modern-day family comedy about the Walker/Halbert siblings and their parents and children is a mix of improvisational and scripted humor, although it is hard to tell which is which.

Goss plays Cameron Walker, whose second wife, Liz, is Jewish. As a result, in the first episode, evil Aunt Rae tells their young daughter, Marni, that the family is going to hell. While Aunt Rae is napping, the kids use a marker to draw a Hitler mustache on her face, and Henry, Cameron’s resentful teenage son from his first marriage, gets it all on camera.

Cameron is based largely on creator Goss’ own life — he is married to a Jewish woman and is raising his kids Jewish — and facing prejudice from some of his family members.

The show airs in the “Commander-in-Chief” spot through mid-April, and while it isn’t a typical comedy (no laugh track), you might find yourself laughing at the similarity between its family and yours.

ABC also ventures into the CBS stronghold of crime solving with “The Evidence” (Wednesdays at 10 p.m., starting March 22). In every episode, the audience plays detective with inspector Sean Cole (Rob Estes) and Cayman Bishop (Orlando Jones), who get help from Dr. Sol Gold (Martin Landau).

The whodunit takes place in San Francisco (one of the few places “C.S.I.” hasn’t been) and kicks off each episode with Gold presenting clues from a videotaped evidence log. The show then goes to the day the crime was committed, and viewers can play along with the detectives as they find each clue, determine its meaning, put the pieces together and solve the crime.

Landau, who won an Oscar for portraying Bela Lugosi in 1994’s “Ed Wood” and picked up a 2005 Jewish Image Award for his work in “The Aryan Couple,” told The Journal that he’s happy to play a Jewish character again.

“They always cast me as Italian,” said Landau, who has recently been Anthony LaPaglia’s father, Frank Malone, on the CBS drama, “Without a Trace.”

If the show can draw viewers from NBC’s staple, “Law & Order,” expect it to hang around until the fall.

The WB

Switching channels, the WB (soon to be CW) adds a new guys-who-can’t-figure-out-women-but-aren’t-sure-why comedy to its lineup with “Modern Men” (Fridays, 9:30 p.m., starting March 17), from executive producer Jerry Bruckheimer.

Twentysomething childhood friends Tim (Josh Braaten), Kyle (Max Greenfield) and Doug (Eric Lively) each have problems with the women — or lack thereof — in their lives and seek the advice of life coach Dr. Victoria Stangel (Jane Seymour).

Adding to the mix is Tim’s dad, Tug (George Wendt), a former NFL player, and law school student and sister, Molly (Marla Sokoloff), the catalyst for the men seeking professional help, who tells them: If women don’t need men any more, it’s up to men to make women want them.

Sokoloff has been seen on the small screen as Lynette’s cutie-pie nanny on “Desperate Housewives” and as the firm’s receptionist on the late ABC drama, “The Practice.” The actress-singer-songwriter told The Journal that she enjoyed playing a young Jewish woman in “The Tollbooth” (for which she won a Jewish Image Award). She is so much fun to watch that maybe it’s time for her to get her own show.

The male-dominated sitcom concept can either work (CBS’s “Two and a Half Men”) or tank (NBC’s “Four Kings”). If “Modern Men” can keep the numbers of its lead-in — “Reba” — on a evening lineup filled with female-geared shows, it might end up in the former category.

NBC

The Donald is back for another round of hirings and firings — well, mostly firings, on the latest round of “The Apprentice” (Mondays at 9 p.m.). This year’s crop of candidates includes Orthodox Jews Lee Bienstock, 22, and Daniel Brody, 31.

Bienstock, a business analyst and Cornell University graduate who counts Israel among his top travel destinations, has already made one trip to the boardroom after his team, Gold Rush, lost the first challenge of the season. Bienstock escaped unharmed but was told beforehand by project manager Tarek Saab not to throw blame Saab’s way for the loss or Bienstock would become a “target.”

In the second episode, Bienstock became project manager, and his team won — but some early mismanagement on his part could have easily lost the task for Gold Rush. Past seasons have shown that the “young guy” always gets fired before the final two — usually for not having enough experience or being too cocky.

Brody, an alum of Yeshiva University and founder of Brody Sport, a designer brand of activewear, was also on the Gold Rush team but escaped a visit to the boardroom. In the second episode, he showed he can be relied upon to do what is asked of him. The New Jersey native and father of two could break the “entrepreneurs don’t get picked” reputation the show has exhibited so far.

Bienstock and Brody both went to shul for Rosh Hashanah during the week three task — much to the chagrin of fellow teammates, specifially 37-year-old Lenny Val, a Russian-born New Jerseyite who, when Brody said they would be gone, said, “This is f—— stupid,” and then pointed out several times in the episode that even though he is Jewish, he wasn’t taking off.

Val told Bienstock and Brody that if Gold Rush loses, he would blame them — and continued to do so after their team indeed lost their task. Though neither Bienstock nor Brody was taken to the boardroom, Val was and told Trump that he is Jewish and could have taken off, but he felt the team was more important. Trump told Val, who was not fired, that he could have chosen to take off — but “that’s life.”

It will be intersting to see how Yom Kippur, Sukkot and Simchat Torah play into the next few episodes.

Goodbye

The Journal gives a warm send-off to syndication heaven to a trio of longtime shows: NBC’s Sunday night political drama, “The West Wing” (also on Bravo), which ends its term with an election that could go either way); The WB’s Monday night family drama, “7th Heaven,” which spent 10 years offering a wholesome look at a reverend, his wife, their Jewish in-laws and seven kids who got into more trouble than the Bradford children on “Eight Is Enough”; and NBC’s Thursday night sitcom, “Will & Grace” (on Lifetime and the WB), which brought gaydar and tons of guest stars to the small screen, along with Grace’s (Debra Messing) humorous nods to the holidays: “I mean, the holidays are all about … misery and … obligation … and the Maccabees riding an elephant, or whatever the hell Chanukah is about.”

Teens Find Peace On and Off Stage


“We don’t care about politics; we just like each other,” says Shira Ben Yaakov, a cheerful brunette who is an eighth-grade student at Tel Aviv’s A.D. Gordon Junior High School.

Ben Yaakov is referring to Israeli-Arab friends she has met through the Peace Child Israel drama group, which meets weekly, alternating between Jewish and Arab neighborhoods. The group consists of 20 Arab and Jewish teens from Jaffa and Tel Aviv, proof that friendship between Jews and Arabs can exist, even in post-Intifada Israel.

“Even though Arabs live close to me, I have never had the chance to get to know them. I have always been afraid of Arabs as a group and now I know this fear has been unjustified,” Ben Yaakov says.

Maya Smolian, another member of the group, says she was “thrilled” to meet Arab kids her age. Having the opportunity to perform together is just another incentive to be a part of the group.

Peace Child Israel was founded in 1988 by the late Israeli actress Yael Drouyanoff and uses theater and other art forms to encourage dialogue between teens who might otherwise never meet. So far, seven groups have been formed, pairing Jewish and Arab towns throughout Israel, among them Misgav-Sakhnin, Raanana-Qalanswa, and East and West Jerusalem.

In January, the Tel Aviv-Jaffa group toured the United States, visiting Philadelphia and communities throughout New Jersey. Their hosts were Jewish families in each of the cities, as well as students from Changing Our World (COW), a teen drama and arts group with similar methods and objectives. Students from the two countries bonded quickly.

Deb Chamberlin, a singer, songwriter and co-director of COW, initiated the venture. She contacted Peace Child after two visits to Israel, where she was touched by the country and its people.

“I looked to cooperate with a group similar to my own. Once I heard about Peace Child, I knew this was the group I was looking for,” she says. “When I returned to the States, I looked to share my feelings with other people, [to] let them know what Israel is all about.”

