Coming of age in midlife


The main character in the play “The Bells of West 87th” undergoes what could be considered a coming-of-age crisis, albeit much later in life than is usual. Mollie Fein (Cameron Meyer) is awkward, unmarried, unfashionable, approaching 40 and trapped in the midst of her hilariously dysfunctional Jewish family. She has taken over from her parents, who separated four-and-a-half years ago, as the manager of an apartment building on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Mollie’s father, Eli (Robert Towers), remained in Apt. 3E, while his wife, Ida (Carol Locatell), moved into Mollie’s apartment, 3D, right next door. Eli thinks Ida is living on Staten Island with their other daughter, the pretty, happily married Maxine (Dagney Kerr), Mollie’s sibling rival. To maintain this subterfuge and to keep track of her husband, Ida had Mollie install bells with different ring tones on every door and window of Eli’s apartment — hence the play’s title — so that she would always know what he was doing and could avoid running into him in the hallway.

“Believe it or not, a friend’s family sparked the story,” playwright Elin Hampton explained. “I have a friend in New York, and she had told me this story about her parents, and about the way her mother was keeping track of her father with bells, and I thought it was hilarious. And I said, ‘Can I use that?’ She said, ‘Yep, all yours. So, go for it.’ ”

The action gets into gear when Mollie reveals that she has been taking a poetry class, where she met Chris (James Marsters), a man with whom she plans a romantic future. She has invited him to dinner and is slowly letting her parents know that she doesn’t want to continue being an apartment manager, that she wants more out of life, that she’s fallen in love with someone who loves her, and that she might be moving in with him.

“So, when the play starts, and she lets all that be known,” Hampton said, “there’s a tug of war, and her passive-aggressive parents don’t want her to leave. They love her; they hate her; they don’t think much of her; but they’re dependent upon her.” 

She, in turn, needs their love and approval, Meyer observed, adding, “She’s a very morally upright person and wanted to help with the family business and take care of them as they were aging, and, eventually, she figures out that she has to take care of herself, too, like we all do.”

Meyer, who stepped into the role at virtually the last minute when Juliet Landau had to leave the production, is not Jewish, but said she’s had a lot of exposure to Jewish life.

“My parents and I had a lot of close Jewish friends, and in college and since then I’ve had close Jewish friends. My husband’s family is Jewish. 

“I’m just doing the best I can to understand where this character’s coming from and relate to her on a universal level,” she said.

Meyer also said that the role of Mollie, besides being a very funny part, has great rhythms and timing. She views the character as a strong person, even though other characters think she’s a loser.

“I don’t think she is,” Meyer said. “She spent a lot of years taking care of everyone else and never had that chance to take care of her own needs and her own desires, and everyone has to have that chance. Most people do that when they’re in their teens or 20s, and she has to finally do that.”

But she doesn’t do it with Chris, the man she envisioned as her knight in shining armor who would take her away from her crazy family. Chris actually fits in with her parents and is perfectly happy to encourage Ida’s burgeoning brooch-making business and Eli’s ambitions as a magician.

Marsters described Chris as a loving, pure, happy soul who turns out to be of very little use to Mollie. “Chris lost his parents when he was young. They were religious fundamentalists who got drowned while being baptized. 

“To him, anyone with parents is lucky. It doesn’t matter how healthy or unhealthy they could be. Anyone with parents that are breathing is lucky.”

The actor said that, conversely, Mollie’s parents, especially her mother, need acute attention. “I think, for Chris, to be needed by a mother figure is filling a hole, and so he’s quite happy to step into the role that Mollie, ultimately, happily, escapes from.”

Marsters and playwright Hampton are both alumni of the TV series “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” Marsters said that he was drawn to Hampton’s current project largely because of his admiration for her, citing what he called her ability to combine humor with pathos.

Hampton, who was raised in Conservative Judaism and continues to be somewhat observant, thought her play would appeal primarily to Jewish audiences, until she held readings prior to this world premiere production.

“I had people in the audience who were African-American and Italian and Asian saying, ‘This is my family,’ which really surprised me. So I think there are other ethnic groups that have close-knit families, and I think it is relevant to all these families. 

“I grew up with Neil Simon and Wendy Wasserstein, and they were my idols. They were the people that I think inspired me as a playwright, so, in my head, it was very much a Jewish-themed play, but, like I say, surprisingly, everybody seemed to find it relevant to their lives, no matter who they are.”

As Ida says in the play, “Normal is what people call families that aren’t theirs.”

“The Bells of West 87th” Greenway Court Theatre, 544 N. Fairfax Ave., L.A. 90036. Sat., Sept. 7 – Sun., Oct. 13. Fridays and Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 6 p.m.

Tickets: (323) 655-7679, ext. 100 or boxoffice@greenwayarts.org

Calendar: Itzhak Perlman, Honey Bee Day, Avi Buffalo, ‘The Diary’ and more


SAT | AUG 17

NATIONAL HONEY BEE DAY

With Rosh Hashanah just around the corner, let us pay tribute to the busy bees that have long contributed to our delicious New Year’s tradition. HoneyLove, an urban beekeeper group, celebrates honeybees with the 2013 theme “Beekeeping — Ask Me How to Get Started.” Who knows, maybe you’ll be making your own honey in 5774. Waggle Dance flash mob at 2 p.m. (practice video online). Sat. 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Free. LUSH, 1404 Third Street Promenade, Santa Monica. (424) 625-8233. ” target=”_blank”>coeurage.org.  


MON | AUG 19

“DREAD IN THE LITERATURE OF THE ANONYMOUS”

Josh Shachar discusses and signs his new book. A resident of Los Angeles and Caesarea, Israel, Shachar makes sure his characters are never all in one place, either. Following three separate journeys — an Algerian immigrant, a woman of broken faith and a watchmaker imprisoned in a labor camp — Shachar reveals that however different our journeys are, we do all journey. Mon. 7 p.m. Free. Book Soup, 8818 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood. (310) 659-3110. TUE | AUG 20

ITZHAK PERLMAN

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“DON’T LET DESTINY CONTROL YOUR FUTURE”

In case you were planning to, don’t! Rabbi Lawrence Keleman offers an inspiring lecture on taking the reins and showing destiny the door. A Harvard-educated professor of modern and medieval philosophy at Neve Yerushalayim, the Jerusalem College for Jewish Women’s Studies, Keleman is just the man to introduce you to your future. Tue. 7:30 p.m. (reception and hors d’oeuvres), 8:15 p.m. (lecture). $7 (advance), $10 (door).Nessah Synagogue, 142 S. Rexford Drive, Beverly Hills. (310) 273-2400. THU | AUG 22

COMMUNITY CELEBRATION CONCERT

Perhaps the only thing just as timeless as family is music. Join the Schoenberg family as they celebrate the bar mitzvah of one of their younger members by honoring two of their oldest. Both hailing from Austria, Arnold Schoenberg and Eric Zeisl spent their lives composing music and contributing to a deserved Jewish place in its history. Conductor Nick Strimple and the Los Angeles Zimriyah Chorale, along with organist Iain Farrington, will bring some of those important liturgical works to life. Reception follows. Thu. 7 p.m. Free. RSVP required. Sinai Temple, 10400 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 409-2033. ” target=”_blank”>thesmell.org.

MARIA MULDAUR AND THE CAMPBELL BROTHERS

It’s a bluesy, funky, gospel kind of night. With vocals from Grammy-winning Muldaur (best known for “Midnight at the Oasis”) and the impressive all-around musicianship from a family of Campbells, the Skirball offers up a world-premiere collaboration. If your foot isn’t tapping, we don’t want to hear about it. Thu. 8 p.m. Free. Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 440-4500. ” target=”_blank”>toaks.org/cap

Lovitz, lies and Torah


“I hate lying,” Jon Lovitz, the comedian, actor and comedy club owner, said without a touch of humor in his voice. “I just can’t stand it. I don’t see the advantage of it. It makes me physically ill.”

It’s the reason, he said, that he has become something of a specialist in portraying characters who are truth-challenged, or, in his words, “sleazy.” He was Tommy Flanagan, president of Pathological Liars Anonymous, on “Saturday Night Live”; the guy on “Seinfeld” who fibs about having cancer, then dies in a car crash; a loudmouth baseball scout who steals scenes from Tom Hanks in “A League of Their Own”; the voice of an obnoxious movie reviewer in the animated series “The Critic”; and the father, in the film “Rat Race,” who tells his family they are on a minivan “vacation” when he is actually trying to win $2 million in a cross-country dash.

In the recently released “Casino Jack,” which tells the story of the disgraced former superlobbyist and Orthodox Jew Jack Abramoff (Kevin Spacey), Lovitz plays Adam Kidan, a shady business associate whose bumbling deals help bring the lobbyist down.

