London theater will host Jewish film fest after all


A London theater that refused to host a Jewish film festival because of the event’s Israeli government funding has reversed course.

The Tricycle Theatre decided to continue serving as a venue for the UK Jewish Film Festival after the theater’s initial refusal earlier this month sparked criticism, The Telegraph reported.

The Tricycle earlier said it would not host the UK Jewish Film Festival, which it has hosted for eight years, unless the annual festival eschewed funding from the Israeli embassy, which the theater described as “party to the current conflict” in Gaza.

Festival organizers said the demands were “entirely unacceptable.”

On Friday, the festival and theater issued a joint statement saying that the Tricycle’s initial decision “provoked considerable public upset” and that the theater has “invited back the UK Jewish Film Festival on the same terms as in previous years with no restrictions on funding from the Embassy of Israel in London.”

The ban had divided the artistic community, with opponents branding the theater “anti-Semitic,” according to The Telegraph.

Surviving a Survivor


It’s an age-old, common dilemma faced by adult children of aging parents: What is the right thing to do when those parents begin to lose their faculties? That theme is at the heart of “Surviving Mama,” by playwright Sonia Levitin, which opens Oct. 12 at the Edgemar Center for the Arts in Santa Monica.

“When you have an aging parent and you have to make a decision, it can’t just be a cookie-cutter decision,” Levitin said in an interview. “You have to take into account everything about that person — their early life, what they endured, their personality and how they are going to react. What’s going to be the next step for them? And people are very different. Almost everyone I talk to has an aging parent, and I hear many different stories — of sibling rivalries coming out, some parents going on their own, making a plan; others a little resistant.” 

Levitin’s play traces the life of Marlena, called Mama (Arva Rose as the older Marlena, Gina Manziello as her younger self), who, when we first meet her, is a feisty, independent woman of German-Jewish heritage in her mid-80s. She has almost set her apartment on fire and is displaying other signs of encroaching dementia. Her youngest daughter, Anne (Manziello, in a dual role) continually clashes with her middle daughter, Stella (Sharon Rosner), over whether to put Mama in a home, and it is clear Mama resists the idea with all her might.

Much of the action is shown in flashback, as we revisit significant events in Marlena’s life. The story reverts to Germany in 1923, when, at the age of 26, she exhibits the strength and resolve that will carry her through life by defying her autocratic father, learning a profession, and marrying the charming, flamboyant Gustav (Peter Lucas). Fifteen years later, with the advent of Nazism, Gustav flees to Cuba, and Marlena escapes to Switzerland with their three young daughters, where they are helped by a priest who enlists the aid of a Catholic family.

The following year, Marlena, the girls and Gustav reunite in America, and Gustav, who is a designer, goes into the shmatte business. But he is a womanizer, and Marlena endures an unhappy marriage.  

After Gustav dies, Marlena falls in love and has a short-lived relationship with another man as the dementia overtakes her.

Levitin based the work on her own late mother’s life, incorporating memories her mother related, as well as on her own recollections, some of which go back to her days as a young child in Nazi Germany.

“I remember that Hitler parade that I refer to in the play. It was very frightening.  I remember scattered things. I remember being in Switzerland.”

Levitin said she also remembers how impoverished she, her mother and her sisters were in Switzerland. “My mother wasn’t allowed to work because she wasn’t a citizen, and you had to be a citizen. She was willing to do anything, and she was absolutely destitute. She went to an agency that was supposed to help refugees, and they told her to go back to Germany. She did go to a rabbi, and he found families for her who were not Jewish but would take the children.” 

Once in America, Levitin’s mother, who had been raised in a beautiful home, with a nanny and maids, still struggled. “She had to work,” Levitin recalled, “and she had to work at very grimy jobs, cleaning other people’s houses, scrubbing the floor, after hours, in a restaurant. This is a woman who came from a well-to-do family.

“My mother’s experience has had an effect on my children, in that they understood her independence and her courage,” Levitin added.

Levitin recalls that just as the character of Anne, her counterpart in the script, is in denial about Marlena’s dementia, she herself could never acknowledge her mother’s mental deterioration. 

“Anne says in the play, ‘You know, I haven’t even said it to myself.’ And it was gradual, and the truth is, I never said it until this woman came over to assess her, the woman who ran the group home, who was lovely. She met my mother, and we talked. I remember it was outside on the lawn, and my mother went in for a sweater or something, and the woman said, ‘Well, she’s going to fit right in. They’re all demented.’ It was like the bottom had just dropped out. Yes, I knew, but I didn’t know. I had managed her; I really had.”

The character of Marlena as an old woman shares her life story with the viewer at key moments in the play, coming to the apron of the stage to address the audience directly. Those segments transition into flashbacks, and, for director Doug Kaback, they represent Marlena’s growing isolation.

“Her mind is drifting to the events of her past, and I think what she’s really analyzing and experiencing in a way, because we bring these events to life, is a sort of validation of the things that she did to save her children and herself, to hold on to a marriage that was proving very fateful and without passion. Her arc is to come to terms with that and to recognize that, even though she sometimes has a caustic character, she has tremendous love and value, and has accomplished really heroic things in her lifetime.”

But, Kaback added, she is burdened by a lifelong sense of guilt.

“She carries such a huge weight, and this terrible horror of what she experienced getting out of Nazi Germany, and the fact that so many loved ones remained, and that she couldn’t help them, and the tragedy of their early deaths, is something that she just can’t quite make whole for herself.  Consequently, she drifts more and more internally, into a world of loss, and she’s pulling back from life in a way.” 

Rose, who plays Marlena, believes that her character’s guilt over having left her contentious mother, Lucie (also played by Rose), in Germany as the Nazis were taking power is pivotal.

“It creates a deep sadness, a great defensiveness and a depression that is not uncommon in many Eastern European Jews,” Rose said. “We come to guilt easily. She didn’t just abandon her mother. She abandoned her mother knowing, in her gut, that she was abandoning her to something terrible. So, even though she begged her to leave, she knew that she could have done more, and that it was, to a certain degree, self-serving that she didn’t do more.”

Rose was particularly drawn to this material because of its ethnic underpinnings. “I’m very Jewish. Most of the theater that I do, that is of consequence and that matters to me, often has a Jewish theme. I am not just an actor. For the last 25 years, I’ve been a family therapist, and the combination of the family dynamics, the Jewishness of the plot and the characters, made it completely irresistible to me.”

Rose would like the play to transmit a sense of what she calls “the incredible bond between family members, particularly mothers and daughters.”

And Kaback hopes that “whatever station we’re at in life, we’re able to see in Marlena a reflection of ourselves, and a recognition that we, too, have to confront some very challenging and difficult questions as we grow older.”

As for what Levitin would like audiences to take from her play: “I want them to come away with a feeling of the fullness of life, the triumph of life and of people over all the things that can befall them. I want them to become encouraged by the show, and to say, ‘Wow! That was a woman who knew how to live.’ ”

 


“Surviving Mama”

Edgemar Center for the Arts, on the Main Stage

2437 Main St., Santa Monica, CA 90405

Oct. 12- Nov. 18

Fri. at 8 pm, Saturday at 3 and and 8 pm, Sunday at 5 pm.

Tickets:  $34.99

RESERVATIONS: (310) 392-7327

ONLINE TICKETING: http://www.edgemarcenter.org/ 

‘Jewtopia’s’ universal truths


David Katz knew minutes into watching Bryan Fogel’s “Jewtopia,” a star-studded independent film adapted from the hit comedic play about interfaith dating, that it would anchor his Malibu International Film Festival. Unfortunately, Katz had his epiphany at 3 a.m.

“It was so frustrating,” he said. “I wanted to call Bryan, but I had to wait until a decent hour.”

Fogel, a Malibu resident, felt compelled to submit his first movie to his local cinema showcase. And Katz, the festival’s executive director, chose the film from more than 2,000 submissions. 

“Jewtopia,” which had its world premiere on April 26 at the Newport Beach Film Festival, screened opening night at the 13th annual Malibu International Film Festival on Sept. 22, winning its Audience Choice Award. 

“He deserves this,” Katz said. 

It took writer-director Fogel six years to make the film version of “Jewtopia,” about as long as it took to bring the play, which he co-wrote with Sam Wolfson, to fruition. 

“It was a tough one to get going,” Fogel said. “Getting a movie made is a miracle … because the studios are only interested in making ‘The Avengers.’ ” 

When it came to adapting the hit play, which opened in May 2003 at West Hollywood’s Coast Playhouse, Fogel looked to broaden its appeal. For instance, gone are the play’s in-jokes about the online Jewish dating site JDate.

“It’s very different from the play,” Fogel said. “Ultimately, it’s a great buddy movie. The play is a cast of seven; the movie has a couple hundred. It’s a very loose adaptation. In a play, the characters tell you the sky is falling. In a movie, you better show the sky falling.” 

“Jewtopia” revolves around Chris O’Connell (Ivan Sergei) and Adam Lipschitz (Joel David Moore), two childhood friends who reunite years later. Chris, a non-Jew, feels comfortable dating decision-making Jewish women, while Adam escapes his Jewish roots by pursuing shiksas. The pair form a “Strangers on a Train”-style pact, schooling each other on how to score with their women of choice. 

Jennifer Love Hewitt and Jon Lovitz co-star in the film, which also features Rita Wilson, Tom Arnold, Jamie-Lynn Sigler, Nicollette Sheridan, Wendie Malick and Phil Rosenthal, creator of “Everybody Loves Raymond.” 

Most of the stars had not seen the play, Fogel said, but “the cast fell in like dominoes,” thanks to a strong script.

Fogel says that “Jewtopia’s” humor is universal because it taps into “an ongoing truth of humanity.” “I don’t think it’s just gentiles and Jews; it’s all religions and cultures. If you’re North Korean, being with someone from South Korea is taboo. It’s universal. It’s ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ ” he said.

Fogel says that the play — a hit with audiences from West Hollywood to Manhattan — was based on real-life experiences. 

“I never went through what Adam Lipschitz went through. I’m not that person. I didn’t go through those anxieties or have a nervous breakdown and enter a mental institution,” said Fogel, who grew up in a Modern Orthodox household in Denver and attended the University of Colorado, Boulder. “But there’s something very real going on in a Jewish home, having pressure on how to live your life and who you date.”

Although less Jewishly active today than during his youth, Fogel attends Jewish Federation functions and says his Jewishness informs everything he does. “It’s the sum of your existence, and how one is brought up ultimately affects who you are,” he said.  

Still friends with his collaborator, Fogel said he had not seen Wolfson, a television writer, in a few months and was unaware of what projects he was currently working on. Wolfson’s involvement with the film was limited to co-writing the script, Fogel said.

Andy Fickman, the play’s director, produced the movie, which was shot throughout Los Angeles, including in Sherman Oaks, Simi Valley, Burbank, Venice and the Santa Monica Mountains in July and August 2011.

Production designer Denise Hudson, costume designer Caroline B. Marx and art department assistant Jessica Shorten said they enjoyed collaborating on this first-time filmmaker’s production. 

“There were so many comedians on the set,“ Marx said. “It was a fun summer!”

At Saturday night’s after-party, revelers — Jews and non-Jews alike — smiled as they recalled the film. 

“It hit home for me with my own Jewish upbringing,” said Jeffrey Blum, who was among the 200 moviegoers at the Toyota-sponsored festival’s opening-night gala at Malibu Lumber Yard, an upscale shopping complex off Pacific Coast Highway.

Sonia Enriquez, who enjoyed the play, said she didn’t know what to expect from a film adaptation of “Jewtopia.” 

“I was pleasantly surprised,” she said. “It’s very different from the play. It’s a whole new experience.”

“There were times when the running joke ran too long,” said Mary Faherty, who added that the film was surprisingly good. 

“I love the film, even as a non-Jewish person. There are themes in it that are universal,” she said. “Everyone’s got their struggles with their culture and their parents. It feels good to know you’re not the only one being tortured!”

For more information about “Jewtopia,” visit jewtopiamovie.com.

Director of Polish Jewish theater is attacked


Bricks painted with swastikas and a firecracker were thrown through the window of the director of a Jewish theater in Poland.

The attack on the home of Thomas Pietrasiewicz, director of the NN Theater in Lublin, took place late at night on Dec. 17.  A bottle had been thrown at the house a month earlier but had been dismissed as a prank, the Gazeta Wyborcza newspaper reported.

The newspaper reported that the theater has been the victim of several anti-Semitic attacks in the past, including the painting of a Star of David on a gallows on the door, threatening letters and a container with a foul-smelling substance thrown in the building.

“When I looked at the brick, I felt the incredible aggression of the person who threw it,” Pietrasiewicz told Gazeta, saying that he felt powerless, like the Jews of Europe during the Nazi era. “But I’m not going to change anything in my life, put bars on the windows or move out because those who paint swastikas on these bricks, what is the point?”

The Anti-Defamation League on Wednesday called on the Polish government to take swift action in response to the attack.