Chamberlin wrote Peace Child’s new anthem “The Time Has Come for Peace,” which the group sang on a Philadelphia television morning show and then subsequently recorded with help from some local singers.

“We made a beautiful CD and now wish to promote this anthem as a song for global tolerance and peace,” Chamberlin says.

The group’s original musical, “On the Other Side,” was also adapted for American audiences and has been performed in Hebrew, Arabic and English. The play is inspired by the students’ personal experiences in their native Israel and addresses the sensitive issue of Israel’s security fence from the teens’ point of view. The two groups found they share many of the same challenges in overcoming barriers between cultures.

“The COW group brings together students from different backgrounds,” Chamberlin explains. “Our group consists of Latin, Afro-American and Jewish students; they study in a public school of 3,000 students, most of whom are white Christian Americans. Before meeting with Peace Child, the students would usually socialize with their ‘own kind.’ When they witnessed the beautiful friendships that exist between the Jewish and Arab members of Peace Child, they realized what they were missing. As a matter of fact, many stereotypes were broken on that tour.”

“During one of our workshops, Hiba Salila an Arab student, admitted that before coming on the tour, she was convinced the Americans would prefer the Jewish students to the Arab ones,” Chamberlain says. “It surprised her when they didn’t. Another Jewish student says COW students form a bridge between Arab and Jewish students with their love for us.”

Language was not a barrier. “Though the Jewish kids had better English, the Arab students compensated with their Spanish, so they could all communicate,” Chamberlin says. “On the bus from Washington to northern New Jersey, the students cried because it was their last journey together. We promised to keep in touch and start making arrangements for our visit to Israel. The hosting families intend to help me found ‘The American Friends of Peace Child’. Knowing there are more people willing to work for the success of this project was quite a relief for me. I delivered this baby but now a whole new future awaits it.”

The 10-day tour culminated at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, where groups of American teens joined Peace Child along with an appreciative audience of 500.

“People were deeply touched by the show,” says Melisse Lewine-Boskowich, director of Peace Child, who noted that North Star, an African American teen group, and Intellectual Journey, a band of Jewish and Arab musicians working in the U.S., joined them on stage. “The tour opened many … opportunities for us and now the sky’s our limit.”

” target=”_blank”>http://www.thecowproject.com/

Sima Borkovski is a freelance journalist based in Jerusalem.

 

A Blizzard of Flicks for Jewish Eyes


At the Sundance wintertime festival, which began Jan. 19 and runs through Jan. 29, Jewish viewers can check out a blizzard of flicks, including:

Opening night film, “Friends With Money” (Jennifer Aniston, Jason Isaacs), spotlighting successful adults approaching midlife crisis. It’s the latest feature by Jewish writer-director Nicole Holofcener, whose self-deprecating comedy-dramas have been compared to the work of Woody Allen — not surprising, because her stepfather produced all of Allen’s films, and she virtually grew up on his sets.

Paul McGuigan’s “Lucky Number Slevin,” revolving around a Jewish mobster, “The Rabbi”; his arch rival (Morgan Freeman), and the chaos that ensues when the Jew declines to pick up his phone on Shabbat.

Tony Krawitz’s “Jewboy” (Australia), about an Orthodox youth searching for his place in the world (See last week’s story at www.jewishjournal.com).

Anders Thomas Jensen’s “Adam’s Apples” (Denmark), a black comedy spotlighting a disgruntled neo-Nazi sentenced to community service at church

Yoav Shamir’s documentary, “Five Days” (Israel), on the historic evacuation of 8,000 even more disgruntled Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip.

Frieda Lee Mock’s “Wrestling With Angels: Playwright Tony Kushner,” which profiles the Pulitzer Prize winner who was raised Jewish on a bayou and channels Jewish themes into his work.

Alan Berliner’s “Wide Awake,” a self-portrait of the odd filmmaker’s insomnia, manias and obsessiveness.

Lian Lunson’s “Leonard Cohen I’m Your Man” (See main story).

Rex Bloomstein’s documentary, “KZ” (United Kingdom), about contemporary Germans living in the shadow of the Mauthausan concentration camp (See last week’s piece).

Tiffany Shlain’s short documentary, “The Tribe: An Unorthodox, Unauthorized History of the Jewish People and the Barbie Doll,” on how the busty blond figure — created by a Jewish American — serves as a metaphor of Jewish assimilation and identity

For film schedules and information, visit festival.sundance.org/2006.

Simultaneously, the sixth annual SchmoozeDance and KidzDance festivals — the Jewish counterpart to Sundance on Jan. 20-21 — kick off with a screening of Amos Gitai’s “Free Zone at Temple Har Shalom” in Park City, Utah. The Israeli film focuses on a confused American (Natalie Portman) on a road trip with a bickering Israeli and Palestinian. For information, visit www.jewishfilm.com.

 

Spectator – A Poet’s Slam-Dunk


Jewish summer camp introduces young Jews to many things — sports, arts and crafts, drama classes; Eitan Kadosh, a 1999 National Slam Poetry champion, “learned that sex isn’t always like pizza.”

He also learned how to entertain people, playing one of the brothers in “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.”

But he realized that he “much preferred reading my own material,” he said.

In college, he wandered into an open-mike night at a coffeehouse and got a good response from the audience. From there, he began writing poetry. Possessing an infectious love for language, the 30-year-old Kadosh created his own major at Cal-Berkeley, graduating with a degree in spoken-word poetry and performance.

For many years after college, he toured the country, often performing at Hillels at various universities, as well as at non-Jewish venues. In more recent years, he has remained in Los Angeles, working on his master’s of fine arts at Cal State Long Beach and performing locally at clubs.

With a gift for diction, Kadosh explores the cultural absurdities and political hypocrisies of America, dedicating one spoken-word poem to SUVs, and another to the cheese at the heart of America.

He said that he has been influenced by the Beat poets, particularly the “cadences and rhythms of Ginsberg, each stanza as long as a breath.” Lawrence Ferlinghetti, he said, “sounded so good when read aloud.”

Kadosh wanted to “take the energy” of these Beats and “combine it with more technical precision and craft.”

Many of his poems do not have a Jewish theme to them, but his act, titled “Too Neurotic,” is unmistakably Jewish, not so much in its subversive humor, a humor that may recall George Carlin as much as Jewish comedians, as in his frenetic delivery, which is evocative of Gene Wilder’s nebbish Leo Bloom in the original “The Producers.”

Not unlike Bloom, who keeps repeating, “I’m wet, and I’m hysterical,” Kadosh in his piece, “Waiting for Isaac,” melts polar ice caps, sleeps in the gutter on street-sweeping day, eats nothing but Denny’s, then repeats with exasperation, “But it wasn’t enough.”

His refrain sounds like the antithesis of the Passover song “Dayenu,” even if he is not dealing with plagues. But in “Waiting for Isaac,” he probes the origin of Jewish progeny. For that, we will wait.

Eitan Kadosh performs “Too Neurotic” on Jan. 17 and 18, 8 p.m., at the Fountain Theater, 5060 Fountain Ave., (323) 663-1525.

 

Change of Command on ‘Commander in Chief’


Was it sex, TV politics or controversial opinions about the Middle East? Or something else entirely?

News reports and sources cite conflicting reasons why Israeli-born Rod Lurie was booted or departed as show-runner of the successful new ABC drama, “Commander in Chief,” about the first female president of the United States. Lurie, the show’s creator, was replaced by TV veteran Steven Bochco (“NYPD Blue,” “L.A. Law”) last week — a highly unusual move on a show that is doing so well in the ratings.

Neither Lurie nor Bochco was available for comment on the backstage drama of who deposed the show’s real-life commander in chief and why.