Sitting in his publicist’s office in Larchmont Village, Lovitz, 53, is occasionally funny — such as when he calls his “Casino Jack” co-star Barry Pepper “Dr. Pepper” or laments that people don’t know Jesus was Jewish, because “can you think of a less Jewish name than Jesus Christ?” But, in person, Lovitz most often exudes vulnerability, a kind of naiveté and a quiet anger about the state of ethics in show business.

“When I was on ‘Saturday Night Live,’ a lawyer friend told me my liar character was really popular in Hollywood,” he said. “I soon found out that’s because everyone in Hollywood lies, constantly. And everyone knows everyone else is lying. I’ve seen best friends screw each other over. And [agents] tell you that you have to lie to get what you want. I literally lost track of what’s right and wrong, it was so bad. So I got a book about Jewish morals and laws written by a rabbi.”

The book was Joseph Telushkin’s “The Book of Jewish Values: A Day-by-Day Guide to Ethical Living,” which provided practical advice. Hiding Jews from the Nazis? Trying not to unnecessarily hurting someone’s feelings? Two examples of when lying can be OK, Lovitz said.

“It’s ironic,” he admitted of portraying so many liars, “but as a comic actor, I’m good at making fun of them.”

So good, in fact, that he makes an impression even when his character has only one or two scenes in a production. “Jon Lovitz steals practically every scene that he’s in in the movie,” Spacey said of “Casino Jack.”

“He is a genius at those moments in between, the looks and the sighs and the body language,” Pepper said. “That’s where his classical training [at University of California, Irvine] comes in, and I think that’s what few people appreciate about him.”

Lovitz’s characters also blend a desperate quality with a bombastic flamboyance — a quality he said he inherited from his Jewish grandfather (actually his stepmother’s father), Lou Melman, who grew up on a farm in Nebraska and made loans to Al Capone’s gang in the 1930s. Melman would take the young Lovitz to Canter’s and to the Santa Anita race track.

“My grandfather was larger than life,” Lovitz said. “And he was incredibly accepting of me — he was just crazy about me, and I was crazy about him. I based my character in ‘A League of Their Own’ on him.  He wasn’t mean, but he was funny. In the first scene in the movie, I’m attending a baseball game, someone stands up in front of me and I say, ‘What — are you crazy?” 

The young Lovitz attended Valley Beth Shalom when his family lived in Encino and Temple Judea after they moved to Tarzana; his best friend was David Kudrow, Lisa Kudrow’s older brother, whom he met in fifth grade. When the boys were at Portola Junior High, they saw Woody Allen’s “Take the Money and Run,” which solidified Lovitz’s ambition to become a comedian. They especially liked the scene in which Allen’s character, paranoid about anti-Semitism, assumes someone has said “Jew” instead of the words “did you.”

“We were just dying,” Lovitz said. “We thought, ‘This is like our own humor. … It was very Jewish, especially the sarcasm. It was like this friend of my father’s who would always look at me and go, ‘Oh, the actor.”

When Lovitz attended the Harvard School (now Harvard-Westlake) in Studio City, starting in ninth grade, he was teased for being Jewish at a time when, he said, the school had few Jewish students. “One guy would say, ‘Look at your nose,’ ” Lovitz recalled. “The abuse was verbal and physical. The school in those days was all boys, and they were just merciless. It got so bad the headmaster called our class together, and he was just livid. He said, ‘I won’t stand for this bullying.’ ”

Like his school years, Lovitz’s career has also had an up-and-down trajectory. He studied drama at UC Irvine and then worked odd jobs, including a stint as a hospital orderly, for years until his work with the improvisational comedy group The Groundlings led to his casting on “Saturday Night Live” in 1985. His response to that job offer — which brought almost overnight success — was, “Are you kidding? They might have equally said I was going to live on Pluto.”

Subsequently, Lovitz starred in Woody Allen’s “Small Time Crooks,” as Billy Crystal’s younger brother in “City Slickers II” and in a number of recognizably Jewish roles — including Randy Pear of “Rat Race,” who, in one hilarious scene, thinks he is taking his daughter to a Barbie doll museum — and ends up in the middle of a neo-Nazi rally at the Klaus Barbie Museum.  His response is to steal Hitler’s car, one of the museum’s displays.

Several years ago, Lovitz said, he began doing stand-up comedy again because his film roles were becoming scarcer; he opened his Jon Lovitz Comedy Club on Universal CityWalk last year, where he often performs, riffing on subjects such as racism, religion and sex. Single and never married, he said his dream role would be to play the title character in a remake of the 1955 Ernest Borgnine film “Marty,” about two lonely-hearts who have resigned themselves to never finding love until they meet each other.

Lovitz relished playing Adam Kidan in “Casino Jack,” a kind of lapsed, depraved Jew who, between outrageously underhanded business deals, becomes almost a truth-sayer in the film. In several scenes, Kidan points out how hypocritical the fictional Abramoff is for claiming piety while engaging in unethical deals.

For the scene in which the two men have an enormous argument as the FBI closes in, Lovitz said, “I improvised the line where I call [Abramoff] a ‘fake Jew.’ ”

“Abramoff in the movie is hiding behind his religion and saying that he was trying to be such a good Jew, but he wasn’t. That’s not what the religion is.” l

Theater: ‘Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson’ — populism through a post-punk prism


“Populism, yea, yea!
Populism, yea, yea!”

Sung to an urgent pop beat, this rousing refrain from “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” is bound to stick in your head. Not just because it’s so catchy, but because the show gets you thinking about populism — what it meant to early 19th century America, and what it means to us today. Written and directed by Alex Timbers, with music and lyrics by Michael Friedman, “Bloody Bloody” is a rollicking, irreverent new bio-musical about Andrew Jackson’s life and leadership — viewed through the lens of “emo” music and 20th century pop culture.

The first American president from humble origins, Jackson pitted himself against authority and privilege. Scarred by early violent encounters, one of which left a bullet in his chest for life, Jackson bled himself in vain attempts to ease his pain. And long before Bill Clinton “felt our pain,” Jackson fashioned his wounds, youthful disappointments and family tragedy into an empathetic persona that appealed to those who felt powerless.

Although this is their first collaboration, Friedman and Timbers each bring impressive credentials to the production. Timbers, 29, is artistic director of the New York-based, Obie Award-winning avant-garde company Les ” target=”_blank”>The Civilians, a New York-based off-Broadway company that conducts extensive interviews to create theater that raises questions about contemporary cultural phenomena. Friedman, composer and lyricist for numerous Civilians productions, most recently penned pop music for the upcoming “This Beautiful City,” an inside look at evangelical Christian churches that probes the intersection of religion and civic life in America, premiering this March at Louisville’s Humana Festival of New American Plays.

Perhaps, then, it’s no surprise that Friedman and Timbers share the conviction that emo — which they describe as hyper-emotional, post-punk rock that’s “so sincere it’s ridiculous, and so ridiculous, it’s heartbreaking” — is an ideal aesthetic to apply to Jackson and his era.

“There’s an entire language of the American presidency that’s invented during Jackson’s presidency,” Friedman said. And the invention of populism, he added, can be seen as “disenfranchised boys who didn’t think they were popular in high school getting their revenge.”

By using contemporary teenage idioms and post-punk music alongside 19th century speech and period details, Friedman believes “Bloody Bloody” highlights qualities of each period that might not otherwise be apparent.

“Often, the most simplistic things we come up with — like introducing Monroe’s cabinet to the strains of a Spice Girls song — are really helpful at focusing in on what the thing itself is,” Friedman said.

These pop culture motifs also add lightness and humor to what is — beneath a gloss of irony and absurdity — a serious subject.

A classically trained pianist who didn’t write his first song until he was 24, Friedman thrives on intensive research — whether it’s the hundreds of interviews that form the basis of The Civilians’ plays, or historical research for “Bloody Bloody” — and draws musical inspiration from a seemingly limitless range of styles.

“I approach my work anthropologically,” Friedman said.

For one project, he immersed himself in Senegalese rap — not expecting to actually write a Senegalese rap song, but instead to absorb the sounds in order to pick up a new trick or two.

“It might be about structure, or rhythm, or the way a melody works,” Friedman said.

Listening to other music also helps him concentrate while composing, and anything he hears might suggest an idea for works in progress: “I’ll be listening to my iPod and finally figure out what I want to do on a song … often it’s not even a direct correlation — I’ll hear a Mahler symphony and I’ll think, ‘Oh, “Trail of Tears” [from “Bloody Bloody”] should have a key change right here.'”

With his wide-ranging forays into musical style and his flair for eclecticism, Friedman has created a style that’s not easy to categorize.