“This anti-Semitic hate crime directly targeted Thomas Pietrasiewicz, but was also clearly intended to terrorize the broader Jewish community, of which Mr. Pietrasiewicz is a prominent member,” said Abraham Foxman, ADL’s national director.

In a letter to Robert Kupiecki, Poland’s ambassador to the United States, ADL urged the Polish government to consider the crime an attack against both an individual and against the Jewish community, and to ensure that the full resources of the police and other public authorities are dedicated to the case.

Theater: ‘A’ is for ‘angst’ when you’re the creators of ‘Avenue Q’


Jeff Marx, co-creator of the hit puppet musical, “Avenue Q,” was fired from his internship at “Sesame Street” in 1998. Back then he was an attorney, but he had taken the position in order to segue way into songwriting for kids. “Instead, I was cleaning tables, taking out the garbage, Xeroxing and answering telephones,” Marx says. “When I faxed an executive a song I had written, he told me that I was being too aggressive, that my job was to observe and to distribute scripts, and who they hell did I think I was? He got me the f— out of there, and I felt totally pathetic.”

Marx channeled his pathos into “Avenue Q,” which he penned with Robert Lopez, another unemployed, frustrated 20-something. The subversive musical, which opens at the Ahmanson Theatre on Sept. 7, wasn’t meant as revenge against “Sesame Street,” Marx says, but as a primer for youths who find the real world scarier than it appears on children’s TV.

The fictional Avenue Q is a dilapidated street in an outer borough of New York, where broke college graduates can afford the rent. The residents include puppets such as Princeton, a preppie searching for his “purpose” in life; Kate Monster, an assistant teacher who longs to found her own “Monstersori” school; Lucy T. Slut, a skanky chanteuse; and Trekkie Monster, the local pervert. Rod, a closeted homosexual, is in love with his slacker roommate, Nicky — a riff on all those homoerotic musings about “Sesame Street’s” Ernie and Bert.

Among the human residents is a character named Gary Coleman (yes, that Gary Coleman, of the 1980s sitcom “Diff’rent Strokes”) who “is like the patron saint of being great when you’re a kid, but sucking when you get older,” Marx says.

The musical is “how ‘Friends’ might be if it had Fozzie Bear and Miss Piggy arguing about their one-night stand but with more angst, expletives and full-on puppet sex,” The Times of London said.

Marx seems light years from the fictional Avenue Q when he arrives at a La Brea cafe in his shiny black convertible. He recently moved from Manhattan to Los Angeles, and he orders his lunch like a native, asking the waiter to substitute salad for fries. When the fries come anyway, he affably shrugs and eats them all. He says he has been taking Hollywood meetings and even had breakfast with Stephen Schwartz, the composer-lyricist of “Wicked,” which “Avenue Q” beat out for best musical at the 2004 Tony Awards. He says he now has a “Bel-Air shrink” — and that he has “plenty to be neurotic about” because he is Jewish.

Marx’s love of musicals comes from his Jewish mother, a dental hygienist who routinely schlepped her four children to shows such as “The Sound of Music” and “The King and I.” “My bar mitzvah theme was ‘Hooray for Jeffrey and Hooray for Hollywood musicals,” Marx says.

By that time, he was already a professional singer, crooning ballads to blushing girls with a local music teacher’s Number One Bar Mitzvah Band. After each gig, the girls would chase Marx and ask for his autograph.

“They treated me like Elvis,” he says.

He had a very different experience in the musical theater department at the University of Michigan, where he received “only one bit part in one show, which had one line,” he says. “I had professors tell me that I had no talent and that I would never make it in theater.”

So Marx attended Yeshiva University’s law school and passed the bar, but discovered he didn’t particularly like the profession. At age 28, he found himself adrift, living in an apartment owned by his parents and interning for various shows and producers in the hopes of switching careers. He also considered becoming an entertainment lawyer, and enrolled in a musical theater workshop just to meet potential clients. It was there he discovered he had talent for songwriting and teamed up with Lopez, a Yale graduate who was still living with his parents, to write a show.

“We decided we wanted to write a musical for people our age, that even straight guys would want to see,” says Marx, who is gay. “We decided to use puppets because they don’t look cheesy when they burst into song.”

Marx and Lopez came up with a musical titled “Kermit, Prince of Denmark,” which they submitted to the Jim Henson Company. When the company passed, Marx recalls, “Bobby and I beat our heads against the wall and said, ‘Why did we spend an entire year writing for someone else’s characters? F— the f—- — Muppets, let’s create our own Muppets…. And screw trying to come up with some crazy imaginary world; let’s make it about our world.’ Everyone we knew was interning and assisting and floundering and struggling. And we thought, this is awful, but it’s also kind of funny.”

“Avenue Q’s” first two songs sum up those sentiments: “What Do You Do With a B.A. in English” and “It Sucks to Be Me.”

Marx and Lopez penned their ditties in restaurants, Starbucks, on the subway — anywhere people and surroundings could inspire them. “We wrote ‘There’s Life Outside Your Apartment,’ literally, while walking down the street,” Marx says. “Of course, we didn’t write ‘The Internet Is for Porn,’ while watching porn,” he adds. “That was in a diner over fries.”

“Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” was inspired, in part, by a relative of Marx’s who refers to African Americans as “shvartzes.” At the end of the scene, the characters argue over whether Jesus was black or white.

“But everyone laughs when they finally realize Jesus was Jewish,” Marx says.“Avenue Q” opens Sept. 7 at the Ahmanson Theatre. For tickets and information, visit http:/www.centertheatregroup.org


‘Avenue Q’ on British TV’s Newsnight Review

Debbie Friedman, L.A. Opera, Norman Mailer and David Mamet


Saturday the 3rd

Debbie Friedman strums and sings old and new favorites from her Jewish folk repertoire tonight at Shomrei Torah Synagogue. Twenty bucks gets you in the door, or splurge on the $100 patron seats for preferred seating and parking, plus a copy of her new CD, “One People,” and entree to the exclusive meet-and-greet with the artist herself.

7:30 p.m. $10 (ages 18 and under), $20 (general), $100 (patron). 7353 Valley Circle Blvd., West Hills. R.S.V.P., (818) 346-0811.

‘ target=’_blank’>www.ticketweb.com.

Tuesday the 6th

Theater: Troy vs. ‘Tsuris’


“How should I prepare?” asks playwright Mark Troy after agreeing to an interview the following morning about his new play, “Tsuris,” opening Friday, Dec. 22, at the Sidewalk Studio Theater in Toluca Lake. “Should I wear a blue tuxedo?”
Although he is not a standup comedian and says he has a “pathological fear of being in front of an audience,” Mark Troy is always “on.”

When asked whether he is Jewish, Troy responds, “You will be needing proof of that?”

Actually, there is no need for such proof from Troy, whose last name may conjure images of Hector fighting Achilles, but whose latest play is about battles of a more contemporary nature — among Jewish spouses, parents and their children in Florida.

Troy has written many plays about Jews, including “Join the Club,” which just played at a Malibu festival and revolved around the decision of a 35-year-old man to get a circumcision. Another play, “Getting to Bupkus,” focuses on a 12-year-old Jewish boy who runs away the night before his bar mitzvah and comes back 12 years later.

Their storylines may remind one of TV shows and films from the past, the first calling to mind the “Sex and the City” episode in which one of Charlotte’s dates decides to test out his newly circumcised penis on multiple partners, and the second bringing back memories of “The Bar Mitzvah Boy,” the film that every 12-year-old Jewish boy has seen.

Troy’s new play, “Tsuris,” also has a familiarity to it, but that doesn’t mean that his dialogue lacks freshness. Troy has his characters rattle off humorous lines like, “Florida is like dog years; you times everything by seven.”

Troy is not suggesting that everyone living in Florida is preternaturally ancient, but rather that “something slows you down” and you end up replicating your grandmother’s habits — going to K-mart, going to the pool, then another pool and, most of all, eating dinner at 4 p.m. at Bagel Palace or Bagel Nosh or Bagel Land.

At these bagel emporia, elders may even utter adages such as this parody of Shakespeare’s Seven Ages of Man speech: “They say every man should have three wives. When he’s in his 20s … there’s the lustful wife. Then in midlife, he has the motherly wife. Then in his final golden years…the companion wife…. Thank God I’ve found in Irma Messersmidt the lustful whore I’ve been missing.”

“Tsuris” plays Dec. 22 through Feb. 3 at the Sidewalk Studio Theater, 4150 Riverside Drive, Toluca Lake.

No Rat King, no fairies — just one ‘MeshugaNutcracker’


Not long ago, Scott and Shannon Guggenheim’s 4-year-old daughter, Lily, looked up at them and asked when Santa would be bringing her Christmas presents.

“To say that we, as creators of a Chanukah musical, were shocked is an understatement,” recalls Shannon Guggenheim. “[Lily] is already feeling the pull so many Jewish kids feel. She probably went drifting off to sleep dreaming of sugar plum fairies.”

That Chanukah musical, “The MeshugaNutcracker!” is the Guggenheims’ tuneful contribution for children like Lily, who need an antidote to the ubiquitous Christmas blitz that occurs every year.

The Bay Area-based couple co-wrote, produced, choreographed and directed the holiday staple. Drawing on music from Tchaikovsky’s famous “Nutcracker” ballet, “The MeshugaNutcracker!” has been a hit with Jewish families since its 2003 debut in the Bay Area.

Now, says Shannon, the show is expanding its reach, playing cities like Seattle and Scottsdale, Ariz., for the first time this Chanukah. That’s in addition to runs in San Francisco, San Jose, Sacramento and Los Angeles.

This year, six of eight cast members are new, the music has been re-orchestrated to give it a more Broadway feel, and a newly constructed proscenium arch will be in place for opening night.

“It’s an homage to Chagall,” Shannon says of the goat-and-fiddler decorated arch. “We still have the dreidel as the centerpiece. And now we have a dream cast of amazing musicians. In the past we had actors who sing. This year we have singer-actor-dancers.”

“The MeshugaNutcracker!” tells the tale of eight citizens of Chelm, the mythical shtetl of fools, who gather every year to perform at their Chanukah festival. Through the course of the two-act musical, each tells a story of Chanukah heroes from the time of the Maccabees through today.

Shannon wrote the lyrics and Scott directs, while both wrote the musical’s book based on stories adapted by Eric A. Kimmel (author of “The Jar of Fools”) and Peninnah Schram and Steven M. Rosman, (authors of “Eight Stories for Eight Nights”). Stephen Guggenheim, Scott’s brother, provides musical direction.

The musical is just one mainstay of the theatrical couple. Their company, Guggenheim Entertainment, provides entertainment, marketing and support services for corporate and private clients (think “holiday show for the mall”), and their National Jewish Theater Festival develops Jewish-themed stage productions for every audience.

But “MeshugaNutcracker!” holds a special place in their hearts, largely because their own daughter fits the target-audience profile.

“It’s no joke,” adds Shannon. “We say it in the show: ‘Santa has the last laugh/His holiday lasts a month and half.’ I’m not saying what we’re doing is brain surgery, but it occurred to us that it’s a Jewish parent’s cultural responsibility to take their kids to this show. It’s not Tiny Tim or the Mouse King.”

Shannon, a Jew-by-choice, stresses that she and her husband are not engaging in Christmas bashing.

“Santa is a good guy,” she says. “But Jews have something else right here in their backyard. They can say ‘I own that and I am proud of that.'”

Though with each passing year the Guggenheims have taken their show on a longer and longer road, they are reluctant to license the musical to other theater companies. Call it creative control, call it a labor of love, but the two plan on keeping “MeshugaNutcracker!” to themselves for those eight crazy nights and beyond.

However, eternal as the lights of Chanukah may be, the holiday comes around but once on the calendar, which can be a drawback to a theater company.

“Sometimes,” Shannon says with a laugh, “we kick ourselves for having a show that’s only six weeks a year.”

Performances of “The MeshugaNutcracker!” take place at the University of Judaism on Saturday, Dec. 16 at 7:30 p.m.; and on Sunday, Dec. 17 at 1 p.m. and 5 p.m. $35-$50. 15600 Mulholland Drive, just off the 405 Freeway. For more information, call (818) 986-7332 or visit www.kcdancers.org.

Theater: All in the ‘Herbicide’ family


The Emmy-winning writer Jay Kogen (“The Simpsons,” “The Class” and other shows) is helping Herb Astrow go over the opening lines of his first solo stage performance.

“Remember, it’s an intimate evening with,” Kogen tells him. “It’s your party. So rather than just going into a story, you want to be welcoming.”

“Welcome to the height of self-indulgence!” Astrow announces, cracking everybody up at rehearsal.

Astrow, a 72-year-old Los Angeles restaurateur (Yankee Doodles on the Santa Monica Promenade), is, after 50 years, returning to his first love: the theater. In a benefit at the Santa Monica Playhouse, he’ll star in “Herbicide” Dec. 9 and 10.

Astrow’s most recent role was playing Stanley the waiter in a production of “Death of a Salesman.”

“At Brooklyn College,” he laughs. “In 1958. As a kid I wanted to be an actor, but my own kids came along….”