However, rumors began circulating when well-connected entertainment columnist Nikki Finke reportedly told “The Drudge Report” that Lurie was sacked for wanting a “rough” limo sex scene between the president’s daughter and a Secret Service agent.

Meanwhile, The Washington Post reported that Lurie and his bosses had “creative differences” about future episodes. A source told The Journal that the pro-Israel producer had hoped to create episodes in which the fictional president grapples with the Middle East conflict — episodes that may have been too controversial for the network.

Lurie is the son of Ranan Lurie, the famed Israeli political cartoonist, who often entertained Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres in the family’s Herzelyia home. Young Rod moved with his parents to Greenwich, Conn., as a boy. He studied Middle East politics at West Point and worked for the U.S. military, before becoming a film critic and, ultimately, a director in 1999.

His first film, “Deterrence,” revolved around a Jewish president of the United States (Kevin Pollock) who must decide whether to drop the atomic bomb on Iraq.

The Post also surmised that Lurie was “stretched too thin trying to handle writing, producing and directing on the series, while juggling those helpful ‘notes’ from 25-year-old studio and network suits.”

Production reportedly fell so far behind that executives worried that they wouldn’t have enough episodes to push the show through sweeps month in November. Another potential looming problem is the show’s mixed critical reception: Some reviewers speculated that the appealing premise and stars – — Geena Davis and Donald Sutherland – — would not be enough to retain viewers, unless the quality or depth of the product improves.

Lurie will retain his executive producer title on the series, but will focus on developing new projects under his recent deal with Touchstone, a Touchstone press release said. Touchstone produces the ABC series.

“I’ve been a huge fan of Steven Bochco’s for over two decades. I’m blown-away, excited to see how much more he will electrify ‘Commander In Chief,'” Lurie said in the release.

“I have always been a big Rod Lurie fan, and I’m excited about … helping to realize Touchstone’s and Rod Lurie’s vision,” Bochco said in the release.

This season, the Jewish Bochco unveiled Hollywood’s first TV drama on the Iraq War, “Over There,” which aims at a realistic depiction of war that Bochco insists is apolitical. One can only surmise whether Bochco’s approach will translate, for example, to dealing with an issue such as the Middle East in “Commander in Chief.” And whether the show will rise or fall as a result.

 

Channel Surf With the Tribe


Welcome to fall: The time of High Holidays, contemplation, repentance and really, really long services.

And did I mention TV?

OK, we’ll give you the benefit of the doubt. I’m sure your calendar is marked with things like “bake brisket, 350 F for five hours” and “bring challah to Goldbergs for break the fast” and “climb neighbor’s palm for sukkah fronds.”

But just maybe you’re also tuned in to another new year. And you’ve also scribbled in: “Watch new ‘Will and Grace'” and “TiVo ‘Alias.'”

With so many returning and premiering shows, it’s hard to know what will make you want to celebrate or just repent the time wasted. Here’s the lowdown on what some of the Jew crew is up to: the shows, the times and, the nu, why you should care. Look fast — some of these won’t be around come Passover.

ABC

“Desperate Housewives”
Sundays, 9 p.m.

Joely Fisher joins the cast this season as Nina, Lynette’s (Felicity Huffman) boss, who is said to be the new “witch with a B” in town. But come on, do you really need a reason to watch this guilty pleasure?

“Commander-in-Chief”
Tuesdays, 9 p.m.

Creator Rod Lurie brings a new look to the White House with a female president (Geena Davis) who takes over when the current prez dies in office. The buzz on this political drama could keep the show in office for a long time.

“Boston Legal”
Tuesdays, 10 p.m.

After this David E. Kelley show was held to make room for “Grey’s Anatomy,” the cast is ready to go — which means less repeats and more hijinx from Denny Crane (William Shatner) in and out of the courtroom.

“Alias”
Thursdays, 8 p.m.
Dead or alive, bad or good, Michael Vartan’s Vaughn is still hot. But is he a hot double agent? And is that bad or what?

“Hot Properties”
Fridays, 9:30 p.m.

“Sex and the City” meets the world of real estate in more ways than one. Evan Handler (Charlotte’s hubby Harry Goldenblatt on the HBO series) plays the psychiatrist next door.

CBS

“How I Met Your Mother”
Mondays, 8:30 p.m.

Five hip 20-somethings on CBS. And they said it couldn’t happen. In this “flashback” show, cutie patootie Jason Segel plays Marshall, whose engagement prompts his friend, Ted (voiced as an adult in 2030 by Bob Saget), to jump on the get-married bandwagon. The sitcom tells us how it went.

“Out of Practice”
Mondays, 9:30 p.m.

What if the Fonz was married to Rizzo and both became doctors. Besides forming the greatest match in pop culture, you’d have a new sitcom starring Henry Winkler as a Dr. Dad with three Dr. Kids and a Dr. Ex-Wife. (Winkler is also putting in an appearance on NBC’s “Crossing Jordan,” Sundays, 10 p.m.)

“The King of Queens”
Mondays, 8 p.m.

How will Arthur (Jerry Stiller) react when his daughter starts taking a pole-dancing class? Probably not so good. But will his displeasure be related to her skill at pole dancing or something else?

“Still Standing”
Wednesdays, 8 p.m.

This season Jami Gertz’s Judy has to deal with a son who just lost his virginity to an Italian con artist. Then there’s the neighbor who has a “Field of Dreams” complex — he builds a whiffle ball field next door. If he builds it, they will whiff?

“Criminal Minds”
Wednesdays, 9 p.m

Special agent Jason Gideon (Mandy Patinkin) heads the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit, after coming back from a sabbatical for post-traumatic stress. Yes it is another crime drama, but anything with Indigo Montoya is worth watching.

“Numb3rs”
Fridays, 10 p.m.

Dad Alan (Judd Hirsch) watches as brotherly love turns to sibling rivalry between FBI agent Don (Rob Morrow) and his numbers-loving brother, Charlie (David Krumholtz). Oh, and the two investigate a possible terrorist attack on the L.A. subways. Hmm. Wonder where they got that idea?

FOX

“The War at Home”
Sundays, 8:30 p.m.

Michael Rapaport plays a politically incorrect father of three in this sitcom. Think Bunker meets Bundy, minus some much-needed laughs.

“The Simpsons”
Sundays, 8 p.m.

Marge Simpson (Julie Kavner), Moe Szyslak (Hank Azaria), principal Seymour Skinner (Harry Shearer) and the rest of the Springfield gang are back for a 17th season of spoof, satire and, of course, a new “Treehouse of Horror” special.

“Family Guy”
Sundays, 9:30 p.m.

The Griffins, including Lois (Alex Boorstin), Chris (Seth Green) and Meg (Mila Kunis), are up against “Desperate Housewives,” but don’t think that means the folks behind this clever animated show are worried — they’ve got Phyllis Diller.

“Arrested Development”
Mondays, 8 p.m.

Jew-by-choice (sort of) George Sr. (Jeffrey Tambor) is under house arrest in the third season (and his wife decides to do some dating). So plan on some interesting scenes as he attempts to circumcise — er, make that circumvent — the situation.

“That ‘70s Show”
Wedensdays, 8 p.m.

Josh Meyers joins the cast in what is likely its last season — otherwise it would have to become “That Early ‘80s Show.” Look for Jackie (Mila Kunis) to have a run-in with Mary Tyler Moore (who plays a perky news anchor) while Donna (Laura Prepon) tests her love for the missing Eric, who heads to Africa.

“Stacked”
Wednesday, 8:30 p.m.

This season the bookstore-themed show focuses less on plot and more on character, so look for less Pamela Anderson chest jokes (Get it? Stacked?) and more background on Marissa Jarret Winokur’s Katrina and Elon Gold’s Gavin. Yeah, right.