“I’m kind of chameleon-like,” he said. For The Civilians’ “Gone Missing,” which recently completed a six-month run at New York’s Barrow Street Theater, Friedman called his score a “pastiche … there’s a Noel-Coward-esque song, a Mariachi number in Spanish, a big rock ballad….”

Friedman’s upbringing may have planted the seeds for his interest in, and facile navigation of, disparate cultural sources.

Raised in Philadelphia by a Jewish father of German descent and a non-Jewish, “Yankee, New England” mother, Friedman attended a Quaker school until college at Harvard. His father is from a family of “fiercely proud” German Jews who identified culturally, but not religiously, with Judaism.

“I was half-Jewish, half-Christian in a confusing way, both sides a little bit nonobservant, went to a Quaker school in the ’70s, when everything like that was very much up in the air,” Friedman said. This gave him a “sense of religious — and nonreligious — possibility” for his own identity.

Although he doesn’t believe that any particular “faith background” influences his work, Friedman believes he’s got his father’s German Jewish sense of “intellectual questioning, of learning for learning’s sake.”

That said, no one in his father’s family has any connection with their European roots, so they are, more than anything else, “Americans first,” he added.

“At this point — after so many generations — what else are you?” Friedman asked.

A very contemporary question, but one that also harkens back to the Jacksonian era, when the presence of Native Americans, Spaniards and African slaves within our borders challenged our ideals of democracy and raised issues of race and ethnicity in America.

What did we then, and what do we now, make of these “foreigners” on our soil?

7 Days in the Arts


Saturday, July 1
In time for summertime, the Skirball has rekindled its weekly Café Z live music series. Take advantage today, and head down to groove to Elliott Caine Quintet’s Afro-Cuban jazz beats. According to Caine’s Web site, KCRW’s Bo Leibowitz described him as a “terrific trumpet player, bandleader and composer … deserving of wider recognition.”

Noon-2 p.m. Free. Zeidler’s Café, Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 440-4500.

 

Sunday, July 2
Miami City Ballet whoops it up for its 20th anniversary, with its tour of performances of signature pieces by Jerome Robbins, George Balanchine and Twyla Tharp. Included are Robbins’ classic “Fancy Free,” which was the inspiration for the musical, “On the Town,” and Tharp’s “Nine Sinatra Songs,” accompanied, as you might’ve guessed, by songs by the blue-eyed crooner.

June 30-July 2. $25-$95. Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. (213) 365-3500

Monday, July 3
Shaken or stirred, the martini is more than a drink today. It is a symbol. Sculptor Thomas Mann asked artists to riff on it, reinterpreting the conical glass’ shape and context. “The Martini Show” premiered in New Orleans as a benefit for Craft Emergency Relief Fund. It runs here at Altered Space Gallery, through July 24.

Contemporary art+craft+design, 1221 Abbot Kinney Blvd., Venice. (310) 452-8121

Tuesday, July 4
What goes great with burgers and dogs? Your radio dial tuned to 89.9 KCRW-FM. Its special Independence Day programming features “a day of music by American artists who embrace the spirit of independence.” The lineup of musical patriots includes Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Roy Orbison, Patti Smith and the Dixie Chicks. The presentations feature music as well as interview clips and other materials.

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Wednesday, July 5
Collapsing just moments after a performance of his stirring trio, “In memoriam Dmitri Shostakovich,” at the Jewish Music Commission concert last month, professor Joseph Dorfman was unable to be revived. He died at age 65. In his memory, a concert will be held this evening at Valley Beth Shalom, to benefit the newly founded fund in his name.

7:30 p.m. Free (general), $15 (reserved seats). 15739 Ventura Blvd., Encino. R.S.V.P., (818) 788-6000.

Thursday, July 6
Gay lovers struggle to deal with their oppressive societies against the backdrop of World War II France in the case of “A Love to Hide (Un Amour à Taire),” and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in the case of “Zero Degrees of Separation.” The two films are part of this year’s Outfest 24th Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, which begins today.

Times, prices and screening venues vary by film. Abovementioned films screen at Directors Guild Theatre, 7920 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles.

Friday, July 7
More lovers caught on opposite sides of the political fence emerge in the film, “Only Human.” Opening today, the Spanish production tells the farcical tale of Jewish Leni, who brings home her boyfriend, Rafi, to meet the folks. But madness ensues when they find out Rafi is Palestinian.

Laemmle Town Center 5, Encino. (818) 981-9811. Laemmle One Colorado, Pasadena. (626) 744-1244. www.laemmle.com” width=”15″ height=”1″ alt=””>

The Circuit


Hoop Dreams
For 16-year-old former Encino resident Marisa Gobuty it’s all about basketball.

Throughout the summer, Gobuty, a 5-foot-7 high school junior point guard, who now lives in Israel and plays for Israel’s National Basketball Team, will be playing for the Southern California-based Finest Basketball Club (FBC), and compete in tournaments across the United States.

Six years ago, she and her family moved to Israel for a short two-year stint. They have lived there ever since. But like in Encino, Gobuty’s love and passion for basketball led her back on to the courts around Tel Aviv, eventually landing a spot on the Israel National team at age 15. She is now one of only 12 team members on Israel’s Segel Zahav, which means Gold Team. It is comprised of the top players in the 16-24 age bracket.

“Living in Israel has been a great learning experience culturally and emotionally,” Gobuty said. “By playing basketball there I’ve also gotten to compete against some of the best in the world playing in European FIBA Championships, as well as having the opportunity to learn about different cultures. But some of my most rewarding moments have been talking to other high school-age teenagers about what it’s like to grow up in a country that is constantly on alert in a war time like state and being able to share my experiences.”

Support Your Students
The West Coast Supporters of Yeshiva University (YU) recently held a dinner at the L.A. home of Esthi and Walter Feinblum. Forty YU supporters attended the event and raised $100,000 for the West Coast Scholarship Drive to ensure that all qualified undergraduate students who wish to attend YU can do so regardless of their financial circumstances.

Love ‘Triangle’
Take one part Jewish mother, one part Italian mama, add a dash of hot-blooded lethario and you have an evening of laughs with Renee Taylor, Lainie Kazan and Joe Bologna at the Brentwood Theatre production of “The Bermuda Avenue Triangle.”

The star-studded opening night featured such icons as Carl Reiner and wife Estelle, Larry Gelbart, Dom DeLuise and Norm Crosby who showed up to support the cast. The farce, written by Taylor and Bologna, addresses the plight of two mothers in their golden years and the daughters who love and endure them.

Lucky Night for JFS
The Regent Beverly Wilshire was filled May 23 as guests mingled and munched on healthy appetizers. The occasion was the Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles (JFS) 13th annual gala fundraising dinner. Husband and wife Deborah Barak and her Dr. Etan Milgrom received the Spirit of Humanity Award, and Connie Mandles was honored with the Anita and Stanley Hirsh Award.

The annual gala brought in $700,000 to help JFS provide vital services to people of all ages, ethnicities and religions. JFS’ nationally recognized programs counsel troubled families and individuals, support the elderly, house the homeless and abused and feed the hungry.

Rob Morrow and David Krumholtz, the stars of the hit CBS series “Numb3rs” were a standout as masters of ceremonies, bringing to the job the sharp and funny relationship they share as the Eppes brothers in their show.

Renee Olstead, 16, a star of the CBS sitcom “Still Standing,” wowed the crowd with sultry jazz standards and an original tune from her upcoming second CD, accompanied by Grammy Award-winning producer David Foster. Foster also coaxed Krumholtz into crooning a respectable version of the Frank Sinatra hit “That’s Life,” to the delight of the crowd.

Founded in 1854, JFS is the oldest and largest social service agency in Los Angeles. JFS is a beneficiary agency of The Jewish Federation and United Way.

A Call to Action
Noted author and journalist Frank Gaffney Jr. spoke to an overflowing crowd May 30 at Valley Beth Shalom when more than 500 people attended the Republican Jewish Coalition Los Angeles chapter event.

His new book “War Footing and President of the Center for Security Policy America & Israel: How We Can Prevail In The War On Terror” speaks to America’s role in supporting the war on terror. The crowd listened — and noshed — as Gaffney addressed the issue of Iran and its potential threat to Israel and the United States, urging Americans to play a more aggressive role in stopping terror.

Gaffney said threats to Israel are designed to demean the American spirit.

“We need to support our troops by doing more than putting a bumper sticker on our cars,” he said. “We need to ensure they have the resources they need to fight the war. To mobilize the resources of this country’s resources, energies and talents to prevail.”

 

The Circuit


Clothes That Care

The Family Violence Project of Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles (JFS) launched its first Clothesline Project exhibit in recognition of National Domestic Violence Awareness Month. The exhibit, on view at the Bell Family Gallery of The Jewish Federation at 6505 Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles, is co-sponsored by JFS, The Jewish Federation and the Gabe Kapler Foundation.