“He’s been great at being brutally honest,” says Kogen, Astrow’s director, who helped him reduce 16 wild tales to the four most resonant. Or redolent, like the one where Astrow smells so bad from working at Nathan Strauss Twentieth Century Fish Market in Flatbush, that he rubs cologne into his jeans before bicycling off to meet his buddies, “Itchy” (Joel Stanislaw), “Rooster” (Stu Lazarus), “Ziggy” (Marvin Zelenitz), and “Pot Cheese” (Jerry Potolsky). Astrow was “Hercules.”

It was 1944, “that perfect time when the Jews, the Irish, the Italians all lived together,” says Astrow ‘s sister, Jo Anne Astrow. “It was a golden time for education in New York.”

Jo Anne Astrow named their production company Chestnut Avenue Productions, after the “last documented dirt road in Brooklyn,” where they lived above their Sicilian landlord, Mr. Sharaldi.

Sharaldi “owned the last horse in Brooklyn,” Herb says. “He called his horse ‘Horse.’ During the winter, when his ass got frozen to the wagon seat, he changed Horse’s name to ‘You F—– Horse.'”

Astrow went to work at the age of 9, making $4 a week delivering fish, which helped pay the rent.

His father, Barney, was his hero: “He sat in a chair reading the dictionary and the encyclopedia and philosophized on life.” He taught Herb to “always compliment women on their appearance and especially say nice things about their home furnishings.”

But multiple sclerosis forced Barney to quit his florist business. The family went on welfare, and when Barney had to move to another home, the Brooklyn Jewish Hospital for Chronic Diseases, Astrow’s mother became his hero.

“By the sheer force of her will to survive,” he recalls. “God bless that crazy woman!”
Elsie Astrow underwent shock treatments for depression and used to beat her son with his father’s cane “over some nonsense thing I did, like eating too many creamsicles” he says.
She was suicidal, but saved his life with the taste of her lamb stew with sugared apple dumplings and the slap of a catcher’s mitt when Herb was choking to death one night at dinner.

The title of the show itself comes from “the life and death struggles” he says he had once with a houseplant.

“Struggles with a life,” adds sister Jo Anne Astrow, leading to Herb Astrow’s story of the vodka-and-Tab habit he picked up after breaking off with his textile business partners, the poisonous dieffenbachia plant and a Thanksgiving dinner in Queens where the two opposing sides of his family — Russian Jews and German Jews — no longer agree to “respectfully loathe each other.”

“Herbicide” is a family project. His son-in-law came up with the title, and Jo Anne Astrow not only co-produced (with Sally Schaub), she figures funnily in the stories. (She’s also comedian Lewis Black’s manager.) And director Kogen’s family and the Astrows grew up and vacationed together for years on Fire Island.

“Even when I was little,” Kogen says of his actor, “we all knew he had an adventurous life. We were told, ‘Don’t go on the boat with Uncle Herbie!'”

Proceeds from “Herbicide” will go to the Save the Playhouse capital campaign to put a down payment on the building at Fourth Street near Wilshire Boulevard.

George Vennes, Santa Monica Playhouse technical director, tells The Journal, “Rent for the offices, two theaters and two rehearsal spaces is up to $10,000 a month.”

With Youth Theater, cultural outreach and a legendary history, the Playhouse, says Vennes, “caters from two to 92.”

It was one of the playhouse’s ongoing workshops, an acting class with the actor Jeffrey Tambor, that first got Astrow interested in telling his stories onstage. And it was his writing coach, Wendy Kaminoff, who dared Astrow to make it happen. (Well, her business card does say: “Creative Ass Kicker”)

“Herb is this wonderful combination of New York savvy, old school wisdom and outrageous life experiences,” Kaminoff says. “Imagine Garrison Keillor, only if he was a handsome Jewish guy from Brooklyn.”

“Herbicide,” Dec. 9 at 8 p.m., Dec. 10 at 7 p.m. $20. Price includes a post show reception at the playhouse. Santa Monica Playhouse 1211 4th St. For information call (310) 394-9779 Ext. 1

Hank Rosenfeld is writing a book with Irving Brecher, who wrote for Milton Berle and the Marx Brothers.

There’s no business like shul business


” target=”_blank”>”V’shamru,” which he composed in 1967 as part of a play he put on in rabbinical school, is sung around the world. For many, his version — “V’shamru, v’ne-ei Yisra-e-el, e-e-et ha-Sha-a-a-bbat” — is the version.

Despite his renown, Rothblum is humble.

“He practices the Jewish concept of tzim-tzum,” musician Craig Taubman said. “It’s the ability to make himself smaller. When you lead with that model, you create an opportunity for other people to shine.”

In 2001, Rothblum introduced an alternative monthly service featuring Taubman, a member of the congregation. Hundreds now flock to the service, called “One Shabbat Morning,” which involves nontraditional elements like acting out the Torah portion and a band jamming on drums and electric guitars.

Those who know Rothblum call him “Moshe” or “Rabbi.” Boni Gellis, Rothblum’s assistant of nearly 11 years, calls him “my rabbi.”

“I like to call him ‘Boss,'” said Rabbi Jonathan Jaffe Bernhard, who, after 10 years at Adat Ari El, will take Rothblum’s place as senior rabbi. Rothblum has taught Bernhard many lessons over the years, including how to interact with a congregation and preserve tradition.

Rothblum, married for 36 years, with two sons, has also shown his protégé how to balance synagogue and family life.

“He has a very gentle touch,” said Bernhard, 40. “It’s not like he tries to pound these lessons into me. It’s been more by offering up words of wisdom.”

People can relate to Rothblum, said Steve Getzug, 46, who has been a congregant at Adat Ari El for about 14 years and has served on the board.

“There’re the Rabbi Schulweises of the world who are sort of on a different plane. … They’re inspirational, but half of what they say may elude you,” Getzug said. “What I like about the rabbi is that he appeals to me in language that I can understand.”

British theater group Stan’s Cafe uses piles of rice to bring statistics to life


It’s nearly impossible to comprehend very large numbers. Take the 6 million Jews who died in the Holocaust. How does one go about understanding the magnitude of 6 million?

One way would be to visit the Skirball Cultural Center, where the British theater company, Stan’s Cafe (pronounced “kaff”), will perform its latest piece, “Of All the People in All the World,” from Sept. 26 to Oct. 1.

Upon entering the museum, visitors will receive a grain of rice, representing themselves. Then, they will walk into a room filled with 300 million grains of rice – one for every person in the United States. The rice will be divided into piles, each one illustrating a statistic, such as the number of people who have walked on the moon or the millions of immigrants who passed through Ellis Island. One grain of rice will stand for one person.

And there it will be, among all the piles: a large mound with 6 million pieces, representing each individual Jewish life lost in the Holocaust.

The performance piece will take place during the period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, a time of reflection known as the Days of Awe.

“We specifically chose to do it in the Days of Awe,” said Jordan Peimer, director of programs at the Skirball. “What better way to understand your place in the world, your role in life, than to begin to understand the fabric of life on earth?”

The piece will open with 150 labeled piles of rice, illustrating serious statistics, such as the millions of people with HIV in Africa, as well as pop culture trivia, such as the number of people who watched the last episode of “Cheers.”

Over the course of the show, five actors, dressed as factory workers, will manipulate the piles to illustrate various truths, including the number of passengers on the Mayflower and the number of people per police officer in Los Angeles.

Visitors will be encouraged to interact with the actors, to share their own stories and discuss the demographics to which they belong. Occasionally, the performers will measure statistics suggested by visitors on the spot.

Peimer said he had been following the innovative Stan’s Cafe troupe for a while, waiting for the right time and the perfect piece to bring to the Skirball. When he saw the rice performance at a festival in Edinburgh, Scotland, last year, he knew he had to bring the show to Los Angeles.

The performance will be the second stop, after Portland, on the troupe’s first U.S. tour. Since premiering in Coventry, England, in 2003, the show has toured throughout the United Kingdom. It has also traveled to Ireland, Canada, Italy, Spain and Germany, whose daily newspaper, Süddeutsche Zeitung, praised the show, saying “The knowledge gained is astonishing.”

The actors tailor each performance to the country, city and building in which they perform. They decided the Holocaust representation would be just right for the Skirball.

“To hear the statistic of the number of people who died in the Holocaust is one thing,” Peimer said. “To see all of those people represented and to have you [represented as a single grain of rice] in relation to them is a very potent thing.”

The troupe will also lead workshops for students from Brawerman Elementary School, Robert Frost Middle School, La Ballona School and Thomas Starr King Middle School. The children will research statistics and build mounds of rice to illustrate their findings.

James Yarker, artistic director of Stan’s Cafe, who co-founded the group 15 years ago, said he came up with the idea for the piece when he was on tour with another performance in 2002.

“Each time we touched down, we found another city full of people bustling about their business, for whom it would be no appreciable loss if the U.K. and its 59 million inhabitants, including Stan’s Cafe, didn’t exist,” Yarker wrote in an essay on the group’s Web site.

“This parochial small island boy was beginning to get a sense that the world was far, far bigger than he had ever imagined it to be,” Yarker continued, speaking about himself in the third person, “and he was starting to wonder if he would ever be able to understand how many people he shared the planet with.”

After considering sand, sugar, salt, pebbles, peppercorns, spices and more as a way to represent large numbers of people, Yarker settled on rice. “We needed grains that were small, cheap, robust and which wouldn’t roll around,” he said on the Web site. Rice “also has powerful resonance, being a staple food for much of the world and looking vaguely humanoid in close up.”

For piles with fewer than 200 grains, the group typically counts each grain. For larger piles, it weighs the rice. The Skirball will provide not only the scales for weighing the five and one-half tons of rice that will be used during the performance but also the rice, which it bought for less than $2,000 from local wholesalers. The grains will be recycled for animal feed when the exhibit concludes.

“We’ve never done anything like it,” said the Skirball’s Peimer. “I hope it makes people think about their place in the world, and I hope it makes people pause to remember the grain of rice that they are.”

The exhibit will be open during regular museum hours (12 to 5 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday; 12 to 9 p.m. Thursday; 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday). Admission will be free on Thursday and Sunday. Other days, general admission will be $8, $6 for seniors and free for members, students and children under 12. For advance tickets call (866) 468-3399.

Performers Go It Alone and Like It That Way


Michael Raynor moves with the balletic grace and cocksure athleticism of a former pickup basketball player and street fighter. He simulates dribbling a ball between his legs with the adeptness of the highly recruited hoops star he once was, then he assumes his grandfather’s boxer’s crouch, takes on the gravelly voice of the onetime Louis Lepke associate and throws the jab. Effortlessly, Raynor switches time periods and voices, at one moment playing his sassy mother with her elbow against her rib, her wrist bent, and then his grandmother, with her stooped posture and her Old World idiosyncrasies.

In “Who Is Floyd Stearn?” playing at the Sidewalk Studio Theater in Toluca Lake, Raynor goes on a Rashomon-like search for the essence of his father, who left the family when the actor was a little boy. Was his father a deadbeat dad? A mentally ill genius? A con man?

The rugged-looking actor’s only props are a chair and a black-and-white photograph of his father with his arm around him as Raynor, the little boy, plays a guitar. Raynor speaks with the sing-song patter of the New York City streets. He is a Jewish man who hails from an older tradition — the Jews of the first half of the last century: tough Jews, who dominated sports like boxing and basketball and served disproportionately in the first two World Wars and in the ranks of gangsters. But he also has a vulnerability mixed in with that toughness, like John Garfield, to whom he has been compared.

Despite courageous performances by actors like Raynor, solo-show performers have been lampooned often by the likes of Martin Short and mocked by many as self-absorbed narcissists, bent on exploring their own navels rather than advancing the art form of the theater. Nonetheless, one-person shows continue to proliferate and provide performers with a unique outlet for meta-theatrical expression.

Stacie Chaiken, who runs a solo workshop in Santa Monica, says the medium is “a way for actors to take control of their destiny,” but she also admits, these shows are “cheap to produce. It’s very easy for a one-person show to travel around.”

There are some big-name Jewish performers like Billy Crystal, who recently toured with his Tony-winning homage to his father, “700 Sundays,” and Eve Ensler, creator of the “Vagina Monologues.” But in recent months, many L.A. theaters have produced one-person shows featuring lesser-known Jewish talent, such as Judi Lee Brandwein, star of “Fornicationally Challenged,” which played at the Hudson Guild and is moving to New York; Linda Lichtman, whose one-person show, “The Bride Can’t Stop Coughing” is playing at the Actors Playpen; and Carla Zilbersmith, a singer and actress who revisits her days on the wedding circuit in “Wedding Singer Blues.”

While each show follows its own trajectory, Chaiken points out that many Jewish-themed plays explore the issue of legacy. These performers describe conflicted feelings about their parents and the aspirations held out for them. As clichéd as such scenarios may seem, they speak to the pain and humor of family, a commonality that usually resonates with audiences.