“The O.C.”
Thursdays, 8 p.m.

So much drama, so little time. Creator Josh Schwartz says tragedy will mix in with the romance and fun this season — but let’s hope Linda Lavin’s Nana is back for some more guilt, too.

NBC

“Las Vegas”
Mondays, 9 p.m.

After the Montecito imploded last season everything changed for surveillance chief Ed Deline (James Caan). He now has to worry about the “extreme makeover,” missing staff, a new boss and Vegas tourists who attempt to find this fictional casino, which is actually located in Culver City.

“Medium”
Mondays, 10 p.m.

Emmy-winner Patricia Arquette is back as a secret psychic who catches serial killers — say that five times fast — in this spooky sci-fi drama.

“Law & Order: Special Victims Unit”
Tuesdays, 10 p.m

The Dick Wolf franchise, which never gets tired of spin-offs, begins season seven with a bang — literally. It’s rumored that one of the detectives will get shot. (Hope it isn’t Richard Belzer’s detective John Munch, whose wry observations offset some of the squad room drama.)

“Will and Grace”
Thursdays, 8:30 p.m.

Creators say after the live season premiere, the quartet — plus Karen’s maid Rosario (Shelley Morrison) — get back to their roots as this sitcom gets ready to say “Shalom.” Grace’s (Debra Messing) ex-husband, Dr. Leo, returns for four episodes and she still has that little problem of having kissed her very married ex-boyfriend.

“The Apprentice”
Thursdays, 9 p.m.

The Donald is back for more fired-up fun, but keep an eye out for 22-year-old Adam, a risk manager from Atlanta, whose family is from Israel and said his background had a “tremendous influence on his values.” Not sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing.

“The Poseidon Adventure”
Sunday, Nov. 20, 8 p.m.

This remake of the 1970s Irwin Allen disaster flick version is missing the huge wave, Maureen McGovern’s “Morning After” and Shelley Winters. Instead, we get Steven Guttenberg and terrorists. Welcome to the new millennium.

The WB
“What I Like About You”
Fridays, 8 p.m.

Holly (Amanda Bynes) follows the love of her life on a cross-country trip. The problem is that he’s taking it with another girl. Also watch this season for a mini-90210 reunion.

“Living With Fran”
Fridays, 9:30 p.m.

Fran (Fran Drescher) finally introduces her non-Jewish younger boyfriend to the rest of the mishpacha at a family bar mitzvah. Meanwhile son Josh (Ben Feldman) hits a quarter-life crisis.

F/X
“Nip/Tuck”
Tuesdays, 10 p.m.

Rumor is Joan Rivers is back for more nipping and tucking. And just in the nick (and tuck) of time.

HBO

“Curb Your Enthusiasm”
Sundays, 10 p.m.

Is Larry (Larry David) adopted? His father (Shelley Berman) seems to think so. But would either set of parents want to claim him. Plus, watch for Larry to have a religious experience beyond having “Hava Negilah” as his cell phone ringtone.

 

Cooking Up a Meaningful Plot


“To make really great falafel, crunchy on the outside and smooth and light on the inside, you must use only Bulgarian chickpeas,” British playwright Robin Soans said. “Next, you soak them in water for eight hours.”

Soans, who talks in the sonorous tones of the veteran Shakespearean actor he is, knows whereof he speaks.

He is, after all, the author of the play “The Arab-Israeli Cookbook,” whose characters spend a good deal of stage time preparing a feast’s worth of delicacies, including falafel, humus, gefilte fish, and a dish that combines stuffed zucchini and stuffed vine leaves with chicken.

Despite its title and the food, the play at The Met Theatre employs culinary arts not as an end, but a means to explore the complex and emotional Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“I didn’t want to write an agitprop or political play, but talk about the human condition of everyday people,” Soans said.

Soans developed his storyline shortly after he was approached by two London directors, one Jewish and the other Arab, who were aiming for a different play about the Middle East conflict.

The directors started making contacts in Israel and the Palestinian territories, and last year Soans traveled to the region for five weeks of intensive interviews.

“Both Jews and Arabs are passionate about food,” Soans said. “They have that in common. I thought if I started out talking to them about their love of cooking, I could find out about the daily lives, without getting right away into their hostilities and grievances.”

“I did about four interviews a day and talked to about 80 people, purposely avoiding extremists and politicians,” Soans said. “I never used a tape recorder — it puts people off — and took notes sparingly.”

Blessed with a retentive memory, Soans recreated the conversations and shaped them into a “verbatim play,” a technique he used in his previous works.

The same approach marks his current London play, “Talking to Terrorists,” in which terrorists, hostages and politicians of different nationalities explore what it is that transforms an ordinary man into a mass killer.

“Cookbook” proved a critical success in Britain. The current American premiere is directed by Louis Fantasia, who has staged plays in at least 10 countries.

My cooking skills and interests extend to boiled eggs and barbecued hot dogs, but this drama was still deeply engaging. Without downplaying antagonisms and grievances, the play focuses on the preoccupations of daily life amidst a constant, back-of-the-mind danger and fear of death.

In 10 scenes, nine actors represent 40 characters, with the Arab-Jewish-Anglo-Iranian-Australian cast alternately playing Jewish and Arab men and women.

Partisans of both Israel and the Palestinians will find different segments to affirm or reject.

In one scene, Yaacov (Ric Borelli), a Jerusalem bus driver, notes the incessant strain of sizing up each bus passenger as a potential killer and recalls how a suicide bomber blew up the bus driven by a close friend in front of his eyes.

At another point, an elderly Arab graphically describes the stench, poverty and hopelessness of a refugee camp that holds 15,000 people. In the next scene, the same excellent actor, Ismail Abou-El-Kanater, plays a Jewish guest lifting up his glass in a “l’chayim” at a Rosh Hashanah dinner.

Often, the uncertainty of life is brought home by an off-hand comment. A Palestinian woman proudly shows off her vegetable garden, then points casually to a front gate with 18 bullet holes.

Providing a much-appreciated feisty humor is Rena (Jill Holden), a middle-aged American immigrant, who views the situation through the eyes of an insider-outsider.

“We try to live a normal life on the surface, but underneath there are cracks,” she muses.

Asked why she is not returning to America after her husband’s death, Rena explains that in Israel she has found the profound, deep friendships she never formed in New York.

Soans’ play shows perspectives from both sides of the Green Line, but he acknowledged that the British are not always so even-handed.

“We are a liberal country and tend to side with the perceived underdog, in this case the Palestinians,” he said. “Perhaps we need to be more sophisticated about our sympathies.”

Performances of “The Arab-Israeli Cookbook” are Thursdays-Sundays through June 26 at The Met Theatre, 1089 N. Oxford Ave. (near Santa Monica Boulevard and Western Avenue). Thursday performances are followed by discussion between cast and audience. $15-$20. (323) 957-1152. For additional information, including detailed recipes for dishes prepared on stage: www.TheArab-IsraeliCookbook-LA.com.

 

No Stranger to Strange


From call girl to Trump girl, actress Lisa Edelstein has played myriad parts on stage and off. Now she’s landed a plum role, starring on the Fox TV series “House,” an “E.R.”-meets-“CSI” drama. The Boston native heads the fictional teaching hospital that houses strangely ill patients.

“You’re trying to find out what’s wrong with this living person before he dies,” she said.

For Edelstein, strange is nothing new. In the 1980s, she worked for the Donald, finding models for Trump business ventures. Recently, the actress saw Trump at a party. “He had no idea who I was,” Edelstein told The Journal.