Colorful T-shirts hanging on a clothesline, once a symbol of domesticity, have become an unusual but powerful call to join the fight to end domestic violence. This exhibit is a collection of T-shirts, each designed by a survivor or child-witness of domestic violence, that tell the artists’ stories through pictures and words.

The opening reception on Oct. 10, attended by more than 100 people, featured Lisa Kapler, wife of Boston Red Sox player and Los Angeles native Gabe Kapler, who was also in attendance. Lisa Kapler grew up in Southern California and was abused by a violent boyfriend when she was a teenager.

“One of the strongest messages of the Clothesline Project is that this kind of brutality can happen to anyone, anywhere,” she said.

The Clothesline Project originated when 31 shirts were displayed on a village green in Hyannis, Mass., in October 1990. Since then, more than 7,000 women and children have created artwork exhibitions worldwide, with exhibits in 41 states and five countries.

The Clothesline Project exhibit will be open to the public until Dec. 31. Admission is free. For more information, contact Sherri Kadovitz at (323) 761-8800, ext. 1250 or visit

Cooking Up a Meaningful Plot


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Write of Passage


My first crush was the Pikesville library in Baltimore, Md. Every Saturday after synagogue, my parents would usher me into the small, ancient red brick building quietly ensconced along one of the less-developed business roads in Pikesville. I would spend what seemed like hours quietly roaming the young-adult stacks and painstakingly choosing the “friends” I would bring home with me for the week.

One week, I would ambitiously attempt to devour the entire “Box Car Children” series; another I would host a Judy Blume marathon and vigilantly try to sneak the purportedly trashy “Deenie” home in between my “Sheila the Great” and “Blubber.”

After racing through all of the books with still a few days lingering between my weekly trysts, I would start reciting the books aloud, memorizing passages and acting out the various characters. Sometimes, I gawkily went so far as to continue the books in my innumerable journals. I’d imagine my own ending to the “Narnia” books and give the “Bobbsey Twins” new mysteries to solve.

My first audience was my far-too-willing parents and my far-too-unwilling younger brother. At dinner, after my parents asked us how school was and my brother, David, retorted with the perfunctorily pithy “fine,” I immediately glimpsed my window of opportunity and launched into a new playlet. Everyone assumed I would outgrow this “little phase” of needing attention.

The day of my bat mitzvah proved otherwise.

November 1986. It was raining outside Beth Am, one of the only pre-century temples that stood proudly in a yet-to-be-gentrified, fairly unsafe neighborhood. My hair was curled like Farrah Fawcett’s and my bat mitzvah book — yes, book — whose cover I had designed and whose 11 pages I had meticulously written, was ready.

A burnt orange cover, my thematic Thanksgiving color of choice, enveloped the little novella, which proudly stood in nine piles of 11, waiting for people — my people, my audience — to read during the ceremony. As I stood up on the bimah, I took people through my book of poems, stories and Jewish anecdotes.

It was then that I realized an audience of 99 sure beats an audience of three. My dream was to both act and write.

For a while, I put writing on hold, because acting was a lot more glamorous. Yet glamour easily tarnishes and after coming out to Hollywood, the Mecca of the film industry, I acted in a lot of plays, yet somehow felt unsatisfied.

I felt limited by the words the dead male playwrights were giving me. I was Jewish — where was my voice?

It wasn’t until I met Mark Troy, a Jewish playwright who later became my fiancé, that I realized the power of the voice within me. He inspired me to write my first play. He simply put the mirror in front of me and echoed the timeless adage: Write about what you know.

Admittedly, I knew my women inside and out. They were fiercely impassioned, obnoxiously intelligent, a little zaftig and a lot Jewish.

They were me.

My plays are a reflection of my life. My first play, “First to the Egg,” was the classic boy-meets-girl; however, the boy was a nerdy schlemiel sperm and the girl was the self-important conservative egg, whom he was trying to woo. Life reflected art and art reflected life. My genesis as a playwright had fertilized and conceived.

Growing up in a middle-class Jewish neighborhood in Baltimore has given me lots of fodder for my work. Dad’s a specialist on Middle East policy and Mom’s a teacher, so our dinner-table conversations were fraught with arguments, lessons and thought-provoking anecdotes. Of the five plays I have running around the country, all of them employ pseudo-intellectual/quasi-political and far-too-educated characters based on my own Jewish upbringing.

Currently, at the Elephant Theatre, my play, “Ellipses…,” is about two people who can’t finish their sentences; yet they manage to communicate better than most people.

My family rarely finished their sentences because everyone had so much to say, articulate, declare, pronounce, state, verbalize. Dad was always spewing on and on about Arab-Israeli politics, Mom would argue the benefits of communal dressing rooms at Loehmann’s, and I would champion my vegetarian ideals by disputing whether or not an egg should replace the shank bone on the seder plate.

Like the Freedman’s, the couple in “Ellipses…,” including the Jewish saleswoman who tries to help them pick out a wedding dress, are plagued with ellipses. These characters have so much to say, that they can’t finish their sentences because their minds are working too quickly.

I attempt to explore, investigate and play with my voice in various plays. Currently playing in Northern California is “Looking for Atticus Finch,” a play I wrote with Mark Troy, investigates a Jewish girl’s coming of age at Haverford College (my alma mater) and her ultimate search for a real hero. In Pennsylvania, one of my favorite plays is running: “Serial Killer Barbie,” which explores a young Jewish girl’s evolution from kindergarten to high school as she confronts anti-Semitism head on with her wit, anger and strychnine.

Who knew once upon a bimah that my coming of age was truly reflective of my adult coming of age as a writer?

Being a writer is a process. Being a Jewish writer simply furnishes a lot more schtick with which to bless my characters.

Colette Freedman’s “Ellipses…” runs through June 15 in Circus Theatricals One Act festival at the Elephant Theatre, 6322 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood. For tickets, call (866) 811-4111 or visit

Spectator – The Geffen’s Great Escape


In the 1930s, with the Great Depression at home and Hitler saber-rattling overseas, George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, two sharp-witted Jewish lads, kept Broadway and the nation laughing.

Together, they wrote such comedic classics as “Once in a Lifetime,” “The Man Who Came to Dinner,” “I’d Rather Be Right” and “You Can’t Take It With You.”

The latter play, which debuted on Broadway in 1936 and won a Pulitzer Prize and as an Oscar-winning movie two years later, has now been revived by the Geffen Playhouse.

The revival marks the 100th anniversary of Hart’s birth and, to keep the familial connection, is directed by his son, Christopher.

Cunningly constructed, the play relates the adventures and misadventures of the Sycamore Family of New York, whose guiding motto is, do whatever turns you on, however eccentric, and you’ll have lots of fun, avoid ulcers and enjoy a happy ending.

This philosophy may not always work in this harsh world but it surely does on the stage.

The pace of this production is not quite as antic and frantic as we recall from the olden days, but there are enough laughs to get your money’s worth.

Excelling in a somewhat uneven cast is veteran British actor Roy Dotrice as the family patriarch, who quit the rat race 35 years ago and has never looked back.

Also amusing are Conrad John Schuck as an irascible Wall Street tycoon, and Magda Harout, who doubles as an inebriated actress and an aristocratic Russian refugee who has fallen on hard times.

The Geffen’s performances have been in exile on the Veterans Administration grounds while its Westwood playhouse has been undergoing a $17 million facelift.

Included in the renovations are a plusher main stage and audience seats and construction of the smaller Audrey Skirball-Kenis Theatre.

A grand reopening of the Westwood facility is set for Oct. 17. The inaugural drama on Nov. 4 will be Tennessee Williams’ “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” directed by Gilbert Cates and starring John Goodman as Big Daddy.

“You Can’t Take It With You” concludes its run on May 22 at the VA’s Brentwood Theatre. For information, call (310) 208-5454 or visit www.geffenplayhouse.com

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Catskills Memories


 

For Rita Lakin, memories of the 1950s at Grossinger’s, the famed Catskills resort, bring up thoughts of three five-course kosher meals per day, plus a runway-length buffet for guests who missed breakfast — served one hour before lunch. Then there were the Saturday night shows that featured a Hollywood headliner, a dance team and a comic.

Her new musical, “Saturday Night at Grossinger’s,” fetes the businesswoman behind the food and the entertainment, Jennie Grossinger (1882-1972). As the show opens, it’s a Saturday night in the 1960s, and Grossinger (Barbara Minkus) must entertain her own guests when headliners Judy Garland, Alan King and Red Buttons are detained by a blizzard. She and her family spontaneously decide to put on their own play, outlining the history of the hotel, which was “Las Vegas before there was Vegas,” Lakin said.