Zilbersmith, who has a music degree from the New England Conservatory of Music and a theater degree from NYU, cites the lineage of the art form: “The ancient conversation we call theater has always contained some form of solo performance, and I would argue that the most successful solo pieces acknowledge these theatrical roots.”

Those roots surely include King David, who soothed Saul by singing and playing the harp or lyre, troubadours during the Middle Ages who wandered from town to town and entertained crowds, and, in the past century, Lord Buckley, the now-forgotten, Beat-era monologist who started out in vaudeville and later told tales in a bebop idiom that centered on historical and biblical characters like “the Nazz,” a jive take on Jesus. Buckley’s influence could be seen in the work of Lenny Bruce and Bob Dylan, the latter a modern-day Jewish troubadour, who cites Buckley in his recent “Chronicles, Vol. 1.”

Notable works in the field include, of course, Hal Holbrook’s Mark Twain in “Mark Twain Tonight!” and Julie Harris’ Emily Dickinson in “The Belle of Amherst,” formal one-person shows about external subjects. In the past 15 years or so, as memoirs, particularly those of addiction and recovery, have staked out a dominant place on the bookshelf, solo shows too have become much more personal, including the work of performance artists and monologists.

Chaiken, who teaches acting and solo performance at USC and who studied with Spalding Gray at the Performance Group in New York, credits Gray with formulating “a me that was very close to the me that was him,” and ushering in a new sensibility for monologists.

Fred Johntz has partnered with Mark Travis for seven years in writing and directing numerous one-person shows, including “Fornicationally Challenged.” Johntz says that performance art by L.A. performance artists such as John Fleck (whose work was denied NEA grants due to its provocative subject matter) and Sandra Tsing Loh are “pretty much in the same vein” as the one-person shows he directs.

The trend in self-involved storytelling, which may have reached its apotheosis in the blog phenomenon, has also led to the dissemination of many factual errors and even hoaxes. Likewise, one-person shows and their variants often could benefit from editing. Many suffer from poor storytelling if not outright posing.

Not surprisingly, there have been parodies even in one-person shows. In “Wedding Singer Blues,” Zilbersmith at one point portrays a performance artist as a brain-dead, pot-headed character who spins naked on a rotating East Village stage.

Women have been among the pioneers in this avant-garde art form. Anna Deveare Smith used journalistic techniques for her solo gigs. In the aftermath of the 1991 Crown Heights riots in Brooklyn and the 1992 Rodney King riots here in Los Angeles, she took to the streets with a tape recorder in hand and captured the colloquialisms that would later inform her award-winning performances in “Fires in the Mirror” and “Twilight: Los Angeles 1992,” respectively.

Most one-woman shows, however, favor sexual politics over political or racial issues.

Lichtman regales us with stories of her liaisons with younger men in “The Bride Can’t Stop Coughing” — a brave performance, not least because she is in her 60s. She invokes Jewish icons like the Dodgers of the 1950s, intersperses her act with Yiddish expressions and speaks in characteristically Jewish syntax when she utters lines like, “Lucky, I didn’t set myself on fire.”

Are Jews particularly well-suited to one-person shows?

Zilbersmith, starring in “Wedding Singer Blues,” now playing at the Coronet Theater, says that while she has a variety of students at the College of Marin in the Bay Area, where she teaches solo performance, those who tend to focus on writing and storytelling are Jewish. But she also notes the strong oral traditions of African Americans and the Irish; she says that most of her friends who are solo performers are African American.

One of Chaiken’s students, Frankie Colmane, wrote and acted in “Body and Soul,” a one-person show about her experience as a French Algerian Jew living in America. With immigration a searing topic both in this country and in France, Colmane’s show, which moved on to the Edge of the World Theater Festival in downtown Los Angeles, transcends Jewishness and speaks to all audiences. Of course, it also speaks to her.

As Chaiken says, “We’re all very interested in ourselves.”

“The Bride Can’t Stop Coughing” plays Mondays, 8 p.m., through July 31 at the Actors Playpen, 1514 N. Gardner St., Hollywood, (310) 560-6063 or (310) 582-0025.

“Cheerios in My Underwear” plays July 30, 3 p.m. and on selected Sundays, once a month, at the Empty Stage Theater, 2372 Veteran Ave., West Los Angeles, (310) 308-0947.

“Wedding Singer Blues” plays Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun. 3 p.m., through July 16, at the Coronet Theater, 366 N. La Cienega Blvd., West Hollywood, (310) 657-7377.

“What’s the Story?” a series of new works-in-progress, plays July 10 and on selected Mondays, once a month, at the Powerhouse Theater, 3116 Second St., Santa Monica, (310) 450-1312.

“Who Is Floyd Stearn?” plays Thursdays, 8 p.m., at the Sidewalk Studio Theater, 4150 Riverside Dr., Toluca Lake, (323) 960-1052, (818) 558-5702.

“Zero Hour” opens July 7, plays Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun. 2 p.m. and 7 p.m., through Aug. 13, at the Egyptian Arena Theater, 1625 N. Las Palmas Ave., Hollywood, (323) 860-6620. Special gala dinner and performance on Sunday, July 9, honoring West Coast Jewish Theater founder Naomi Jacobs.

The Arrogant Poet You Love to Hate


In “Pound of Flesh,” at the Odyssey Theater, Ezra Pound spars with Pvt. Cooper, a young soldier who keeps him company while he awaits trial in Italy for his crimes of treachery against the United States in World War II. If this private is not Pound’s intellectual match, he more than matches the poet on moral grounds.

Michael Peter Bolus, who wrote and directed the play, first considered using a Jewish soldier as Pound’s foil. But Pvt. Rothberg, the fictional man he created, was too brainy, too intellectual, and the debates between the two divested the play of its inherent drama and left it as a case of talking heads. Though Bolus changed Rothberg into a non-Jew, the character “wouldn’t go away,” says the playwright. Rothberg turned into “a shadowy presence” haunting the play. Behind the scenes, it is Rothberg who teaches Cooper what Pound’s poetry is all about — hatred.

This is not a new point of view. Critics as eminent as Harold Bloom find little aesthetic value in Pound’s work. Still, Pound was one of the leading poets of the past century. As Bolus says, “It’s difficult, if not impossible, to confront 20th century literature without confronting Ezra Pound.”

Thirteen years after the Odyssey staged Tom Dulack’s “Incommunicado,” a play that also tackled Pound’s days in a wartime prison but with a larger cast, “Pound of Flesh” goes beyond the modern question of asking whether an artist can be separated from his art. Where writers like Philip Roth still produce inspiring work even if they live morally dubious lives, Pound did not conceal the malevolence in his poetry.

“Unlike a lot of anti-Semites and racists, his racism is right there in the poetry,” says playwright Bolus, who studied poetry with Derek Walcott, and got a Ph.D. in theater studies at the City University of New York.

The title of “Pound of Flesh,” of course, invokes Shylock’s famous words in “The Merchant of Venice,” and Bolus does a remarkable job of capturing the arrogance, the brilliance and the over-the-top hubris of the poet. His voice is quite distinctive and comes through even when reading the script. Bolus also nicely allows the non-Jewish soldier to turn the tables on Pound, even correcting him on his grammar.

Say what one will about Shylock, but he never ended a sentence with a preposition — something Pound does in this play.

“Pound of Flesh” plays at the Odyssey Theater, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Wed.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 7 p.m. (except June 4 and June 11 shows at 2 p.m.). Through June 25. (310) 477-2055.

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.

 

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.

 

7 Days in The Arts


Saturday 7

Bruins and Trojans unite in the name of Jewish art. For the first time ever, the Hillels of UCLA and USC collaborate to present coinciding art exhibitions. Titled “Makor/Source,” the two shows feature works by 23 contemporary Jewish artists reflecting their study of Jewish text. Each artist will show a different piece at each show.

Free. Opens Jan. 7 at UCLA Hillel. Opening reception and panel discussion Jan. 7, 6:30-8:30 p.m. Yitzhak Rabin Hillel Center, 574 Hilgard Ave., Los Angeles (310) 208-3081, ext. 125.

Opens Jan. 22 at USC Hillel. Opening reception Jan. 22, 4-6 p.m. 3300 S. Hoover St., Los Angeles. (213) 747-9135.

Sunday 8

It wouldn’t be a week in our Jewish community without the requisite cantorial concert. But Congregation B’nai Israel (CBI) does it up big for theirs today. “MaTovu: A Musical Celebration Paying Tribute to the Works of Two Great Cantorial Masters” features cantors from across the country, plus Stephen Wise’s Nathan Lam and CBI’s Marcia Tilchin. They sing the liturgical music of renowned cantors Yossele Rosenblatt and Philip Moddel to benefit the Cantors Assembly and the Philip Moddel Scholarship Fund.

7:30-9 p.m. $18-$250. Chapman University Memorial Hall, One University Drive, Orange. R.S.V.P., (714) 730-9693.

Monday 9

Hearing John Lithgow’s voice in your head again? Must’ve already heard about Walt Disney Concert Hall’s special audio tour. Visitors don headphones to learn about the creation of the building, with Lithgow playing virtual tour guide. Architect Frank Gehry, L.A. Philharmonic music director Esa-Pekka Salonen and acoustician Yasuhisa Toyota also chime in periodically with details about how it all came together.

10 a.m.-3 p.m. most days. Check Web site for schedule. $8-$10. 111 S. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 850-2000.

Tuesday 10

In conjunction with the release of art historian Peter Selz’s book, “Art of Engagement,” about politically motivated pieces by California artists, Jack Rutberg Fine Arts presents an exhibition of nearly 80 works from the book, including paintings, sculptures, prints and drawings.

Jan. 3-31. Free. 357 N. La Brea Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 938-5222.

Wednesday 11

There are bad dates where maybe the guy chews with his mouth open, and then there are the really bad ones where you end up in jail without your cell phone. That’s the kind Courtney Fine is on in her new show, “ME2.” Follow the Jewish girl’s trials and tribulations over the course of a very lousy evening, at the Masquer’s Cabaret playhouse.

7:30 p.m. (Wed.), 9:30 p.m. (Sat.). $15. 8334 W. Third St., West Hollywood. (310) 590-7229.

Thursday 12

The Levantine Center and PEN USA co-host a conference this evening exploring the relationship between the Arab and Western worlds. “The Arab/Muslim Revolution: The Middle East and the West” features Islamic scholar Reza Aslan and historian Mark LeVine in conversation. But along with a heaping helping of political dialogue come live music by Mohammed Cahoua and Omar Fadel and an open bar reception to keep the mood convivial.

7:30 p.m. Free. Levantine Cultural Center, 5920 Blackwelder St., Culver City. R.S.V.P., (310) 559-5544.

Friday 13

Venture out this evening despite 13th superstitions to see L.A. Theatre Works’ latest show. “Top Girls” is the Obie-winning comedy by Caryl Churchill about feminism during England’s Thatcher years. The production will be recorded for the nationally syndicated radio theater series “The Play’s the Thing.”

Jan. 11-13 (8 p.m.), Jan. 14 (3 p.m.), Jan. 15 (4 p.m.). $25-$45. Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 827-0889. www.latw.org.

Senior Moments – Proudly Jewish in ‘Sunset’


Within the first moments of the comedy/drama “Sunset Park,” I wanted to get to know Sheila Oaks, who plays widowed mother

Evelyn Horowitz two nights a week at the Zephyr Theatre. Something about Oaks' authentic, sensitive portrayal of a 70-something New York Jewish woman made me curious.

It turns out that Oaks also is a hard-working speech pathologist. And, most inspiring, she's a 68-year-old who continues to discover herself as a professional, a woman, and a human being.

Oaks grew up in Brooklyn and inherited a passion for singing and the theater from her parents: “My father took me regularly to see theater and to the Brooklyn Academy of Music for classes. My mother loved to sing, and we used to sing all the Broadway show tunes together.”

At 8 years old, Oaks first appeared on stage in a talent show, where she sang “Swanee River” in blackface. She cringes at the political incorrectness, but it was the beginning of a love affair with performing. Oaks pursued her acting while also getting a psychology degree at University of Pennsylvania and a master's in speech pathology at Tulane. Her acting roles have included television, feature films and numerous stage productions on both coasts.

When I asked Oaks about playing Jewish roles, such as the one in “Sunset Park,” she recalled that her parents had explained the difficulties they sometimes faced as Jews. Her father was a chemist who often couldn't get hired because he was a Jew, and her mother constantly warned her children that they, too, might be treated unfairly.

“My mother was petrified of being Jewish,” Oaks recalls. “I heard all these stories and cautions from her, and I guess I took it to heart and adopted some of her fears.”

Oaks occasionally found herself worrying about how audiences would judge her for being Jewish or playing a Jewish character–which she did often in productions such as “Enter Laughing” or “Jake's Women.”

“I think at times I held myself back because I didn't want the audience to be put off. You know, people make comments about a woman being a 'Jewish princess' or about someone behaving 'too Jewish,' like it was something negative.”

None of this carried over in her work as a speech pathologist.