Since the early ’90s, Edelstein has enjoyed a succession of film and TV supporting roles, including two episodes on “Seinfeld,” playing George Constanza’s fed-up girlfriend. “It’s amazing how many people recognize me from that,” said the actress, who also played an upscale call girl on, “The West Wing,” and a male-to-female transsexual character on “Ally McBeal.”

Edelstein grew up in a Conservative home in northern New Jersey and later Brooklyn. She went to New York University and became a Manhattan art scene fixture. She dropped out of college to create “Positive Me,” an off-Broadway play early in the AIDS crisis. She was the subject of a 1986 New York Times Magazine story, “Lisa in Wonderland.”

“I had already been famous in New York for just being out and about,” Edelstein said. Her Warholian, famous-for-being-famous stature resulted in co-hosting a 1990 morning show that was MTV’s stab at imitating Regis and Kathy Lee. “It was terrible,” she said.

The MTV stint prompted the move to Los Angeles, where she lives a vegetarian life. Here, Edelstein’s dark, curly hair often gets her (“too often,” she said) mistaken for actress Melina Kanakaredes, who coincidentally stars in “CSI: N.Y.,” the CBS hit that the new drama, “House,” resembles.

“That’s why on this show I wear my hair straight,” she said.

Drama in Israel, High Stakes in the U.S.


Israeli politics is always a mix of high drama and low comedy, but the current fight within Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s divided government is anything but entertaining for Jewish leaders here.

Israeli commentators have noted that it is a struggle for the soul of the Likud party. How that turns out will have consequences for the U.S.-Israel relationship and on Israel’s already-low standing around the world.

It will also have a major impact on an American Jewish community that has come together to support a beleaguered Israel, but which is unlikely to stay together to support settlers who want to remain in their Gaza and West Bank enclaves.

According to sources here, the pro-Israel lobby has sent an unambiguous message to Sharon and his warring government ministers: expect problems in U.S.-Israel relations if you can’t approve a comprehensive Gaza withdrawal plan.

The reasons aren’t hard to grasp.

President George W. Bush, initially cool to the plan, latched on to it last month as an alternative to the stalled Mideast “road map.” To help Sharon win the promised Likud referendum on the pullout, the president offered some dramatic concessions, including rejection of the Palestinian right of return and an acknowledgment that Israel can retain some West Bank land after a settlement with the Palestinians.

Bush paid a big diplomatic price for those concessions; European and Arab allies were incensed at just the moment when the administration was seeking their help in the Iraq tangle. Their anger intensified when Sharon lost the Likud referendum and began talking about a watered-down or phased plan, making President Bush look like the sucker of the decade.

The administration can’t afford a second loss. Now, officials here clearly expect Sharon to find a way to sell the plan to his government and start implementing it — pronto.

Bush’s need for a diplomatic victory will only increase as he holds a series of meetings here and abroad this month trying to enlist international cooperation in the effort to bring a semblance of stability to Iraq.

Officials here expect a full withdrawal, not a piecemeal or partial one, and they expect Israel to coordinate with the hated Palestinian Authority to prevent a Hamas takeover when Israeli troops and settlers evacuate Gaza.

Sharon has gotten that message; this week he is sending his foreign minister to Cairo to discuss the handover with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

With an election only five months away and both parties scrambling for Jewish support, the Bush administration has no intention of publicly squeezing Israel.

But the message is going out through diplomatic channels: after Nov. 2, there could be hell to pay if Sharon does not make good on his deal with Bush.

If Sharon loses the withdrawal fight to the well-organized settler minority, the role of the settlers in setting national policy will dramatically increase, with huge diplomatic consequences.

President Bush’s unusually strong affinity for Sharon has everything to do with the Israeli leader’s tough and uncompromising response to terrorism, nothing to do with his longtime advocacy of settlements, which this administration, like its predecessors, continues to regard as an impediment to any peace process.

Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas), the House majority leader, may identify with Israeli settlers, but the core of Israel’s political support on Capitol Hill has little sympathy for Israel’s not-one-inch crowd.

Since Sept. 11, the American public has gained a better understanding of the problems Israel faces. But that new sympathy could evaporate if Sharon is defeated by a small band of settlers regarded here as ideological and religious zealots.

There are also potential communal consequences.

The Jewish community has long been divided over the best route to peace in the region, but it has mostly put those divisions on hold since the resumption of widespread Palestinian terrorism in 2000.

Sharon has been a divisive figure over his long career, but by and large American Jews have stood behind his government as it confronts terrorists and a Yasser Arafat that even avid doves concede is not a fit partner for peace.

But beneath today’s veneer of unity, the Jewish community is more divided than ever. An increasingly vocal minority, backed by powerful friends in the Christian community, reject any new territorial concessions. But a majority still support the concept of land for peace negotiations, although many remain skeptical about the current Palestinian leadership.

A failure by Sharon to put over the plan will bring those divisions back into the open and intensify them as American Jews choose up sides in the fight between settlers and mainstream Israel.

The groups that call the Gaza plan a “surrender” or “retreat” plan may be among the loudest in Jewish life today, but it’s the Jewish mainstream that Israel relies on as the foundation of its political support in this country.

That foundation, as well as relations with a sympathetic administration, is at risk as Sharon fights the most difficult battle in a life of difficult battles.

7 Days In Arts


Saturday

Entertainment comes at no price today in North Hollywood
and West Hollywood. Take your pick: The NoHo Theatre and Arts Festival offers a
variety of theater performances that includes musicals, kabuki, sketch comedy,
improv, poetry jams and children’s shows. Also on the agenda are dance
performances and fine arts including chocolate portraits by Sid Chidiac and
Jewish-themed art by Dover Abrams. Those in WeHo can partake in the city’s
“Movies in the Park” free screening of Disney’s “Finding Nemo,” which features
the voices of Ellen DeGeneres, Albert Brooks and Alexander Gould. NoHo Festival:
11 a.m.-8 p.m., May 15-16. Lankershim Boulevard, between Chandler and Magnolia,
in North Hollywood. (818) 763-5273. “>www.laemmle.com

.

Tuesday

Debbie Gibson, Larry from “Three’s Company” and Angela from “Who’s the Boss?” all share a special place in our popular cultural nostalgia, and starting tonight, a stage as well. UCLA’s Freud Playhouse presents Stephen Sondheim’s “Company,” starring the now-mature Deborah Gibson, Richard Kline and Judith Light. The musical comedy centers on the theme of relationships.
8 p.m. (Tue.-Fri.); 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. (Sat.); 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. (Sun.). $55-$65. MacGowan Hall, UCLA, Westwood. (310) 825-2101.

Wednesday

Grade school show-and-tell could’ve been more fittingly referred to as show-off-and-tell. But tonight, thankfully, “Show and Tell” the event, is not what you think it is. No need to feel anxious. You’ll be doing the spectating as professional comedy writers, journalists and playwrights take the stage to perform monologues in support of the Westside Food Bank. So leave the Western Barbie with special winking eyelid at home. You won’t need her.
8 p.m. $25-$50. Silent Movie Theatre, 611 N. Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles. (310) 828-6016.

Thursday

Issues of “wardrobe malfunctions” and “The ‘M’ Word: Morality and the Business of Entertainment” become the topic of conversation this evening at Valley Beth Shalom. Does the “Industry” have a moral responsibility to its viewers? L.A. Times TV critic Howard Rosenberg sounds off, along with fellow panelists Jerry Offsay, president of Parkchester Productions; Frank Pierson, president of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences; and writer-director Lionel Chetwynd.
7:30 p.m. Free. 15739 Ventura Blvd., Encino. (818) 788-6000.

Friday

Singer-songwriter Stephanie Schneiderman’s latest album is titled “Touch Down.” Intimate, at turns bluesy, sexy and a little bit raw, “these new songs are about courage,” she says on her Web site, “not about the absence of fear but the strength to move through it.” She graces you with intimate lyrics and an elastic voice tonight at Genghis Cohen.
8:30 p.m. $7. 740 N. Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 653-0640.