We learn how Grossinger and her parents turned their failing Catskills farm into a summer boarding house, circa 1920, for Jews seeking refuge from sweltering New York City; how the hotel blossomed into an American institution, largely because of Jennie Grossinger’s talent for booking top entertainers; and how stars such as Garland played the hotel, as did numerous comics who got their big break there.

The character of Sheldon, an amalgam of these comics, spouts shtick as thick as a deli sandwich.

“A woman came up to me today and said, ‘How do I lose weight at Grossinger’s,'” he says. “I said, ‘Go home!'”

“Saturday Night” was conceived in the 1980s when television writer-producer Lakin (“Dynasty”) and the late Doris Silverton unsuccessfully pitched a TV series set in the Catskills.

“We felt that onstage we’d have a much better chance of doing something so Jewish,” Lakin said. So they visited the by-then-closed resort, interviewed Grossinger’s children and signed on composer Claibe Richardson and lyricists Ronny Graham and Stephen Cole.

Cole, who also wrote the book, incorporated Grossinger’s lore: how waiters danced with the single women; how the owners once smuggled a dead patron out of the resort (in the musical she’s danced out in a conga line); and how the workaholic Grossinger was “married to the store.”

The character is loosely based on the real businesswoman, and her daughter, Elaine Grossinger Etess, said she recognizes the “spirit” of her mother in the play.

$15-$30. Opens March 26 at Theatre West, 3333 Cahuenga Blvd. West, Hollywood. For tickets, call (323) 851-7977.

 

Roasting Woody Allen — Gently


One could call “Who Killed Woody Allen?” a “benign revenge comedy.” Co-authors Tom Dunn, Dan Callahan and Brendan Connor wrote the whodunit after Allen allegedly withdrew the rights to his play, “Death,” from their theater company in 2001. The playwrights say they had already rented a theater, hired 15 actors and were a week into rehearsal when they received the news. “So we decided to move from Woody Allen’s ‘Death’ to Woody Allen’s death,” Dunn said.

The black comedy is set at Allen’s funeral, with his celebrity friends as suspects. But it’s more of an homage than a roast. (Number of Soon-Yi gags: one.)

“We’re huge Woody fans, and we respect him too much to take potshots,” Connor said.

“We’re comedy writers in large part because of his influence,” Dunn said.

In fact, the 32-year-old authors have been in love with Allen’s films since they attended Holy Trinity High while growing up in Levittown, N.Y. The childhood friends viewed Allen movies together such as “Mighty Aphrodite” and “Manhattan Murder Mystery.”

Of why these Irish Catholics admire the Jewish auteur, Connor said, “It’s hysterical the way he captures uniquely New York neuroses.”

Dunn, for his part, said, “We really connected to Woody’s thoughtful absurdist humor. We drew on that when we started doing improvisational comedy together in high school.”

The friends moved from improv to sketch comedy to founding their Empty Stage Theatre Company around 2000. The goal was to produce lesser-known works by well-known authors; after staging an obscure David Mamet piece, the Allen fans set their sights on “Death.” According to Dunn, Allen granted the rights to one production but declined when the opening dates changed. “We were totally shocked,” Dunn said.

Eventually the “Death” rights issue inspired a play about Allen’s last rites; but the piece doesn’t dis Allen. In fact, the authors invited the filmmaker to opening night, assuming he’d get a kick out of the tribute. Instead, they received a letter from Allen’s attorney, Irwin Tenenbaum: “Mr. Allen appreciates your invitation but is unable to attend,” states the letter, which The Journal viewed on a Web site. “Since I have not read the play and am unfamiliar with its contents, I trust that you have adhered to and stayed within the parameters of applicable law with regard to the use of my client’s name and character. I reserve all of my client’s rights with regard to this project, should events prove otherwise.”

Actually, the play makes relatively few references to Allen. Rather, it focuses on the shenanigans of the funeral’s self-absorbed celebrity guests, who include a stammering Diane Keaton (Jillann Dugan), a kvetchy Alan Alda (Ed Moran) and a creepy Christopher Walken (Peter Loureiro). The stars pay their last respects rather disrespectfully, treating the service like a photo-op, a chance to glean publicity and promote their films.

The funeral itself is structured like an awards ceremony, with Oscar host Billy Crystal (Christopher Wisner) as emcee. “Sitting shiva, cover the ‘mirra,’ it’s going to be a Jewish funeral tonight,” Crystal sings in an Oscar-style medley. The stars continue their shameless mugging even as a detective arrives to interrogate them (we’re told Allen’s ex, Mia Farrow, has been cleared because she was in Angola at the time of the murder, “auditioning children to adopt.”)

“The play is a satirical take on celebrity culture,” Dunn said. “Of course, we’re spoofing what we want the most — celebrity — and the irony isn’t lost on us.”

“Who Killed Woody Allen?” is apparently moving the authors closer to that goal. The play ran for eight months off-Broadway, earned rave reviews and will have its Los Angeles debut Sept. 22, directed by Dunn, with most of the original cast in tow.

The co-authors, meanwhile, are pitching TV and film projects, including the movie rights to “Who Killed Woody Allen?” “We even asked Woody if he was interested in directing,” Dunn said. “But we haven’t received a response.”

“Who Killed Woody Allen?” runs Sept. 22-Oct. 3 at the Improv Olympic West Theater, 6636 Hollywood Blvd., in Hollywood. For tickets, $18, and information, call (323) 960-4412 or visit www.plays411.com/wkwa.

For more information about the play, visit www.whokilledwoodyallen.com .

7 Days In Arts


Saturday

Tonight, West Coast Jewish Theatre launches Clifford Odets’ “Rocket to the Moon” at the Pacific Resident Theatre. Set in the 1930s, the love triangle centers on an unhappily married dentist, the secretary he falls in love with and the older man who has everything but youth on his side. A special fund-raising performance hosted by Monty Hall and honoring Arthur Hiller, Rocky Kalish and Leslie Martinson will be held June 6.

8 p.m. (Thurs.-Sat.), 3 p.m. (Sun.) $20-$23.50. 703 Venice Blvd., Venice. (310) 822-8392. June 6 Fund raiser, 2:30 p.m. $100. (310) 828-1296.

Sunday

Amid the weekend’s barbecues, take time out this evening
to remember. KCET airs the “National Memorial Day Concert,” hosted by actor and
veteran Ossie Davis. Musical performances will feature bluegrass singer Alison
Krauss, Union Station featuring Jerry Douglas and country star Brad Paisley.
Violinist Joshua Bell and Tony Award-winner Brian Stokes Mitchell will perform
with the National Symphony Orchestra. A documentary about the building of the
new World War II Memorial follows the broadcast. 8 p.m. KCET. “>www.milkenarchive.org

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Tuesday

Architecturally inspired music is the thematic centerpiece for the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s and the Getty’s collaborative project, “Building Music.” A two-day symposium on the subject is flanked by individual lectures, as well as a concert series of music informed by the architecture of the Getty and Walt Disney Concert Hall, and older works motivated by architecture of the past. Today, the Los Angeles Philharmonic New Music Group presents Green Umbrella Concert, featuring four pieces, including Morton Feldman’s “Rothko Chapel.”

8 p.m. $15-$40. Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 850-2000.

Wednesday

The Los Angeles Conservancy revives Old Hollywood again this year with their “Last Remaining Seats” film series. First in their lineup is the classic cross-dressing comedy, “Some Like It Hot,” screening at the historic Los Angeles Theatre this evening. Barring scheduling conflicts, Tony Curtis will reminisce about the movie and his career with Turner Classic Movies host Ben Makiewicz.

8 p.m. $16-$18. 615 S. Broadway, Los Angeles. (213) 430-4219.

Thursday

Literary flavor of the moment, “The Sleeping Father” by Matthew Sharpe, (please, Dan Brown is so five-minutes-ago) gets the full book tour treatment, stopping in our fair city this evening. The novel people are “very excited” about centers on an American Jewish family in crises: the titular paterfamilias has fallen into a coma after unknowingly mixing two kinds of antidepressants. He awakens to find his daughter considering conversion to Catholicism and suicide alternately, and his son lost in his own way. Book Soup hosts a signing with the author.

7 p.m. 8818 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood. (310) 659-3110.

Friday

P.C. (and worthy) event of the week: “Perspectives 2004”
at the ArcLight runs today through June 6. Subtitled, “When You Look at Me, What
Do You See?” the series presents films that depict the lives of the
developmentally disabled. Among the movies being screened will be Ira Wohl’s
“Best Man: ‘Best Boy’ and All of Us Twenty Years Later,” which revisits Philly,
Wohl’s cousin and the subject of his Oscar-winning documentary “Best Boy.”
$10-$15. 6360 W. Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 464-4226. Or, for something on
the spiritual side, attend a new monthly Friday night service led by Rabbi Naomi
Levy. Nashuva, which means “we will return,” combines new Shabbat melodies, a
live band, meditation and joyful singing. 6:45 p.m. Westwood Hills
Congregational Church, 1989 Westwood Blvd.