“Speech therapy isn't concerned with anyone's religion or color,” she says. “It's a very universal experience when someone stutters, or when someone has had a stroke. They all face the same challenges and those who work with them are very accepting.”

Oaks has managed to marry her passions for theatre and therapy.

“I love Viola Spolin's theater games and I've discovered they have great value in my speech therapy work,” she says. “When I've used some games with stroke patients with aphasia, words would pop out that they couldn't express through traditional approaches. And when I had stutterers do improvisation games, they could focus on a partner and stop judging themselves.”

Oaks works at The Help Group, treating children with autism spectrum disorders, and for Partners, Jewish Family Service's Adult Day Treatment on Santa Monica Boulevard, with seniors dealing with strokes, cerebral palsy and Parkinson's disease.

And yet, she still finds time for her acting.

“Sunset Park” director Mark Taylor remembers Oaks coming in to audition for the Inkwell Theater production.

“We knew she was right for the part of Evelyn when she walked in the door,” Taylor said. “Her mannerisms, her vulnerability, her voice were all perfect.”

The show — which because of double casting has six senior citizens playing three roles — began its second run in Los Angeles Oct. 14. During the summer, before the show reopened, Oaks found an old tape of her mother and herself singing.

“I thought of my mother in creating my role during the first run, trying to picture her and remember her,” Oaks said. “But I hadn't actually heard my mother's voice in 17 years. Hearing her voice evoked memories, like a Proustian thing when a smell can trigger old experiences. This truly impacted my performance as Evelyn. It gave my acting more colors.”

“I can just hear my mother: 'Oh, so you think what I say is funny? You're going to try to imitate me?'” she continued. “I said to her once that she was a Neil Simon character, and she said, 'You're making fun of me!' I said, 'No! Mother you are a gem!'”

And how does she feel, this time, playing a New York Jewish woman?

“I've grown so much in this role, in not holding back in fear of being judged by audience. It's really a universal character, with relationships and feelings that any woman could feel. But I'm so proud to portray it through a Jewish persona. I'm bringing my own ethnicity to the part; it's truly allowing me to honor my Jewish roots.”

“Sunset Park” by Marley Sims and Elliot Shoenman has been extended until Dec. 4. 7456 Melrose Ave., Hollywood. For tickets, call (866) 811-4111 or visit ekzmail@adelphia.net or her Web site,

Where India Meets Neil Simon


Michael Schlitt sees a definite connection between his type of Jewishness and his reasons for directing a Neil Simon play in India. Being drawn to India and all things Eastern is Jewish, he says. And so is asking a million questions about everything.

“Basically, my work is very Jewish, even if it’s not about something Jewish,” declares the 44-year-old actor, writer, director and founding member of the Actors’ Gang theater company, now based in Culver City. “I’ve always been a searcher, the wheels in my head always spinning. A rabbi once told me that’s as Jewish as it gets.”

Schlitt spent the past five years transforming a midlife crisis, a professionally disastrous trip to India, and his burning and failed ambition to make a movie about that disaster into a one-man show called, “Mike’s Incredible Indian Adventure.” A play about a film about a play, Schiltt’s work premieres Friday at EdgeFest, the annual Los Angeles festival dedicated to new and experimental theater. His play’s script reads like a page of Talmud, with the central event of the India adventure framed by commentary about the trip itself, the filming of the trip and the questions that inevitably arise from the failure “to create a masterpiece.”

“If someone told me to see some one-man show about a guy’s attempt to make a movie about his trip to India, I’d probably say ‘No thanks,'” says Schlitt over coffee at a Culver City Starbucks. “But on the other hand, there’s a real hook to the show. Neil Simon in India is bound to pique curiosity.”

Directed by Nancy Keystone, who’s also married to Schlitt, the play, at its core, addresses the painful realization that certain youthful dreams will never materialize, “that moment you understand you’re never going to make ‘Citizen Kane,'” Schlitt says. “Rarely is the journey what you think it’s going to be.”

In 1999, a producer of questionable repute invited Schlitt to direct a production in India of Simon’s “They’re Playing Our Song.” In the throes of a midlife crisis, Schlitt, who detests this play, ignored his intuition and accepted the offer to put together a production ASAP and tour it in three Indian cities. His rationale: He’d make a movie about whatever happened because that’s been his dream, even though he despises the movie business.

“All my life there had been this strange tension between working in the theater and working in film. I mean I live in Los Angeles, the film capital of the world,” he writes in the script.

“The whole prospect was so shady,” Schlitt recalls. “I thought I would just bring the cameras and I would have this great film, some kind of cross between ‘Waiting for Guffman’ and ‘Salaam Bombay.’ Instead, I wound up butting my head against the wall for years.”

Unable to complete his film, Schlitt finally listened to the advice of a filmmaker friend and returned to the theater.

“You could say it was the path of least resistance, but it’s where I needed to be,” he says. “I know the theater and that feels great.”

“What I love about Mike’s play is that it’s blazingly honest,” says Keystone, whose directing credits led her to be named as one of 2005’s “Faces to Watch” in the L.A. Times. “He exposes everything, including some unpleasant aspects of himself, and I have a lot of admiration for him.”

Describing himself as “a laid-back neurotic,” which he attributes to growing up first in New York and later in Berkeley, Schlitt says his Jewish education ended after nursery school and until recently, “never thought of myself as Jewish.” Raised by his mother, who once aspired to be an actress, Schlitt also credits his father, who wrote for the 1960s TV show, “The Monkees,” as a considerable artistic influence.

“He was the kind of Jewish father who got me reading Kierkegaard at age 4,” he says.

As a theater major at UCLA, Schlitt met the future famous actor Tim Robbins. And they and other fellow students formed the Actors’ Gang in 1981, a company that rose to prominence in the L.A. theater scene for its often provocative, avant-garde productions.

“We were this group of guys who all hung out together,” he says of the Gang’s origins. “There was a lot of testosterone but we all had this great passion for the theater.”

Standing in as leader of the Gang when Robbins left for a life in New York with actress Susan Sarandon, Schlitt worked on some 40 productions. This included directing the American premiere of George Tabori’s “Mein Kampf,” an adaptation of Gogol’s “The Inspector General” and performing his critically acclaimed solo show, “Drive, He Said.” In 2000, Schlitt essentially parted from the Gang, a move he’d rather not discuss in great detail. It did, however, have something to do with the midlife crisis that led to his current show. “For 16 years, I was the company’s resident Solomon,” he says. “It was time to step away.”

Though Schlitt says he hasn’t completely given up on finally making his movie, the play he wound up with instead “has definitely gotten the monkey off my back. I have fed myself artistically,” he says. “And if it’s between the artistic or the commercial path, I know which one I’d choose.”

“Mike’s Incredible Indian Adventure” runs Oct. 7-23, 9:15 p.m. at the Los Angeles Theatre Center, 514 S. Spring St., Los Angeles. Tickets are $15 or $8 with EdgeFest Passport. For more information, call (866) 811-4111 or visit www.edgeoftheworld.org.

 

Young Jews Can Act Out — on Sundays


After landing the lead in several school plays at Sinai Akiba Academy in Los Angeles, Leora Weinstock, 13, decided she wanted to be a professional actress. Her mother, Judith Weinstock, combed the city in search of just the right acting teacher. It wasn’t long before she made a startling discovery.

“All of the acting classes for teens in Los Angeles seemed to be on Saturdays,” recalled Weinstock, a Los Angeles lawyer. “But we’re shomer Shabbos.”

Then Weinstock stumbled upon Jewish Children’s Theater, an acting program targeting children from observant Jewish families. Most classes are on Sundays at the Westside Jewish Community Center, which is located on Olympic Boulevard south of the Fairfax district.

A few years ago, writer-producer David Brandes (“The Quarrel”) and his wife, actress Deena Freeman Brandes, faced the same obstacle as Weinstock with their own daughters, who are also actresses. To solve their dilemma, the couple founded the Jewish Children’s Theater in early 2004.

“I wanted my daughters to be studying the craft while auditioning,” Freeman Brandes said. “Since they couldn’t go to classes on Shabbat, I thought, ‘What if I teach the classes?'”

Freeman Brandes, 49, played April Rush on TV’s “Too Close for Comfort,” guest-starred on shows like “The Golden Girls” and “Newhart” and has appeared regularly in commercials and video game voice-overs.

Now, Freeman Brandes says teaching is her “second calling,” a claim she backs up with boundless enthusiasm, an encouraging smile and an ability to listen to student input.

In a city where nearly everyone is an aspiring actor, writer or director, it is surprising perhaps that Jewish theater programs for serious child performers are few and far between. A few local organizations, including The Stacey Cane Youth Theatre, a musical theater workshop, and Kol Neshama, a summer arts program for Orthodox girls, pride themselves on providing serious training and putting on Jewish-themed plays.

In addition, several Jewish day schools have drama departments. Their focus, however, is typically on producing shows rather than the serious training of actors.

Jewish Children’s Theater emphasizes teaching acting technique. Through acting exercises and improvisation, Freeman Brandes’ students learn how to act, rather than how to memorize lines and build sets.

While sessions usually end with a low-key performance for parents, the focus is on acting techniques, improvisation, theater games and even a commercial workshop. Classes begin in the fall, and kids are welcome to join mid-session.

In a special summer class called “Fairy Tale Workshop,” Freeman Brandes repeatedly reminded her young students not to turn their backs on the audience during improvisations.

“Remember to open up!” she instructed a girl who was pantomiming the story of “The Three Bears.” The girl promptly adjusted her stance as she continued to improvise. In this particular workshop, children ages 5 through 14 created a new take on a fairy tale. During winter break, the program will offer a similarly structured workshop called “Superhero and Princesses Camp.”

While the Jewish Children’s Theater is billed as a class for the child professional “or kids who just want to have a fun theater experience,” the Brandes’ feel their classes offer much more. “It’s kind of a theater experience for life,” David Brandes said. “It gives kids confidence and they learn to think on their feet and express themselves.”

Since enrolling at the Jewish Children’s Theater last year, Leora Weinstock has gotten an agent, averages two auditions a month and recently completed her first professional gig, a part in a short film for Los Angeles-based Jewish Impact Films.

Weinstock attributes her success to her classroom experience.

“I think that because of Deena’s classes, I’ve gotten more confident during auditions,” said Weinstock, her blue eyes sparkling. “I feel like I’m a better actress.”

Classes begin Sept. 11. For more information on Jewish Children’s Theater, call (310) 556-8022 or e-mail deenabrandes@hotmail.com. For more information on the Stacey Cane Youth Theatre, call (818) 422-0966. For more information on Kol Neshama, call (310) 659-2342 or visit www.kolneshama.org.

 

Asch’s Apocalyptic Now


 

“If we don’t change something now, if people don’t open their eyes, we’re not gonna have a world,” said director Eva Minemar during a rehearsal with “God of Vengeance,” the classic Sholem Asch play. An enfant terrible of the Yiddish-Polish theater, Asch staged his story of Yankel — a brothelkeeper who tries to keep his ravishing daughter, Rivkele, from falling into sin — in 1905. When the melodrama opened on Broadway in 1923, police raided the theater and locked up Asch’s director and cast on obscenity charges.

Can Minemar’s version, which was adapted by Steve Fife for The Coleman and Smith Artistic Company in Hollywood, generate similar fireworks? By setting it in “the apocalyptic now,” the director hopes to. Minemar, whose father is Israeli and mother is Sicilian, comes from the Lower East Side of Manhattan theater scene. Her recent work includes producing and directing, “Angry Jellow Bubbles,” a 90-character play for female voices that has traveled the world.

Asch was steeped in Torah, and was once the most popular Yiddish writer alive. His depictions of the tawdry side of Jewish life were serialized in the Forvertz before I.B. Singer’s. “God of Vengeance” has been anthologized as one of the three greatest Jewish plays (along with “The Dybbuk” and “The Golem”). When he went on to write three books about Jesus, Asch was dismissed as a heretic, a meshumad (convert from Judaism).

“He also had six kids, lived in Hollywood and wrote movies,” said Fife, a playwright whose adaptation was originally commissioned by the Jewish Rep in NYC.

Asch, who died in Israel in 1957, has recently been reconsidered in a new collection of essays, “Back From Oblivion,” edited by Nanette Stahl (Yale University Press).

He was 21 when he wrote this note about Yankel the brothelkeeper: “The world he betrays is so sordid and decaying that belief in a higher being is humanity’s only alternative to despair.”

“I think it’s there in a nutshell,” Minemar said.

Plays now through April 10. 8 p.m. (Fridays and Saturdays), 3 p.m. (Sundays). $20. The Coleman and Smith Artistic Company, 6902 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. For tickets, call (323) 960-7829.

Hank Rosenfeld is a storyteller on public radio’s “All Things Considered” and “The Savvy Traveler.”