‘Deadwood’ Lassos South Dakota Tales


David Milch’s HBO Western series, "Deadwood," tells of a grimy mining town where drinking, whoring, killing, cussing and cheating are de rigeur. Illegally located on Sioux land ungoverned by United States law, its saloons and gambling dens seethe with debauchery — largely orchestrated by a Machiavellian pimp, Al Swearengen, whose language rivals Tony Soprano’s.

In an interview, Milch, 59, eschews expletives, although his grittily poetic speech resembles Swearengen’s, as does his fascination with vice. It’s an interest that dates as far back as his bar mitzvah, when this son of a Jewish surgeon learned a thing or two about sin.

"I studied with a cantor who was susceptible to being bribed," he said, raspy and with relish. "He was a great stamp collector, so I was able to get around some of the more stringent requirements."

But something about the religion apparently stuck, because Milch added that "Judaism is predicated on an ethical and legal perspective, and I imbibed that." Indeed, his TV work has obsessively focused on laws and lawlessness since he left his Yale English teaching post to write for the cop drama "Hill Street Blues" in 1982.

Milch, a creator of "N.Y.P.D. Blue," envisioned a more unusual police show in 2001 when he pitched the series that would become "Deadwood": a cop drama set in ancient Rome. The HBO executive replied that the network already had a proposed Roman series, but would Milch like to try a Western? He quickly agreed.

"I realized the genre was perfect for exploring how laws emerge in a place where nothing is explicitly forbidden," he said.

While poring through historical documents, Milch discovered that the real Deadwood, S.D., was perhaps the quintessential example of how order developed from the "primordial ooze of libertine anarchy." He decided to set the series there, mixing fact and fiction to people it with characters who had flooded the area after gold was discovered in Deadwood gulch in fall 1875.

The show’s historical figures would include the famed "Wild Bill" Hickok (Keith Carradine); the crude Calamity Jane (Robin Weigert); hot-headed ex-marshall Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant) and his temperate Jewish partner, Sol Star (John Hawkes), who founded the town’s first hardware store (their most popular item: chamber pots). During a year of meticulous research, Milch was interested to discover that Star, an immigrant from Bavaria, was elected to Deadwood’s first city council in 1876 and eventually served 10 terms as mayor. Milch had conceived the series before Los Angeles’ Autry Museum of Western Heritage (now known as The Museum of the American West) opened its 2002 "Jewish Life in the American West" exhibit, and was unfamiliar with how Jews helped civilize such towns.

"Jewish immigrants played a major role in providing businesses that supplied Western communities, and it was not uncommon for Jewish leaders to hold political office," said James Nottage, the museum’s founding chief curator. "Certainly it was not uncommon in Deadwood, which became the center of the Jewish population in South Dakota as people rushed to mine gold from the Black Hills."

Although only a couple hundred Jewish merchants lived among Deadwood’s estimated 5,000 inhabitants between 1876 and 1900, they owned more than one-third of downtown businesses, said Mary Kopco, director of the town’s Adams Museum & House. "They were such a stabilizing force," added Kopco, who in 1999 curated an exhibit titled "An Unbroken Chain: Deadwood’s Jewish Legacy." "It was the Jewish community that really allowed Deadwood to survive."

Their influence is literally carved in stone, as Milch discovered while wandering downtown Deadwood for inspiration. The name "Goldberg" is still engraved in the brick building that housed Jacob Goldberg’s grocery, where Calamity Jane once shopped. Harris Franklin (ne Finkelstein), an ex-peddlar, liquor distributor and cattle baron, hired a synagogue architect to design his 1892 Queen Anne Victorian, now the Adams House.

A grander Victorian structure, the Bullock Hotel, stands on the site of the former hardware store, Star and Bullock, Auctioneers and Commission Merchants. The store’s well-liked co-founder, Star, was "a fascinating person," according to Milch, "someone who wasn’t typically associated in the popular imagination with the West."

Star was born in Bavaria in 1840, probably to a Reform German Jewish family, and immigrated to the United States at age 10. He settled with relatives in Ohio, moved to Montana in the economic chaos following the Civil War and met Bullock, with whom he traveled to Deadwood via a wagon loaded with hardware in 1876. Their goal was "to mine the miners," said actor Hawkes, who read numerous books on Judaism and pioneer Jews to portray Star.

There was one catch, however: "I’m not Jewish," Hawkes frankly told Milch upon their first meeting two years ago. "David asked me, ‘Have you ever felt shame or sadness or ostracized?’ I said, ‘Every day.’ And David said, ‘Then you’re Jewish.’"

It was this sense of Jew-as-outsider that Milch wanted the actor to bring to his level-headed character, albeit in a subtle way. Hawkes’ Star is an assimilationist who "goes along to get along" and has keenly honed survival skills, "undoubtedly enhanced by centuries of Jewish persecution, and ramped up by the outlaw community of Deadwood," the actor said. "So when my character goes into a new place for the first time, he always knows where the exit is, as if he has eyes in the back of his head."

The fictional Star also avoids cussing, which is telling in a town where expletives indicate just how far a person is willing to go to protect himself. Milch — who said the swearing is historically accurate — sees Sol’s refusal to cuss as part of his survival strategy, a "submissive posture that suggests, ‘You’ll have no trouble from me.’"

Nor does the Jewish character bat an eyelash when the notorious Swearengen tells him, "I love you people. You make $5 before I’ve gotten out of bed and taken a p—."

Milch compared the comment to the kind of ignorance-based prejudice he encountered while living with rodeo cowboys to research the show.

Kopco and other aficionados give Hawkes’ character high marks for historical accuracy. But given Milch’s interest in vice, will "Deadwood" explore the darker side of Star who bounced back from at least one scandal?

"Well, he did get fired and accused of theft as the town’s postmaster," the producer said in his gravely voice. "So I think you’re entitled to all those expectations."

"Deadwood" airs Sundays at 10 p.m. on HBO.

A Triangle of ‘Talking’


At one point in the Taper Forum play "The Talking Cure," Sigmund Freud warns the young Carl Gustav Jung not to needlessly stir up the enemies of psychoanalytic theory.

"One difficulty is that all in my circle are Jews," Freud explains.

"I don’t see what difference that makes," the non-Jewish Jung says.

Observes Freud, dryly, "That is a distinctly Protestant remark."

The Viennese Freud and the Swiss Jung, whose close relationship evolves from prophet and disciple to mutual competition and antagonism, are two sides of the triangle in Christopher Hampton’s drama.

Linking the two sides is Sabina Spielrein, a brilliantly neurotic young Russian Jew, whom we meet first as Jung’s patient, then his lover, later a patient of Freud and finally a doctor and psychoanalyst herself.

Spielrein was murdered by the Nazis in 1942, a fate she foresees in a brief flash forward during a love scene with Jung.

The triangular relationship is set in the decade between 1904 and 1913, when anti-Semitism was certainly rife in Europe, but that is a minor subtext of the play.

True to its title, "The Talking Cure" is heavy on dialogue, much of it weighty, but hardly boring.

The early evolution of psychiatry and psychoanalysis — which has had a profound impact on our thinking, perceptions and everyday vocabulary — is pretty gripping stuff, even for the layman or skeptic.

Add the intellectual infighting between two towering personalities and the sexual ardor of Spielrein, and one can accept the often lengthy and sometimes oversimplified expositions and the rather serious tone of the proceedings.

Fortunately, there is a brief appearance by one Otto Gross, a fascinating footnote in the history of psychoanalysis, who advocated, with equal conviction and flippancy, sex, drugs and

anarchy.