A Towering Achievement


At a willowy 5-foot-10 1/2, Jennifer Rosen ticks off the quandaries of growing up supertall, female and Jewish: At her Miami Beach religious school she scraped her knees on the desk, which practically stuck to her backside when she stood up. At her Conservative bat mitzvah, she danced with boys who had to lean their heads on her chest. While reciting her Haftorah, she even towered over the rabbi: "He was wearing a bad toupee, and I was looking down on it," said Rosen, now in her 20s.

Her height felt all the freakier because Jews are generally more vertically challenged than, say, Swedes.

Rosen, who now wears high heels, eventually embraced her stature. It’s a journey she recounts in her debut monologue, "Tall Girl," a visiting production at The Groundlings Theatre, directed by Groundlings founder Gary Austin. The tall tale is a more G-rated version of the kind of comic monologue, celebrating the liberated self, epitomized by shows such as Margaret Cho’s "I’m the One That I Want."

In the highly physical piece, Rosen plays herself and a variety of characters, such as classmates who called her Big Bird and Daddy Long Legs. Throughout her childhood, she said, "There were stares and people pointing at me and thinking I was older. I felt extremely awkward, unsure of what to do with my limbs."

Her mother shlepped her to endocrinologists and also to acting class, which helped draw the painfully shy teenager out of her shell. After graduating from Stanford, she studied at Manhattan’s Circle in the Square theater school and with Austin, who taught her to use her long limbs to comic advantage.

"Initially, Jennifer was more self-conscious," recalled the director, who has also coached stars such as Helen Hunt. But as he helped her develop "Tall Girl," she "became much more committed to using her whole body, not just while playing herself but in the extreme character work."

These days, the poised Rosen still stands out at Jewish singles events such as Friday Night Live, where she’s taller than many of the guys. "But that no longer bothers me," she said.

"Tall Girl" runs Tuesdays through March 30. $15. 7307 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 934-4747.

All-Female Plays Fill Niche for Frum


At Chabad’s Bais Chana High School on Pico Boulevard, a number of girls are sitting around a table with director Robin Garbose, reading through a new scene of "Portraits in Faith," their upcoming original musical. In the scene, a gold-digging wife tells her hapless husband that he no longer has any claim to his fortune and that she is going to use his money to party. The husband is Jewish, the wife is not, and her non-Jewishness infuses her with a particularly nasty streak of anti-Semitic superiority. It’s a meaty scene, and though the girls are reading the lines for the first time, they are handling them with aplomb. The wife’s malicious insults become more delightfully sinister in the reading, whereas the husband becomes the lame coward who gets weaker with every word.

On a dramatic level, the musical is a multigenerational historical drama that takes place in mid-19th-century Germany, and is replete with marital discord, class conflict and religious struggles. It highlights the dissonance between the Orthodox and the Reform. On an educational level, the play is a vehicle for the girls to become more self-confident and use their talents for performing arts in an environment that remains faithful to halachah. In keeping with the laws of Kol Isha, which prohibit a woman from singing in front of men for reasons of modesty, and tznius (general modesty) the play will be performed to audiences of women only. And the play itself is not just a drama — it’s a story with a moral. At the end of it, the audience is meant to appreciate the courage and dedication of Jewish women in keeping Torah alive through the ages and feel inspired about the beauty and the holiness of the mitzvah of going to the mikvah (ritual bath).

Garbose expects that at least 1,000 women will come out to see the play when it is performed on March 3, but judging from past audiences at other all-girl productions, that estimate seems conservative. In February, Bnos Esther, a small Chasidic girls’ high school on Beverly Boulevard, put on an all-girl production called "Simply Not The Same." The theme of the play was the importance of Torah, and more than 1,000 women showed up to see it over two nights, a large number considering that Bnos Esther only has 50 girls in the entire high school. Last year Bais Yaakov High School performed their biennial "Halleli" — an all-girl song, dance and drama fest — and drew an audience of 4,000 women over two nights.

The reason for the great turnouts is clear. The plays cater to women and girls in the ultra-Orthodox community who restrict the amount of popular culture that they let into their lives, because of what they see as its irreligious and immodest content. Nevertheless, these women still want to be entertained, but they just don’t want to compromise their religious principals in doing so.

"Most of the people who come to these things do not go to outside entertainment," said Chaya Shamie, the co-curricular director at Bais Yaakov and the producer of "Halleli." "This is an opportunity for them to go to an all-women’s performance that is done in a Torah fashion, that follows all the [halachic] guidelines."

"These plays are the only shows that I would take my daughters to, because as innocent as so many things seem, there are many hidden cultural messages in the popular entertainment out there," said a mother of two girls from the Fairfax area. "I want my daughters’ culture to be a Torah culture. It’s very empowering for them because they see themselves up there in a few years."

For "Portraits in Faith," Garbose’s husband, Levi, adapted a novel by Marcus Lehman, a 19th-century German writer who is something of a John Grisham of the Orthodox world. His books typically are plot-driven, hard-to-put-down novels that are infused with messages of faith. For the songs of the musical, Levi wrote original lyrics to Chasidic nigunim (wordless melodies). For the set design, Garbose plans on new visual possibilities using interesting lighting and some carefully chosen set pieces that will evoke the atmosphere of a different era and country without blowing the minimal budget that Bais Chana set aside for the play. All the girls in the school are involved in the play in some way, either as actresses, prop designers, costume makers, ticket sellers or stage managers.

"Things like Janet Jackson at the Super Bowl make a very compelling argument for all-women’s productions," she said. "What happens when you have a production that is for women only is that it takes the whole sexual component out of it. It’s incredibly empowering."

"Portraits in Faith" will be performed on March 3 at the Scottish Rite Theatre, 4357 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles at 7:30 p.m. For tickets call (310) 278-8995 ext. 405.

The Other Side of the South


When director Warner Shook saw Alfred Uhry’s "The Last Night of Ballyhoo" in 1997, he immediately recognized the story.

Shook ("The Kentucky Cycle") was familiar with genteel Southern anti-Semitism and its repercussions — but from the non-Jewish side. "I grew up a privileged WASP," he said.

His great-grandfather, Braxton Bragg Comer, was governor of Alabama and a founder of the textile mill Uhry refers to in his play, "Driving Miss Daisy." Like Daisy, Shook’s parents employed a black chauffeur who was close to the family.

Nevertheless, his childhood in Birmingham, Ala., was white and segregated. His few Jewish friends seemed to live in another world: "Our home was very chintz and Chippendale, and I recall going over to a Jewish friend’s house that had velvet and looked different," Shook, 54, said. "Even the smells were different — not a clove of garlic passed through the Shook house — and it just seemed very exotic to a little WASP boy."

Yet, young Shook understood that his friend couldn’t join his restricted country club; nor were Jews welcome at the cotillions where his sisters made their debuts.

"So the Jews of Birmingham had their own country clubs and debutante balls, a phenomenon described in ‘Ballyhoo,’" he said.

What surprised him was the play’s reference to Jewish bigotry: "I had known nothing about the conflict between German and Eastern European Jews," he said. Shook was so fascinated he decided to direct the piece; to learn more, he read books on Jewish Atlanta and watched documentaries such as "Delta Jews," narrated by Uhry.

He had his cast do the same while rehearsing Ballyhoo at Seattle’s Intiman Theatre in 1999 and last month at South Coast Repertory.

During recent rehearsals, he found himself acting as a "translator" for his actors, none of whom are from the deep South. "Some of the characters’ behavior seems foreign to them," he said. "So I tell them stories about my family and about people I have known. I offer insights about Southern behavior that, I think, add to the patina of the play."

He spoke of his family estate on Shook Hill Road, an exclusive neighborhood similar to the Habersham Road address described in the play; he talked of learning to ride a bicycle in the resort town of Point Clear, Ala., which is mentioned in "Ballyhoo;" and of the veneer of graciousness his mother sometimes used to her advantage ("She could charm a snake," he said).

He emphasized that while the behavior is Southern, the message is universal. "The play is a testament to self-acceptance," he said.

Black (and Jewish) Is Beautiful


Rain Pryor solemnly chants the "Kol Nidre" as the spotlight reveals her silhouette — wearing a hilariously oversized Afro wig.

"What’s the big deal if I’m black and a Jew?" she says.