 

A Quick Trip to Evangelical ‘Hell’


Born-again Christian youth pastor Shari Putney is standing at the top of a stairway outside a theater in Hollywood presiding over a group of young adults, decked out in a sequined, pale-blue mother-of-the-bride dress and a huge diamond cross. Clearly subscribing to the theory that the higher the hair, the closer to God, Putney pats her silver bouffant wig and sings a hymn about loving Jesus. A voice from the crowd waiting on the stairs calls out: “Very funny, Jill.” Putney stops and turns on her heel. “I am not Jill!” she announces. “Jill Soloway is a Jew!”

Actually, Putney is Soloway, a writer on the HBO show “Six Feet Under” and one of the creative forces behind a biting new parody of evangelical Christianity called “Hollywood Hell House,” which will be playing at the Steve Allen Theater through Oct. 31.

You may be feeling guilty contemplating your bad deeds from the past year as Yom Kippur approaches, but things could be worse. You could be an evangelical Christian teen who’s taught about the horrors of sin through what’s known as a Hell House. Finding traditional Halloween ghosts and goblins too satanic, thousands of Christian teens and young adults participate in a haunted house that, instead of featuring witches and zombies, depicts the horrors of living a sinful life and not accepting Jesus as your savior.

Begun in the 1970s by the Rev. Jerry Falwell, there are now some 3,000 Hell Houses across the country every year. Visitors are led through a series of rooms where skits are performed about school shootings, people dying of AIDS, the horrors of abortion and performing human sacrifices, among other topics. They are then lead into hell, where they find the tormented souls of suicide victims, Satan worshippers, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists and other nonbelievers of Jesus. Visitors are then asked if they accept Jesus. If they do, they are let into a party. If not, they are booted out into the street.

With the help of Jewish actors and comedians like Richard Belzer, Sarah Silverman and David Cross, Soloway and her co-director, Maggie Rowe, are parodying the phenomenon, using the actual scripts provided in Hell House how-to kits created by the Rev. Keenan Roberts of the Destiny Church of the Assemblies of God, located in Broomfield, Colo. In using evangelicals’ own words to lampoon the evangelical Christians, Soloway and Rowe hope to give a much-needed kick in the tuchis to a phenomenon they see as narrow minded and moralistic.

To procure the scripts, Rowe called Roberts directly and told him she was using them for a teen ministry in Los Angeles.

“I had heard about Hell Houses for years, and then I saw a documentary about them,” Rowe said, referring to the 2001 film “Hell House,” which was released by 7th Art Releasing. “I felt Hell Houses crystallized in such a theatric, visceral way what is wrong with fundamentalism, and I thought the scenes were just so damn funny in their awful absurdity.”

Some Jewish cast members were reticent to poke fun at a religion not their own, Rowe said, but her response always was that the parody was aimed “not at Christianity, but at fundamentalism of all stripes.”

Soloway also felt the skits — including one in which an abortion is being performed on a fully conscious woman who is nine months’ pregnant while the doctor screams at her: “Shut up, Christy! You pay the money. I do the killing and the talking!” — were so outrageous they begged to be mocked.

“You would never think you could watch a rape scene or an abortion scene and laugh, but when you realize you’re watching the creative output of some very closed-minded people, it becomes funny,” Soloway said.

And, Soloway argued, the plays border on the anti-Semitic. “When you get down to hell, there is a Jew [saying], ‘I was stupid enough to wait for my messiah. I wish I had known. Get me out of here!'”

While crowds eager to join in the parody of evangelical morality will no doubt flock to the play, Soloway hopes it does inspire something other than laughs.

“I would at the very least love for it to open a conversation about religion,” she said. “Some of the lapsed born-again Christians in our production tell me that as children, at 6 or 7 years old, they were told in Bible class to imagine the very worst thing they could think of — perhaps their parents dying — and to imagine that over and over again with it never ending, and that is what hell feels like. And that’s what’s in store for them if they don’t ‘love God enough.’ This seems pretty cruel to me, so I would be happy if even within the Christian community, some started to question the concept of presenting hell as a literal reality instead of a metaphor.”

The threat of a literal hell was one that actor and writer Andy Corren, who plays a demonic tour guide in the spoof, said he had to face growing up gay and Jewish in a small North Carolina town.

“It was the age of Jesse Helms, and we were a Jewish family surrounded by extremely fundamentalist Christians,” Corren told The Forward. “As a child I was kidnapped by my neighbors and sent to Bible camp and told if I didn’t repent for being a Jew, and accept Jesus as my savior, I was damned for all eternity. Participating in this parody is my personal act of revenge.”

For more information about

“Hollywood Hell House,” visit www.hollywoodhellhouse.com .

Jewish + Humor = ‘Jumor’


Groucho Marx once said that there’s no such thing as an old joke if you’ve never heard it before.
And maybe two young Jewish filmmakers heard that maxim and decided they’d find fresh material for their 45-minute
documentary, “Jumor: A Journey Through Jewish Humor.”
Laguna Beach local Aaron Krinsky, with co-director and his Yale University pal Scott Kirschenbaum, explored their
Jewish humor heritage by interviewing more than 30 Jewish elderly residents at 14 Jewish nursing homes, including Heritage
Pointe in Mission Viejo. On Sunday, Sept. 5, the Jewish Community Center 532-seat theater will showcase the
Krinsky-Kirschenbaum saga, a 18,000-mile, six-week summer trip before their junior year.

“‘Jumor’ is a look into our own culture through our elderly community,” Krinsky said. “The more homes we visited,
the more we realized we were interested in the stories itself, not the comics who told them.”

The directors, inspired by the humor of other great 20th century comedians, delved further into the gift of
laughter in their own culture. They found through reflections by the film’s subjects that life in a shtetl, faith
and use of Yiddish serve as a basis for Jewish humor.

“Years ago, Jewish young men and women did not have the same opportunity as non-Jews to create their own
[opportunity],” said Lillian from Miami. “When they met each other they did not say, ‘Oy vey, this is going on
and that is going on,’ they said humorous stories. They had to learn how to laugh at themselves otherwise they
would be crying all the time.”

Film subjects included a 106-year-old woman from Los Angeles and a vibrant 102-year-old, Sylvia Harmatz., who
appears to have a great memory for a good joke.
“The residents were thrilled to have the two young men come to perform and speak with them about the topic of Jewish
humor,” said Rena Loveless, director of Mission
Viejo’s assisted-living facility Heritage Pointe. “There was a warm reception to the film when it was shown at the
facility. The residents were happy to be apart of this project.”

The duo’s filmmaking technique is unorthodox. To establish rapport with their subjects, Kirschenbaum performs a
stand-up act based on the stories and jokes of their generation of comedians, while Krinsky is in the sidelines
filming the reaction of the crowd. After the show, each home’s directors select a handful of the most articulate
residents to deliver their own wisecracks.

speaking on similar subjects creates momentum for the topics and shows the stories coming directly from the people who lived them.

“We used the editing process to create a sense of fabric, of knowledge coming directly from the people’s mouths to establish
an attitude and tone in the film,” Krinsky said. “This film is about more than Jewish humor, it is a generation talking and telling
a story.”
Along their voyage, the filmmakers start sensing parallels between their own impressions of Jewish culture and those of their elderly
subjects. Each day was a new exploration of both the subject and the subject’s cultural history, and how a sense of humor binds Jews
together.

“It is not just about our culture and ‘Jumor,'” Krinsky said. “This movie slowly became more about them [the elderly residents]
and us [filmmakers], where you do not laugh at the participants, but with them.”

Join one of the filmmakers for the 45-minute viewing of “Jumor,” followed by a talk on the documentary in the JCC theater, 7 p.m.
Sunday, Sept. 5, One Federation Way, Irvine. Requested donation $5 (general), $3 (seniors, children). For information, call (949) 435-3400.

Vilanch: A Divine ‘Hair’ Apparent


Two minutes into the interview, Bruce Vilanch kvetches about pantyhose. The hefty actor dons them eight times a week to play Edna Turnblad, the plus-size Baltimore hausfrau in the hit musical "Hairspray," now at the Pantages Theatre.

As the, er, hair apparent to the role created by drag diva Divine in the 1988 John Waters film and Harvey Fierstein on Broadway, Vilanch dutifully squeezes into said hose, plus a 35-pound fat suit, and enough wigs to open his own sheitl shop.

"Did I mention that pantyhose were invented by a Nazi scientist?" the Jewish actor says. "I had to learn to get into them without a cherry-picker."

With an exaggerated sigh, he explains that he makes the sacrifice for Art, and for a musical whose popsicle-colored exuberance is matched only by its political correctness. The Tony-winning show proffers its sweetly PC message in the winking tradition of "Grease" and "Little Shop of Horrors": It revolves around chunky teenager Tracy Turnblad (Tony-winner Marissa Jaret Winokur) and her efforts to integrate a 1962 TV dance show, while coaxing her agoraphobic mother, Edna, out of her shell.

"It’s about the triumph of black people, fat people and, by extension, all outsiders," says Vilanch, 56. "It’s about accepting who you are, then accepting others for who they are, and not judging — just dancing!"

His Edna undergoes an extreme makeover as she traverses the road to self-acceptance: The laundress initially appears in a faded floral print housedress and frumpy pincurls; but by the finale, she bursts out of an oversized can of Ultra Clutch hairspray, wearing a beehive and a flaming red ballgown.

If Edna changes her image via "Hairspray," so does Vilanch. While he says he appeared in "every Stubby Kaye role" in college, he’s not known for musical theater or female impersonation. Instead, he developed his reputation as a pithy writer-to-the-stars, penning Oscar and Emmy broadcasts and droll speeches for celebrities such as Bette Midler. When he emerged in front of the camera, it was as a regular square on the "Hollywood Squares," where he served as head writer, and as the subject of a 1999 documentary, "Get Bruce!" Instead of drag threads, his trademark costume consisted of T-shirts from his collection and a scruffy beard, which he shaved off for "Hairspray" on "Live With Regis and Kelly." ("I didn’t realize I had all these jowls," he says of the experience. "I looked like something the Hitchcock family left in the basement.")

But Vilanch had worked on a one-man show with "Hairspray" composers Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, so he wasn’t completely shocked when the call came about auditioning for the show’s national tour in 2002.

"My agent said, ‘They’re looking for large men who are in touch with their feminine side,’ and I was delighted," he says.

"I loved the story because it was a perfect sendup of the kind of hypocrisy I grew up with," Vilanch adds. "The civil rights struggle was on, and there were people who pretended they weren’t racist but really were, and the show shoots them down beautifully, while at the same time, it describes the other outsiders, the overweight people; that was my story."

Vilanch says he portrays Edna as a real woman, not as a drag queen, although it’s crucial for a man to play the role.

"The show is all about acceptance, so when the audience accepts that a man is playing Edna, they’re in on the joke," he says. "It’s one of John Waters’ subversive little techniques."

Vilanch once asked Waters if the Turnblads were Jewish: "Jerry Stiller is Wilbur the father in the movie, and he certainly cuts a Jewish swath," he says. Waters said no, even though the musical’s Jewish creators threw Yiddishisms into a vaudeville number performed by the husband and wife.

"At one point, Wilbur says ‘Shabbat shalom’ to Edna for no apparent reason," Vilanch says. "That got a huge laugh in Manhattan, but nothing in Rochester." His solution was to ad-lib a line, now in the show, about the audience consisting of "only six Jews, including us."

The Jewish Winokur, for her part, says the Edna-Tracy "relationship is very Jewish. It’s the overprotective mother and the young, ambitious girl who wants to do her own thing."

Vilanch did his own thing by rewriting other lines that had worked for Fierstein, but not for himself.

"Some critics have compared me unfavorably with Harvey," he says. "But I’ll never understand why a reviewer in say, Cincinnati, bothers to share that with his readers, who will never have the opportunity to see Harvey. It’s just so provincial; it’s showing off that they’ve been to New York."

In Los Angeles, Variety praised Vilanch’s performance as "campier and funnier than Fierstein’s"; while the Los Angeles Times decreed it "overly hammy." Yet, Vilanch was clearly the audience’s favorite during a recent Sunday night show, when viewers applauded practically every time he opened his mouth.

Wearing pantyhose is a small price to pay for such a successful midlife career change: "Next I’m doing ‘The Sound of Music,’" he says. "The moment this is over, I’m playing Maria."

The show runs through Sept.. 4. For tickets, call (213) 365-3500.

7 Days In Arts


Saturday

Interact Theater Company takes “Our Town” beyond the school play, with a rare professional production, playing this weekend only. See Thornton Wilder’s classic all grown up, brought to you by the University of Judaism’s performing arts department.
8 p.m. (Saturday), 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. (Sunday). $32-$38. 15600 Mulholland Drive, Bel Air. (310) 440-1547.

Sunday

Chick rock it’s not. But tonight’s “Kolot Hanasheem – Voices of Women” concert honors women of a different genre who’ve earned it all the same. Los Angeles Jewish Symphony’s Noreen Green conducts the program featuring works by six contemporary female Jewish composers, including Maria Newman’s “The Book of Esther,” and excerpts from Andrea Clearfield’s “Women of Valor.” Performers will include actress Laraine Newman, soprano Hila Plitmann, mezzo-soprano Diana Tash and the Valley Beth Shalom Congregational Choir.
7 p.m. $10-$36. Valley Beth Shalom, 17539 Ventura Blvd., Encino. (310) 478-9311.