Director Gordon Davidson draws nuanced performances from actors Abby Brammell as Spielrein, Sam Robards as Jung, Harris Yulin as Freud, and Henri Lubatti as Gross.

Only toward the end are there prophetic hints of the fate awaiting the world 25 years later. Freud warns Spielrein, "Put not your trust in Aryans. We are Jews and Jews we will always be."

"The Talking Cure," in its American premiere, runs through May 23 at the Taper Forum. For ticket information, call (213) 628-2772.

Spectacle and Sadism


Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” which opened on Ash Wednesday, has inspired an argument over its revival of medieval Passion Play content, and whether such a project risks a revival of medieval-style, post-Passion Play Judeophobia. But there’s a closely related dimension of Gibson’s film that has so far received less attention, and which is at least as compelling: The movie is also a revival of medieval theatrical sadism.

Gibson’s film is controversial in part because of its unrelenting depiction of the violence visited on Jesus. According to one deeply impressed review by Texas broadcaster Jody Dean, posted on Religion Today, “The brutality, humiliation, and gore is almost inconceivable — and still probably doesn’t go far enough. The scourging alone seems to never end, and you cringe at the sound and splatter of every blow — no matter how steely your nerves.”

That is almost surely the kind of reaction that would have satisfied the creators of medieval religious stagecraft.

That is because the theater of the medieval and early modern periods was filled with depictions of cruelty, pain and torture, sometimes extending over days of spectacle. While the suffering of Jesus was a major theme of these presentations, there were many other tales, drawn from the Bible, Apocrypha and the lives of the saints, which featured scourging, flaying, beheading and every imaginable type of horror.

Jody Enders, a professor of French in Santa Barbara, has written extensively on such plays. In her most recent work, “Death by Drama and Other Medieval Urban Legends,” she describes a 15th-century presentation of the life of Saint Barbara that lasted for five days. On Day One, the pagan Barbara becomes a Christian. On Day Two, she refuses her father’s order to marry. On Day Three, her angry father orders her to be tied to a pillar and beaten; he will eat his supper as he watches. On Day Four, Barbara is stripped naked and scourged harshly, salt and vinegar are rubbed into her wounds, her breasts are cut off, and she is led to a cell and ordered to lie down on a bed of sharp rocks. On Day Five, she is tied naked to a nail-studded barrel and rolled. Finally, her father beheads her.

Those who staged such scenes had become notably inventive at presenting pain and bloodletting in a convincing manner (convincing by contemporary standards, anyway). Mel Gordon, a theatrical historian at Berkeley, notes, for example, that “Promptbooks from the Middle Ages reveal an awful and bloody display of animal parts that realistically substituted for performers’ severed limbs and organs.”

Onstage flayings and beheadings could be achieved through carefully crafted outfits, body makeup, and dummies. Indeed, in “Death by Drama,” Enders writes about unconfirmed period reports that, on at least one occasion, a condemned prisoner was included in a drama and actually beheaded onstage. This is, as she notes, the exact equivalent of modern “snuff movie” legends. (Enders concludes that, for common-sense reasons, such an event was extremely unlikely.)

There is so much horror on the medieval stage that modern scholars of the period are themselves aghast, and have long been at odds over what to make of it all. Some have been troubled by features of medieval drama that are potentially applicable to Gibson’s film, too. For example, there are scholars who have concluded that the stage tortures of Jesus were amplified well-beyond those recorded in the Gospels, while others have attributed a pathological pleasure to the spectators, many of whom might travel considerable distances to see such spectacles.

It’s not necessarily that simple. The medieval world was, after all, heir to a history of sadistic spectacle that was well-known in antiquity, and one might even credit the Church with transforming an established tradition of public cruelty into a “moral” form. Enders herself has noted that staging the torment of the saints and of Jesus — whose suffering obviously has an essential meaning for believing Christians-evinced pity. In that context, Texas broadcaster Jody Dean’s sympathetic review of Gibson’s film features some especially interesting passages, such as this one: “What you’ve heard about how audiences have reacted is true. There was no sound after the film’s conclusion. No noise at all. No one got up. No one moved. The only sound one could hear was sobbing.”

Nevertheless, not all cruelty and suffering in these plays are staged to elicit compassion or pity. When the Jewish heroine Judith beheads the sleeping Holofernes, for example, it is the villain who is being punished by an act of onstage violence that, in all likelihood, elicited the audience’s cathartic satisfaction. For that matter, neither compassion nor pity is in any particular evidence for the many real-life victims of the period’s inquisitional and judicial torture. On the contrary, real public beheadings, burnings, hangings, quarterings, etc., continued to be a source of widespread holiday-making and merriment for centuries.

While it is not possible to recapture the “mentalities” of medieval audiences, it’s at least observable that the staggering cruelty of the period’s theater is of a kind with the cruelty of other popular pastimes that were being pursued simultaneously. The history of blood sports, for example, is a very long one. The public baiting, torture and killing of animals for pleasure was utterly commonplace for generations, as was betting on which of two fighting animals would kill the other. Common also was watching two men (or occasionally women) beat each other nearly to death — sometimes with cudgels or other weapons — for the entertainment of onlookers. Executions were such a treat that spectators made sure to hold young children aloft so they wouldn’t miss the sight of a man kicking and strangling at the end of a rope. In 18th century London, criminals like Jack Sheppard and Dick Turpin were folk heroes in the Grub Street press. Sheppard had a number of plays written about him, while one of Turpin’s most celebrated crimes involved torturing an old woman (by burning her) to find out where she had hidden her valuables.

This tide of cruelty was to turn only with industrialism and the consequent transformation of traditional culture. Although modern popular culture is often charged with coarseness, and the effect of commercialism is often equated with degradation, cultural history suggests an entirely different conclusion. However coarse a given viewer, reader, or listener may find a particular modern artifact, the unavoidable fact is that modern culture has either eliminated or marginalized an entire world of cultural brutality that was dominant for millennia.

Yet there are already efforts to place Gibson’s “Passion” in a context of modern commercial exploitation.

“How might the intense emotional experience of seeing such brutality affect viewers — especially children and youth already immersed in violent ‘entertainment’?” asks a posting on one Christian Web site. “Will it further desensitize some to intense violence, build a craving for other emotional experiences, or alter the foundation for their faith?”

If such questions are legitimate today, they were even more legitimate 1,000 years ago. Then, the experience of intense violence was not feared as a potential threat to the foundation of one’s faith, it was assumed to be a part of it.

Article courtesy Featurewell.com.

Uncle Leo Fulfills a Dream


“If you’re a pretty good actor and live long enough, you can play any role,” said Len Lesser, sitting on a worn couch just after finishing an evening performance at A Noise Within in Glendale.

At 80, and after close to 60 years on stage, screen and television, Lesser has proven his own adage. During the last 15 years, he has even become a public face, mainly through recurring roles as Uncle Leo in “Seinfeld” and Garvin in “Everybody Loves Raymond.”

But before that, “I played gangsters, heavies, Russians and Italians,” he reminisced. “I’ve done everything.”

Altogether, the long-time Burbank resident figures he has appeared is some 50 feature films and more than 400 TV shows, plus theatrical performances at the Taper Forum, Ahmanson and at venues across the country.

A recent stint included a moving role as an avuncular Holocaust survivor in Israel director Dan Katzir’s “Today You Are a Fountain Pen.”

Now Lesser is fulfilling a decades-old ambition by playing Gregory Solomon, a wizened New York secondhand furniture dealer, in Arthur Miller’s “The Price.”

One of Miller’s less frequently performed plays, “The Price,” written in 1968, wrestles with the author’s familiar themes — family conflict, personal and social responsibility and the price we pay for our past actions.