She answers the question in her irreverent solo show, "Fried Chicken & Latkas," which describes her tortuous journey toward self-acceptance. Pryor — the daughter of comedian Richard Pryor — virtuostically transforms into characters such as her great-grandmother, a brothel madam who taught her to tame her "in-between hair" and to cook fried chicken. Adopting a Brooklyn accent she becomes Bunny, her Jewish maternal grandmother, who taught her to speak Yiddish, light Shabbat candles, make brisket and, of course, latkes.

The singer-actress also morphs into the first-grade teacher who said she couldn’t play the lead in the school play because "there are no black Raggedy Anns."

"I cried for days after that," Pryor, 34, said in her Canon Theatre dressing room.

She’s had to deal with the same frustrations as an adult actress, which is one reason she’s developed "Fried Chicken." At a time when autobiographical monologues can launch actors to stardom (think John Leguizamo and "Sexaholic"), she’s hoping to showcase her unique talents and prove she’s capable of more than the TV roles for which she’s best known.

Her strategy seems to be working. Pryor — who played a junkie lesbian on Showtime’s "Rude Awakening" — moves "Chicken" to the Comedy Store next month.

"I’m hoping the show will help people see me for who I am," she said.

Her background is singular. Her mother, Shelley Bonus, was a go-go dancer and her father was a wild new comic when they met at Los Angeles’ Stardust club in 1965. Thereafter, the enthused Bonus donned a blonde Afro wig and turned her apartment into an "African Heritage Museum," according to her daughter. In the play, Bunny describes her shock upon entering the apartment and seeing "a black velvet Jesus nailed to the cross; I think I even saw his eyes glowing."

Pryor believes neither side of the family was initially thrilled when the couple married in 1968: "At the time, it was hard to explain an interracial marriage, let alone a biracial child," she said.

It didn’t help that, after separating from her husband in the late 1960s, Bonus moved her daughter to Beverly Hills for the superior school system.

"It was a predominantly Jewish neighborhood, yet crosses were burned on our lawn," Pryor said. "At school, children said, ‘You’re a n—-.’ But on my father’s side of the family, ‘n—-‘ was a term of endearment, so while I didn’t like the word, I was also called it when I visited my dad’s house."

While Pryor saw her father only sporadically when she was a child ("He was busy being a genius," she said), she was riveted by his revolutionary, expletive-filled act. "I’d share it in show and tell," she said. "The teacher would say, ‘What did you learn this weekend,’ and I’d say, ‘I learned to say m———-!’ and I’d get in so much trouble." Equally confusing was her stint at a Reform Hebrew school where classmates told her there were no such thing as black Jews.

"Because it was so hard for me to be accepted into Judaism, I pushed it away," she said.

Pryor took solace in her acting and dancing lessons.

"Performing allowed me to escape into someone else’s world," she said.

By age 18, she was playing tomboy T.J. in ABC’s "Head of the Class"; within a few years, her identity crisis had caused her to descend into alcoholism and a series of abusive relationships.

It wasn’t until the 1990s that she got sober, read a slew of self-help books, engaged a therapist and took a counseling job at Beit T’Shuvah, the program for recovering Jewish addicts.

"I have to credit [the program’s] Rabbi Mark Borovitz for allowing me to feel Jewish for the first time, and really opening up that world," she said. "I started to study the Tanach and to learn the songs of Debbie Friedman and Shlomo Carlebach. For a time, I thought I would become a cantor."

Instead, she began writing a series of autobiographical songs and sketches that became "Fried Chicken & Latkas."

While she was initially nervous about her family’s response, relatives on both sides said they loved the show. She’s performed parts of it for her father, who has battled multiple sclerosis since 1991 and is now completely paralyzed.

Grandma Bunny called the show "beautiful. I’ve seen Rain perform before, but this was like she came out of her shell and she was Rain, her own self."

Although Pryor culturally identifies as black and Jewish, Judaism is her religion. She has been married for a year to a Catholic man who hopes to convert and to raise their children Jewish. In the meantime, "Fried Chicken" has helped her integrate her diverse identities.

As she says at the end of the show: "I’ve come to love my family and my heritage."

"Fried Chicken" plays at the Canon Theatre Wednesdays, 8 p.m., through Sept. 17. For tickets, call (310) 859-2830.

7 Days in the Arts


2/SATURDAY

Monique Schwartz has people talkin’ about our mommas. No need to organize a posse though. This is actually kind of Schwartz’s way of doing that herself — to analyze and combat stereotypical depictions of Jewish mothers in film. Her documentary “Mamadrama: The Jewish Mother in Cinema” screens today as part of the Laemmle’s “Bagels and Docs: A Jewish Documentary Series.”

10 a.m. Laemmle’s Sunset 5, 8000 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood. For more information, including other screening dates and times, call (323) 848-3500 or visit www.laemmle.com.

The wacky duo is at it again, only this time they’re being sponsored by Muslims. Thanks to the Iranian Muslim Association of North America (IMAN), the comedy duo of Rabbi Bob Alper and Egyptian-born Ahmed Ahmed continue their goal of “building bridges in troubled times through laughter,” tonight at IMAN Cultural Center.

7:30 p.m. $18 (in advance), $20 (at the door). IMAN Cultural Center, 3376 Motor Ave., Los Angeles. (310) 202-8181.

3/SUNDAY

It’s been 10 years since “The Quarrel” hit theaters, and this morning, the Sunset 5 hosts a special screening of the film about two old friends reunited after the Holocaust and the differences and disagreements that still separate them. Following the screening, the film’s writer-producer David Brandes moderates a discussion on “Good and Evil in Islam and Judaism” between Rabbi Joseph Telushkin and Dr. Khaled M. Abou Fadl. Proceeds benefit The Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity.

10 a.m. $12 (general), $118 (sponsors). Laemmle’s Sunset 5, 8000 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood. (310) 556-5639.

Panic grips your heart as you realize you only have only 27 days left till Chanukah. We know, that lunar calendar’ll get ya every time. But fret not, dear readers. For today is the Contemporary Crafts Market. Jewish trinkets and tchochkes are yours for the buying at this gift extravaganza. So quit the kvetching and head on down.

Nov. 1-3, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. $6 (adults), free (children 12 and under). Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, 1855 Main St., Santa Monica. (310) 285-3655.

4/MONDAY

We know there’s a pole-vaulting joke in here somewhere, but we’re pretty sure the folks involved in the two one-act plays that make up “Folk and Race” have got that covered. So instead, here are the basics: Act One is the dramatic interpretation. It’s a play about a Jewish pole vaulter who hides his religion to gain a spot on the 1936 American Olympic team after his better is kicked off for being Jewish. And Act Two is a parody of Act One, a la Mel Brooks. Take the leap and check it out.

8 p.m. Nov. 4, 5, 11, 12, 18 and 19. $12. The Theatre District at the Cast, 804 N. El Centro Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 651-5862.

5/TUESDAY

Bursting with fruit flavor is Jewish artist Rebecca Newman’s latest exhibition “Between the Branches.” The 17 new drawings continue her study of Southern California tropical tree species, everything from bananas to bougainvillea. They’re on display now at TAG, The Artists’ Gallery.

11 a.m.-5 p.m. (Tuesday-Friday), through Nov. 9. TAG, The Artists’ Gallery, 2903 Santa Monica Blvd., Santa Monica. (310) 829-9556.

6/WEDNESDAY

Things we can learn from (818), a non-profit “dedicated to furthering the education, production and distribution of filmmaking in the San Fernando Valley”: 1. “Valley film” is not a euphemism for porn. 2. The Valley has already made important contributions to the world of film. 3. It’s a worthwhile trip over the hill this week for the Valley Film Festival, screening 16 films, including four from Valley residents and one from Israel, called “Raging Dove.”

Nov. 1-7. El Portal Theatre, 5267 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. For information call, (818) 754-8222 or visit www.valleyfilmfest.com.

7/THURSDAY

The UJ’s series “In Their Own Words: Conversations With Writers” continues tonight when Journal arts and entertainment editor Naomi Pfefferman interviews author Dara Horn. Horn will discuss her first novel “In the Image,” a story that examines the nature of good and evil, and the presence of God.

7 p.m. $15. University of Judaism, 15600 Mulholland Drive, Bel Air. (310) 440-1546.

8/FRIDAY

So you think the ballet “The Nutcracker” just conjures up Christmasy images of Sugar Plum Fairies. Not if Akiva Talmi, the kibbutz-bred producer of the esteemed Moscow Ballet, has his way. He pushed his ballet to informally dedicate its 2002 season to” celebrating the contributions of Jewish cultural heroes of the former Soviet Union,” who had to downplay their heritage to succeed back in the U.S.S.R.