Monday

It’s a fine line between the fluffy pareve kosher-for-Passover dessert and a gritty leftover even the dog won’t eat. Students doing their own seders for the first time, as well as adults who learned their lesson the hard way, find the wisdom they desperately seek today, as UCLA’s Yitzhak Rabin Hillel Center for Jewish Life presents a class in Passover confections. Godspeed.
7-9:30 p.m. $5 (UCLA students), $55 (general). 574 Hilgard Ave., Westwood. R.S.V.P., (310) 208-3081, ext. 100.

Tuesday

Political and gastronomic enthusiasts find book signings to suit their niches today. For Bush bashing, head to Sherman Oaks for the last in Valley Cities JCC’s Provocative Speaker Series, where Robert Scheer will discuss and sign his latest book, “The Five Biggest Lies Bush Told Us About Iraq.” Those who prefer to save their appetites head to the Jewish Community Library, where sisters and co-authors Phyllis and Miriyam Glazer present and sign their recent cookbook, “The Essential Book of Jewish Cooking: 200 Seasonal Holiday Recipes and Their Traditions.”
Robert Scheer: 7:30-9 p.m. $20-$25. 13164 Burbank Blvd., Sherman Oaks. (818) 786-6310. Miriyam Glazer: 7:30 p.m. 6505 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 761-8648.

Wednesday

Circle Elephant Art’s “Joel Hoyer: An Exquisite Surface” exhibition continues this week. Moving beyond the medium’s tradition as a purely decorative art, Hoyer’s pieces remain the sort of thing you’d want hanging in your living room, while provoking thought and imagination.
Runs March 5-27. Noon-6 p.m. (Wed.-Sat.). 4634 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 662-3279.

Thursday

A senator, a rabbi and some leading medical authorities walk into Temple Beth Am. Rather than the start of a bad joke, however, they’re hoping it’ll be the start of a healthcare revolution. Tonight, various Jewish organizations co-sponsor a forum on healthcare titled “Zay Gezunt: The Jewish Coalition for Healthcare for All Californians.” State Sen. Sheila Kuehl, Rabbi William Cutter as well as medical authorities discuss the hows and whys of universal healthcare.
7 p.m. Temple Beth Am, 1039 S. La Cienega Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 552-2007.

Friday

The Skirball turns comedy lounge tonight for another session of “Say the Word,” a showcase of writing and comic talents in Los Angeles, complete with the requisite cocktails and snacks. Tonight’s show for the 21-and-over crowd features George Meyer (“The Simpsons”), Rob Cohen (“The Ben Stiller Show”), Gary Janettie (“Will & Grace”) and Merrill Markoe (“It’s My F—ing Birthday: A Novel”).
8 pm. $8-$15. 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. R.S.V.P., (323) 655-8587.

A Dramatist’s Own Private Afghanistan


"Homebody/Kabul," which opens at the Mark Taper Forum Oct. 2, is "a very dark, unhappy play in many ways," author Tony Kushner said. The Tony Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright of "Angels in America" began creating the piece in 1997, when his own obsession with Afghanistan conjoined with his interest in creating a monologue for a British friend. Over the years, the Dr. Seussian tour de force — at turns witty and endearing — accumulated two additional acts and 11 more characters, among other changes. But since the tragedies of Sept. 11, and as events change daily in our present military campaign, "Homebody/Kabul" often feels less like fiction and more like a dramatic interpretation of the day’s news. Rather than weakening the production, this unintended intermingling of fact and fiction heightens the show’s impact; when we leave the theater we have no choice but to carry it home. "I didn’t expect the outside world to be helping us out so much," Kushner said wryly, "providing a context of tragedy to this little tragedy we are making on the stage."

"Homebody/Kabul" is very much about people trying to erase their pasts through encounters with those who are different from them. Whether British or Afghan, Christian or Muslim, all the characters have a history created by colonialism that informs their present struggles. The British characters on stage are "overwhelmed and succumbing to luxury," masking their middle-class ennui with antidepressants, heroin and self-hate, while their Afghan foils suffer physical and emotional abuse created by extreme poverty and violence. The drama is fueled by the dynamic of oppression that still defines relationships between their two worlds: The guilty seek redemption from those they afflict, who in turn seek salvation from the very ones responsible for their suffering.

"Homebody/Kabul" opens in a sparse living room with the homebody of the title, played by Linda Emond, addressing us from a chair. It becomes clear through her act-long monologue that few expect much from her and that she has retreated into antidepressants, a predilection for little-known words and, of central importance to her life and this show, an armchair romance with Afghanistan. She is so enamored with the Afghanistan of old, and so pathetically wed to her chair, that she shares with the audience her passionate, desperate fantasy about getting swept away by a local Afghani hat merchant.

In the second and third acts, middle-class England is replaced by the broken-bricked ruins of Kabul, where we are told the homebody, who is never given any other name, has escaped her life of oppressive luxury. Is she alive? Is she dead? Those questions are left to her cowardly husband, Milton (Dylan Baker), and vitriolic daughter, Priscilla (Kelly Hutchinson), who become an unlikely pair of detectives, investigating hospitals and holy sites, biblical myths and family secrets, to discover what has torn their family apart. Along the way, they encounter a heady mix of characters, including a Tajik poet who works in Esperanto, a Taliban doctor whose English consists primarily of medical terms and a British aid worker addicted to local heroin. The more Milton and Priscilla learn, the less they actually know, as additional facts only call their earlier discoveries into question. In the end, "Homebody/Kabul" is less concerned about what actually occurred than with the condition of unknowing we are forced to confront when dialectical forces meet face to face.

This element of mystery and uncertainty, Kushner told the Forward during a 2001 interview, grew out of his initial inquiries into Afghanistan.

"The more I talked with people, the more deeply confused I became," he said.

Even research into how many Afghans were killed during President Bill Clinton’s bombing of Afghanistan in 1998 turned up wildly divergent answers, leading Kushner eventually to believe that some things are simply impossible to know. In addition, he said, his plays attempt to "probe areas of confusion and bewilderment," to engage the audience in a collective process of looking deeper into "a place of not knowing, of doubt."

All of the characters come from a background far different from the playwright’s Jewish American gay identity.

"I checked my identities at the door," he said, "but I knew that a Jew writing about Islam would be interesting, complicated."

Kushner had no trouble drawing on his background as a Jew to depict the Taliban, using Orthodox Jews as his model.

"I think there is absolutely no difference between deeply religious people of one faith and deeply religious people of another faith," he said, pausing a moment. He then cited the common heritage of an Abrahamic tradition and argued that "among extremely religious Jews, God is in everything and everything is about one’s relationship to God."

And yet there are differences, he said upon reflection. While the concept of becoming a martyr in the Jewish world is seen as tragic, he said, in the Christian and Muslim world suffering is seen as "being a good in and of itself, of having some sort of spiritual valence." And in Christianity, of course, martyrdom is viewed as "transformative, transfigurative. It’s the resurrection."

Kushner said he developed the play’s British family as Jews during the early stages. However, "British Jews are too complicated," he soon decided, and after a brief stint as Catholics they once again returned to the Church of England.

In the end, he was glad he made the homebody the way he did because she "has a sense of engagement with the world that it is completely Christian; it’s about suffering. It’s the idea of expressing your agency in the world by taking on the suffering of the world."

Kushner once wrote, "I am in the habit of hoping," and in "Homebody/ Kabul," hope emerges through the metaphor of language.

Among the many quirky details that fill this play, one of the oddest is its use of Esperanto, the international language developed by the Polish Jewish philologist Ludwik Zamenhof in 1887 to ease communication between speakers of different tongues. The word "esperanto" itself means "hopeful." The play also concerns itself with binary code, the language uniting all computers, and the Dewey Decimal System, which gives books a clear place in the universe of knowledge. These global languages represent the hopeful side of our interconnected world. Globalization corrupts all it touches and none can escape its reach, the show tells us, but it also brings people together and creates order out of chaos. The tragedy of the Taliban is that they represent what happens when order is realized at the cost of freedom and justice, but "Homebody/Kabul" holds out hope that all three are possible. Most important, the show is less interested in offering a solution than in taking its audience on a journey to explore how fascist ideologies come into fashion in the first place, whether in Nazi Germany, Afghanistan or here in America.

"Homebody/Kabul" plays Oct. 2-Nov. 9, at the Mark Taper Forum at the Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. For tickets, call (213) 628-2772.

Unchosen Actor, ‘Chosen’ Director


Years before he directed the play version of "The Chosen" — now at the Miles Memorial Playhouse in Santa Monica — David Ellenstein was up for the starring role in the 1981 film of Chaim Potok’s classic novel.

"So I began reading the book as a chore," said Ellenstein, whose staging is a co-production of his own Los Angeles Repertory Company and the West Coast Jewish Theatre. But then the secular Jewish actor was riveted by the tale of two boys — one Chasidic, the other a Conservative Zionist — who forge an unlikely friendship in 1940s Brooklyn. "I didn’t previously know there was a rift between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews," he said. "I wasn’t aware that some Jews did not favor the creation of the state of Israel. For me, the novel brought a whole Jewish world to life."

So it’s fitting that Ellenstein — who eventually lost the film role to actor Robby Benson — has helped bring another version of "The Chosen" to life. It began when he attended a Jewish theater conference in 2001 and was invited to direct "The Chosen" for the Arizona Jewish Theatre. His 2001 staging of the adaptation, by Potok and Aaron Posner, earned rave reviews and the attention of Naomi Karz Jacobs, founder of the West Coast Jewish Theatre. She told Ellenstein her Los Angeles-based group had staged 35 readings since 1993 but aspired to produce its first fully-staged drama. Eventually, Jacobs convinced her group to put up half the $45,000 budget while artistic director Ellenstein persuaded the Los Angeles Repertory Company to do the same.

"The rep is devoted to great literature, and the Jewish Theatre aims to promote Jewish culture," he said. "This play absolutely does both."

The collaboration is part of an encouraging trend for Jewish theater in Los Angeles. While 20 other cities in the United States and Canada have sustained long-standing Jewish troupes, Los Angeles hasn’t, said Susan Merson of the now-defunct Los Angeles Streisand Festival for New Jewish Plays. "The problem is that this is a film town, so in general people aren’t interested in the theater," she said. So while mainstream companies routinely woo the large Jewish theater audience with Jewish fare (example: Charles Busch’s "The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife" recently at the Ahmanson Theatre), Jewish groups haven’t come up with the money to sustain a lasting Jewish theater.

In recent years, however, some tenacious individuals have helped to make a difference. Efforts include The Jewish Women’s Theatre Project, founded by Karen Rushfeld and Jan Lewis, which earned rave reviews for its first fully-staged show, "Hair Pieces," in 2001. The L.A. Jewish Theater often produces plays written by Jorge Albertella, its artistic director. Alexandra More produces and directs celebrity staged readings at the Westside Jewish Community Center.

Now, "The Chosen" is earning good reviews at the 150-seat Miles Playhouse; it’s perhaps the first production under the auspices of a Jewish group to undertake the higher cost of an Actors’ Equity agreement (instead of a sub-100-seat contract). "We want to raise the stakes for Jewish theater in Los Angeles," Ellenstein said.

To prepare, the director and his five actors studied books on the Israeli War of Independence and spoke to a rabbi who had known Potok when he taught at the University of Judaism. Actor Robert Grossman drew on memories of his Yiddish-speaking immigrant grandfather to create his role of the Chasidic Reb Saunders. Ellenstein, meanwhile, focused on the directing challenges.

"The play has a narrator — one of the boys grown up — who isn’t in the novel," he said by way of example. "The narrator is a theater device that can become hackneyed, so my advice to the actor was to remember he’s invited the audience to share a message: that there’s more than one way to get to God."

"The Chosen’s" co-adapter, Posner, said he was moved to tears during the play’s 1999 debut in Philadelphia. Though the esteemed novelist was ill, he agreed to attend the West Coast premiere in Santa Monica. Then, during the first week of rehearsal, the director and his cast received shocking news: Potok had died on July 18 at age 73. "We didn’t even know he had cancer," Ellenstein said.

The cast subsequently decided to dedicate the show to Potok’s memory — and to the play’s message, which resonates even more after the anniversary of the Sept. 11 tragedy. "It’s about accepting the validity of points of view that are very different from your own," Ellenstein said.

“The Chosen” is playing thru Oct. 13 at the Miles Memorial Playhouse, 1130 Lincoln Blvd., Santa Monica. For tickets and more information, call (800) 595-4849.

A Song in His Heart


Singer-pianist-archivist Michael Feinstein’s new album, his first with a symphony orchestra, is all standards and all Jewish.

"Using all Jewish composers didn’t take effort," Feinstein said, describing his latest CD, "Michael Feinstein With the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra" (Concord Records, $17.98), released in May. In the liner notes, Feinstein explains, "It’s an extraordinary fact that most of the major American popular song composers of the 20th century were, for some inexplicable reason, Jewish."