A Noise Within, a repertory company that over the years has maintained an enviable standard as one of the most professional and skilled theatrical venues in the Los Angeles area, does full justice to the subtleties and complexities of the Miller drama.

Its two protagonists are middle-aged brothers Victor and Walter Franz, who are selling off the furniture left behind by their recently deceased father.

When the once-wealthy father was wiped out by the Depression and became a physical and emotional wreck, son Victor (Geoff Elliott) sacrificed his ambition to become a scientist to take care of the father and became a local cop.

Brother Walter (Robertson Dean) shrugged off his responsibilities, left home and became a successful surgeon, while Victor’s wife (Deborah Strang) has turned into an unhappy and unfulfilled woman.

The fourth character is Solomon, come to appraise the furniture. It is not a comic role per se, but Lesser turns the man into a true original.

A lifelong New Yorker, Solomon has seen and survived everything, including four wives (he said the current one stays at home with her “100 boids”). He is a man who would rather talk than deal and is blessed with some of Miller’s best lines.

Though written in the supposedly idealistic and rebellious ’60s, the play has a very contemporary feel when Solomon observes, “When people were unhappy, they used to go to church or start a revolution. Now they go shopping.”

At one point, while Victor keeps pressing him for an appraisal, Solomon leisurely takes a hard-boiled egg and a jar of water out of his briefcase. In a wonderful ritual of consuming this repast, he will remind old timers of Charlie Chaplin’s classic shoe-eating routine in the “Gold Rush.”

Lesser said he has seen “The Price” many times but was never satisfied with the depiction of Solomon.

“They played him like a Yiddish stereotype in a vaudeville show, like a caricature,” he said. “That was all wrong. Like all Miller characters, Solomon is multidimensional.”

Lesser was born in the Bronx, the son of a grocery clerk, and vividly recalled a bar mitzvah from hell when he forgot the text and started singing instead. He got his acting start at 17, playing Lenny in “Of Mice and Men” at the neighborhood Settlement House.

“I was very shy and introverted, and I liked the applause and the communication with the audience,” he reminisced. “In my family, we didn’t talk much.

He earned a degree in economics and government at the City College of New York, but after he was discharged following Army service in the Pacific, he asked himself what he wanted to do the rest of his life. Lesser decided on an acting career and studied under Uta Hagen and Lee Strasberg.

After that, “I became a starving actor in summer stock, but when television came in, I got my first part with the CBS ‘Philco [Television] Playhouse,'” he recalled.

In the early ’50s, with some change in his pockets, Lesser met and married a farmer’s daughter from California, and in his first visit to her very WASPish and conservative parents, he felt as out of place as a Woody Allen movie character in a similar situation. (At the wedding ceremony, Lesser forgot the ring and substituted a cigar band.)

But he liked California enough to settle down here.

He has continued on the TV circuit, and although a lot of the sitcoms he played in were pure “chazerai,” using the Yiddish term for junk. “You made more money in one day than in six months in New York,” he said.

Now married to actress Jan Burrell, Lesser closed the interview close to midnight.

“You gotta excuse me,” he explained, “I have an early TV shoot in the morning.”

“The Price” will play though Dec. 4, in repertory withShakespeare’s “Coriolanus” and Moliere’s “The Miser.” For tickets andinformation, phone (818) 240-0910 or visit www.anoisewithin.org .

Young Creator Spells Success ‘O.C.’


Josh Schwartz has been having trouble sleeping.

Ever since his new show, "The O.C.," began airing on FOX this summer, he’s faced insomnia Tuesday nights, anxiously awaiting the public’s response to each new episode. He got a brief reprieve in late September and October when the show went on hiatus for Major League Baseball playoffs and the World Series, but as of Oct. 29, "The O.C." is back, and restlessness now comes Wednesdays.

Over coffee one morning in September, Schwartz, the 27-year-old who’s being touted as the youngest person ever to create his own television network drama, discussed his recent starburst. The biggest change in his life?

"I got a job," he said, looking disheveled by design in vintage green T-shirt, powder blue cords and sneakers. "It’s just being immersed in something seven days a week, 16 hours a day and just having that be this all-consuming event. But it’s great."

There’s no sign of that changing, either. Fox has picked up a full season of his teen drama — "it’s not a soap" — about a tony Newport Beach gated community. While at press time the numbers were unavailable, if the extensive promotional campaign is any indication, the show seems likely to resume its summer spot as the highest-rated drama with teens, as well as pulling in the key coveted demographic of 18-49-year-olds.

"The O.C." is centered on the Cohen family and Ryan, the troubled teen from Chino they adopt (Benjamin McKenzie). Schwartz has infused a little bit of Jewish soul into the predominantly white-bread "O.C.," with Sandy Cohen (Peter Gallagher), a liberal Jewish pro-bono lawyer, and his son, Seth, a nerdy and sarcastic high school senior (played by the unlikeliest of geeks, Adam Brody). Kirsten Cohen (Kelly Rowan) is the WASPy mom who has garnered them entree into this exclusive world — she has the money from working in her father’s real estate development business. And of course, there’s Marissa (Mischa Barton), the Neutrogena girl next door.

So far, hints at the characters’ Jewishness have been limited to throwaway lines. Explaining why he can’t get along with Kirsten’s über-WASP dad when he comes to visit, Sandy says, "I’m still Jewish." In two others, Seth makes reference to studying the Talmud and to his Jewfro, and Schwartz has promised a season finale involving "Chrismakah," wherein Ryan has to make the little money he has to purchase one gift last for eight.

Explaining this choice, Schwartz said, "For Sandy it just felt like one more thing to add…. But it felt like it was a natural thing for his character, coming from his background and how it would make him sort of feel a little bit even more out of place in Newport, and for Seth, as well."

Much of the basis for "The O.C." is autobiographical, Schwartz told The Journal. Raised Reform in Providence, R.I. to parents who were Jewish toy inventors, Schwartz says he based his characters on people he knew in Providence or at USC, where he majored in film. Of all the "O.C." characters, he said Seth Cohen’s take on the world is closest to his own: "Sort of a smart -ass, but with an underlying sweetness."

"I remember when I was a kid I was always looking for someone like that, that was cool, to kind of get behind, and hopefully Seth Cohen will be that to inspire more kids to be proud of their background," Schwartz said. "But it’s not gonna be a Star of David burning on the Cohens’ front lawn or anything inflammatory like that. I think we just want to sort of weave it into the background of these characters and have it be part of their personal culture."

Brody, for one, is pleased with this decision. As a secular Jewish actor playing a Jewish character, he said, "I like the way Josh does it. It’s self-deprecating. I never want to be on ‘Seventh Heaven,’" he said, referring to the moralizing WB show about a reverend’s family.

Unlike Sandy and Seth, it’s doubtful whether being Jewish in Orange County makes real O.C. Jews feel like outsiders.

"I think if Jews feel isolated, they isolate themselves," said Elsa Goldberg, 39, of Laguna Beach. She said there were many Jewish organizations available to people looking to meet fellow Jews.

She finds other aspects of the show off the mark as well, a sentiment expressed by quite a few who live in O.C. One thing she thinks Schwartz got half right: "I think that there’s probably a lot of intermarriage out here," she said, "but Jews always seem to find each other."

Schwartz isn’t reading all of the criticism, but he admitted to perusing the message boards online. Despite the aforementioned insomnia, it’s clear he’s not taking any of it too seriously.

"I find if anybody starts to rag on a certain element of the show then I have to go in and make fun of it in the next episode," he said. "But it’s interesting … as soon as the show airs, five minutes later you can go online and see what people thought about the show and that’s really exciting. Then sweat over it next week."

"The O.C." airs Wednesday nights on FOX at 9 p.m. n

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.