Backing Feinstein on the album, which features about 50 years’ worth of songs from theater, films and cabaret, is the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (IPO), which turned itself into the biggest of big bands to work with Feinstein. The singer recorded the songs in spring 2001 in Tel Aviv, during his very first trip to Israel.

Feinstein sees his collaboration with the IPO as a musical thread in the struggle for peace in the Mideast, pointing out that the orchestra has been involved in programs bringing together Arab and Jewish musicians. He is donating proceeds from the new CD to the Arab-Jewish youth organization Seeds of Peace.

"I feel that music is a healing modality that can help bring peace," Feinstein told The Journal, adding that one of the cuts on the album, "Somewhere," is an homage to its composer, Leonard Bernstein, who had a long association with the IPO and "represented ideals of peace."

Feinstein and the IPO had been scheduled to play the Hollywood Bowl Aug. 26, but their eight-city American tour was canceled by its promoters. The orchestra denied that it faced security and insurance problems when it announced in late July that the tour was "postponed," but subsequent stories in the Los Angeles Times and Variety cite concerns over security affecting ticket sales and ability to obtain insurance as reasons for the tour’s cancellation.

Feinstein, 45, learned to play piano by ear as a small child in Columbus, Ohio, and as a teenager was playing weddings and parties. As a kid, he favored the show tunes his parents listened to rather than the rock and teen pop choices of his peers.

Classic American songs from theater and film, Feinstein told a reporter in April, "resonate in a way other music does not. It is music that transcends time."

A New York Times review of a June performance at Carnegie Hall described Feinstein as both an acolyte and a peer of his musical heroes, which include the Gershwins, Harold Arlen and Irving Berlin, "conversing with his idols in a musical time warp."

After graduating from high school, he began playing piano bars around Columbus instead of continuing in school. At one point, he told The Journal, he went to his mother and said, "Aren’t you even going to ask me about college?"

"My parents were very supportive of my music," Feinstein said. "My love for music came from them; they are truly responsible for my career."

He moved to Los Angeles in 1976 at age 20, and the following year, met lyricist Ira Gershwin, then about 80 years old, through June Levant, widow of pianist, comic actor, and Gershwin intimate Oscar Levant. Feinstein had obtained June Levant’s phone number and called her after coming across some obscure recordings of her husband’s work in a used record store.

Well-versed in the music of Gershwin’s era, Feinstein was put to work cataloging phonograph records, but eventually became Gershwin’s musical assistant, organizing his papers and bringing the latter-day world of show music into his home before Gershwin’s death in 1983.

Gershwin introduced Feinstein to Liza Minnelli; he’d been best man at the wedding of Minnelli’s parents, Vincente Minnelli and Judy Garland. Minnelli, in turn, made possible Feinstein’s first big club date at the Algonquin Hotel in New York in 1986, which began a stream of high-profile club and concert performances, recordings and film and television appearances that shows no sign of drying up.

Feinstein said he’s "very devoted to the Jewish community," though not religious. His parents sent him to Hebrew school at a Conservative synagogue in Columbus; Feinstein said he didn’t much like the classes, which met in a dingy basement. He complained to his folks until his mother visited the classroom and said, "My God, it is that bad."

When Feinstein chose not to have a bar mitzvah, "it was more of a scandal in the neighborhood than it was to my parents," he said.

His Ohio roots and his eponymous New York nightclub, Feinstein’s at the Regency, notwithstanding, Feinstein is very much an Angeleno, with a home in Los Feliz. As a young man new to Los Angeles, he played piano at the Jewish Home for the Aging in Reseda twice a week, and he still goes back occasionally.

"I’ve lived here longer than anywhere else," Feinstein said. "I feel very connected to Los Angeles, and I feel very connected to the Jewish community here."

Fade to Black


Two Jewish pioneers of the popular culture, comedian Milton Berle and director Billy Wilder, died last week in Los Angeles.

Wilder, who fled the Nazis to become one of Hollywood’s greatest (and most caustic) filmmakers, died of pneumonia March 27. He was 95.

Berle, the stogie-smoking vaudevillian who became America’s first TV star, died March 27 after battling colon cancer. He was 93.

Six-time Oscar winner Wilder, whose protagonists were often alcoholics or gigolos, grew up in his family’s Galacian hotel, where, he said, he "learned many things about human nature, none of them favorable." As a cocky journalist-turned-screenwriter in Berlin in 1933, he sold his belongings for a few hundred dollars and was on a train to Paris the day after the Nazis burned the Reichstag. Arriving penniless in Hollywood a year later, he taught himself English by listening to the radio, but had less success convincing his relatives to leave Europe. When he returned to Germany to help de-Nazify the theater in 1945, he discovered that his stepfather, mother and grandmother had died in Auschwitz. When a director asked if a Nazi could play Jesus in a passion play, he replied, "Permission granted, but the nails have to be real."

Wilder went on to write and direct movies that exposed the darkest recesses of human nature, dissecting the underbelly of American life in classics such as "Double Indemnity" and "Sunset Boulevard." The versatile filmmaker also triumphed in the genre of farce ("Some Like It Hot") and sophisticated romantic comedies such as "Sabrina" and "The Seven Year Itch."

Wilder is survived by his wife, the former Audrey Young; and daughter, Victoria.

Berle, dubbed "Uncle Miltie" and "Mr. Television" for addicting Americans to the tube, was born Mendel Berlinger, the son of Moses and Sarah (aka Sadie), in a five-story Harlem walk-up in 1908. One of his earliest memories was of his Jewish mother bouncing him on her knee and telling him, "Make me laugh." By the age of 5, young Berle — spurred by stage mother Sadie — had won a children’s Charlie Chaplin look-alike contest. By 13, he’d changed his Jewish last name and was performing vaudeville on Broadway.

After decades of working as a top theater and nightclub performer, Berle was hired to bring his irreverent brand of humor to NBC’s variety show, "Texaco Star Theater" in 1948. He promptly drew fans for gags such as prancing in drag, grinning to reveal blackened teeth and dubbing himself "The Thief of Bad Gags."

After his television reign ended in the 1960s, Berle went on to make movies such as 1963’s "It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World," play himself in Woody Allen’s 1984 comedy "Broadway Danny Rose" and make numerous guest appearances on TV shows like "The Love Boat" and "Beverly Hills, 90210."

In later years, he appeared as a master of ceremonies at celebrity roasts and was a fixture at the Friars Club, where he served as president and laid on the Jewish shtick. "You’re probably wondering why we’re roasting Mickey Rooney," he said during one affair. "It’s because we ran out of Jews!"

Berle was buried at Hillside Memorial Park and Mortuary in Los Angeles and is survived by his wife, the former Lorna Adams; son, William; daughter, Victoria (Mike) Walton; stepdaughters, Susan (Richard) Moll and Leslie (Ron) Sweet; eight grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

Naming ‘Names’


Two of the great names in the American theater — Strasberg and Davidson — are joining talents to present a play about artistic loyalty and betrayal during the McCarthy era of the 1950s.

The new partnership might be subtitled “The Sons Also Rise” (sorry about that).

Producer David Lee Strasberg is the son of the late, legendary Lee Strasberg, “acting guru of ‘The Method,’ which shaped a generation of American actors from Brando to De Niro.” Adam Davidson is the son of Gordon Davidson, artistic director of the Taper Forum and Ahmanson Theatre, who “defied the perception that there was no theater in Los Angeles.”

Both descriptive quotations are from Variety, which listed the two men among the 12 greatest producers and impresarios of the 20th century.

Both young men of the second generation — Strasberg is 30, Davidson is 37 — seemed aware but unawed by their paternal legacies during an interview, in which they discussed their upcoming play “Names,” previewed the centennial celebration of Lee Strasberg’s birth, and touched on their Jewish heritage.

The play by Mark Kemble, running Nov. 23 through Dec. 23, eavesdrops on a meeting of seven luminaries of the famed Group Theatre at New York’s Algonquin Hotel on April 9, 1952.

The meeting is fictional, but the appearance the following day of famed director Elia Kazan before the Communist-hunting House Un-American Activities Committee on Un-American Activities is factual.

Appearing as a “friendly” witness, Kazan identified eight theatrical colleagues of the 1930s as Communists, an action whose divisiveness split Hollywood again in 1999, when Kazan received an Oscar for lifetime achievement.

Participating in the meeting are Lee Strasberg and Harold Clurman, two of the three co-founders of the Group Theatre in 1931 (Strasberg later led the equally famous Actors Studio); actor John Garfield; playwright Clifford Odets; actor Luther Adler and his sister, acting teacher Stella Adler; and Kazan, who had already directed such films as “Gentleman’s Agreement” and “A Streetcar Named Desire.”

Except for Kazan, born in Istanbul to Greek parents, all the participants were Jewish.

“Names” is set during the McCarthy era, but the play primarily examines what the theater and acting are about and the search for truth — emotional, political and artistic truth, Davidson observes.

Strasberg says that after the Sept. 11 attacks, there was a real question whether it was appropriate to continue and stage “Names.” In the end, he and the company decided to go ahead, because they saw a real parallel between the early ’50s, with its deep fears of the Communist threat, and the fear of terrorism gripping much of the country now.

Although both young men grew up surrounded by passionate people of the theater, neither followed immediately in his respective father’s footsteps.

David Strasberg worked for eight years on economic issues for the government, serving first in the Clinton administration, then under Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan.

Two years ago, he re-entered the family business, carried on by his mother, Anna Strasberg, and is now executive director of the Lee Strasberg Theatre Institutes in Los Angeles and Manhattan.

Adam Davidson says the theater got “unconsciously into my system” through a father “whose work is his life” and a mother who heads her own theatrical publicity agency.

However, he was more excited by film than the stage, while also dabbling in painting and sculpture. His career was launched with an explosive bang when his graduate student project “The Lunch Date” won a 1991 Oscar for best short film and a slew of other honors.

He has since worked as director and actor in feature films and television episodes, and in off-off-Broadway plays.

Both men were raised as self-aware Jews, and both invest their theatrical fellowships with a semireligious aura.

“Our Jewishness was expressed through how we dealt with our companions in the theater,” Strasberg says. “They became our extended family, our congregation.”

Davidson enlarges on the metaphor. “I think the Group Theatre was like a synagogue, with Lee Strasberg and Harold Clurman as the rabbis.”

Nov. 17, 2001, marked the 100th birthday of Lee Strasberg and his son has organized a series of plays and movies to celebrate the centennial year.

These include “Names” and two additional plays, plus two workshop productions; and First Person Cinema Screenings, including Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski’s monumental Three Colors Trilogy, represented by “Red,” “White” and “Blue,” during January.

A tribute to Lee Strasberg will be held Dec. 5 at the Egyptian Theatre, including a screening of “The Godfather: Part II,” in which he played the Oscar-nominated part of mobster Hyman Roth.

All other events will be held at the Marilyn Monroe Theatre at the Lee Strasberg Creative Center, 7936 Santa Monica Blvd. in West Hollywood. For information on all events, call (323) 650-7777.

Jewish Drama Abounds


In the last weeks of spring, Jewish-themed theater is busting out all over Los Angeles:

In his one-man show, “…But First, Sammy Shore,” the eponymous Borscht Belt stand-up comic describes opening for Elvis; life with his son, Pauly; founding the Comedy Store with his ex-wife, Mitzi, and why being age 70 sucks. Through July 29, Santa Monica Playhouse, 1211 4th St., Santa Monica, (310) 394-9779, ext. 1. $17.50.

Richard Krevolin’s “The Lemony Fresh Scent of Diva Monsoon,” a one-woman show starring Ruth de Sosa, revolves around a designer who visits her late mother’s plastic-covered Miami Beach apartment and finds one last potato kugel in the freezer. Through July 1, the Rose Alley Theater, 318 Lincoln Blvd., Venice, (310) 535-7795. $12-$20.

Wendy Graf’s semiautobiographical comedy “The Book of Esther” follows a woman who reclaims her Judaism after growing up with parents who hate “real Jewy Jews.” P.S. The rabbi in the play is loosely based on the real-life Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben of Kehillat Israel in Pacific Palisades. Debuts with an opening gala June 16 (tickets for this performance only are $35-$500) at Theater East, 12655 Ventura Blvd., Studio City, (818) 788-4396. $18.

Jewish opera star Beverly Sills is the subject of Roberta Randall’s one-woman show “Beverly,” which includes details of the diva’s interfaith marriage and her work with conductor Zubin Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic. June 20, University of Judaism, 15600 Mulholland Drive, Bel Air, (310) 440-1246. $10.

Jon Robin Baitz’s acclaimed “The Substance of Fire” tells of a publisher who is driven by guilt for having survived the Nazis by hiding in an attic surrounded by books, while the rest of his family perished in the camps. Opens June 30, Theatre 40, at Beverly Hills High School, 241 Moreno Drive, (323) 936-5842. $15-$18.

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