Nov. 7-9, 7:30 p.m., with a 2 p.m. Saturday matinee. Terrace Theater, Long Beach Convention Center, 300 East Ocean Blvd.,Long Beach. (213) 480-3232.

Banned in Berlin


Who says you have to be Jewish to write a play about the Holocaust? Certainly not John O’Keefe, author of the upcoming "Times Like These," which takes place in Hitler’s Berlin from 1934-1938. The plot focuses on how the life of intermarried actors changes when the wife is suddenly banned from the stage because she is Jewish. On the surface, the play, which is written with sensitivity, is a Holocaust piece and a love story; however, it encompasses what O’Keefe feels is a cycle of blame that has repeated itself in various incarnations throughout history. This time, Judaism just happened to be the target.

The two-person play, which premiered last March at the Cinnabar Theatre in Petaluma under the title "Crystal Night," is the veteran playwright’s second of three productions focusing on this era. All three works deal with the concept of seduction and what happens when one’s freedoms are taken away.

The author said the common thread in all three stories is his own fascination with the period. "It has to do with resonances Americans and Europeans should be aware of in times like these — especially in times like now," said O’Keefe, alluding to the issues the United States has confronted in the last year, including terrorism and war.

The story in "Times Like These" is loosely based on the life of Joachim Gottschalk, one of Germany’s most popular film actors who was increasingly ostracized because his wife was Jewish. The 62-year-old O’Keefe also borrowed relationship dynamics and themes from literature and biographies to develop his characters. The San Francisco-based writer uses the couple’s relationship as a metaphor for the changes happening in Berlin. While a new dictatorship takes over the outside world, there is a parallel in the struggles of actress Meta Wolff (played by Laurie O’Brien) and her less-talented actor husband, Oskar Weiss (played by Norbert Weisser).

Meta, Jewish by birth, was raised Protestant, but must confront her Jewishness when the realities of the war affect her safety and her relationship with her Aryan husband. When the Third Reich begins to alter a production of "Hamlet" to filter propaganda, Meta is able to, in a sense, "fight the power" by satirizing the Nazi regime. Using sly acting tips and suggestions, Meta, as the play’s director, is able to poke fun at the Nazis with help from Oskar, who has the starring role in the odd version of the Shakespeare play.

O’Keefe said that the issues explored in "Times Like These" have remained current since the era of the Holocaust. "That period of time has not really stopped and the effect has continued to 2002," said the author. "I think it’s important to understand that it was the Jews [who were targeted] during that period and it could be anybody the next period. It just depends who the scapegoat is. We must have a catastrophe, we must have someone to blame and we must frighten people in that country. It’s an ancient and prehistoric premise."

While O’Keefe said that these horrific events are simply part of a larger pattern, he is clearly sensitive to the plight of the Jews. "I think that we all must be conscious of the Holocaust — and there have been subsequent Holocausts." As O’Keefe is an honorary Jew of sorts ("Fifty percent of the people I know in theater are Jewish. One of my Jewish friends wants to bar mitzvah me!"), like Meta, he had a tendency to ignore religious differences, until, like his heroine, he had a reason to explore the topic.

The writer’s first Holocaust-era play, "Glamour," was inspired by the eerie historic events that occurred when Robert Graves ("I, Claudius") and the notorious Laura Riding fled Europe to stay with Schuyler Jackson in a remote Pennsylvania farmhouse. O’Keefe has written over 40 plays and won three Bay Area Critic’s Circle Awards, six Drama-Logue awards and two L.A. Weekly Awards, among other theatrical accolades.

Through the relatability of his characters, O’Keefe successfully illustrates how people can be easily seduced by propaganda. "Rather than using the paradigm of marching armies, I used the paradigm of personal relationships so we can understand personally how people become fascists," he said. "It’s a microcosmic way of looking at how individuals insert themselves into situations."

"Times Like These" will run Thursdays through Sundays at 8 p.m. through Nov. 16 at 2100 Square Feet, 5615 San Vicente Blvd., Los Angeles. There is wheelchair access and free parking. For more information, call (323) 692-2652.

7 Days In Arts


6/SATURDAY

Turns out the Frisco Kid wasn’t the only Jewish cowboy. Kicking off the exhibition >”Jewish Life in the American West: Generation to Generation” at the Autry Museum of Western Heritage is a music concert titled “Jews in the West.” Storyteller Karen Golden spins tales of Jewish life on the range, while Bronx-born fiddler, guitarist and banjoist Bruce Molskyplays a few ditties. 1:30 and 3:00 p.m. $18 (adults) $12 (children). Heritage Court, 4700 Western Heritage Way, Los Angeles. For more information, call (310) 954-4300.

7/SUNDAY

Oh yes, it’s lady’s night, but men will want to tag along for this. Hosted by comedian Flash Rosenberg, “Tickling Adam’s Rib” is a female comedy show at the University of Judaism. Flash’s shtick combines observational stand-up with a slide show of her own photographs and cartoons. Three more female comedians round out the show with their own prop-infused routines. Runs Saturday, 8:30 p.m.; Sunday, 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.; and Tuesday, 8 p.m. $30 and $35. 15600 Mulholland Drive, Bel Air. For more information, call (310) 476-9777, extension 201.

Here’s a diva moment you can deal with: Hila Plitman, the renown Israeli soprano, will sing with The Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles, performing tongue-in-cheek opera and operetta pieces. Dubbed Diva’s Revenge: Opera Our Way II the kitchy show includes favorites like “Ride of the Valkyries” and “Then One of Us Will Be a Queen.” Runs Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. at the Alex Theatre, 216 North Brand Boulevard, Glendale. $45, $37.50, $25 and $15. For tickets, call (800) 414-2539 or for more information, visit www.gmcla.org.

8/MONDAY

What does a writer contracted to write about the emotional problems of writers do when her own emotional problems give her writer’s block? She goes to therapy and writes a book about it. Bonnie Friedman will be discussing her book, “The Thief of Happiness: The Story of an Extraordinary Psychotherapy,” and reading excerpts at the Jewish Community Library of Los Angeles at 7 p.m. 6505 Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles. Free. For more information, call (323)761-8648.

Yom Hashoa starts tonight. Attend a special Holocaust memorial service followed by a dramatic reading of Harris W. Freedman’s psychological drama “Ella’s Secret” at Wilshire Boulevard Temple. The story centers around Ella, a Holocaust survivor living in London, who receives a visit from a woman with ties to her past. 7:30 p.m. Free to temple members, $18 for non-members. Audrey and Sydney Irmas Campus, Marcia Israel Chapel-Auditorium, 11661 West Olympic Boulevard, Los Angeles. For more information, call (213) 388-2401.

9/TUESDAY

Step away from the television for one night and take in some culture. A special benefit concert for Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religionwill feature celebrated pianist Robert Silverman. The night begins with an optional pre-concert dinner before Silverman graces your ears with pieces by Schubert, Chopin and Schumann. A dessert reception follows. 6 p.m. (dinner) 7:45 p.m. (concert). $250 (per person, with pre-concert dinner), $2,500 (table of ten, with pre-concert dinner), $50 (per person, concert ticket only). HUC-Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 North Sepulveda Boulevard, Los Angeles. For more information, call (213) 749-3424, extension 4208.

10/WEDNESDAY

We’re all preoccupied with aging, the passing of time and our own reflections. Eva Kolosvary-Stupler brings her own perspective to the subject in her mixed-media exhibit aptly titled “Reflections”<$>. 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Free. Don O’Melveny Gallery, 9009 Melrose Avenue, West Hollywood. For more information, call (310) 273-7868.

11/THURSDAY

In the game of survival, the Garfinkel siblings have beat incredible odds. All five of them endured the horrors of Nazi Germany’s death camps. Their story is detailed in Suzan Hagstrom’s book, “Sara’s Children; The Destruction of Chmielnik.” A discussion of the book is being held today, in commemoration of the Holocaust, to coincide with Yom Hashoa on April 9. Free. 7:30 p.m.? Borders Books and Music, 1360 Westwood Boulevard, Westwood. For more information, call (310) 475-3444.

12/FRIDAY

He won Marilyn Monroe’s heart, so why not yours? Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons” opens tonight at the Crossley Theatre. With more drama than “All My Children,” “All My Sons” is the story of a man’s secret World War II crime and the toll it takes on the stability of his family once the secret is revealed. Runs Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2:30 p.m. through June 2. $18 (general admission), $14 (seniors, children age 8-12 and groups of ten or more). 1760 North Gower Street, Hollywood. For more information, call (323) 462-8460.

Spell Binding


Tori Spelling knew she had something to prove when she took on the physical comedy, "Maybe, Baby, It’s You," a two-person play about relationships at the Coronet Theatre.

Even after she received rave reviews for her darkly comic turns in the late 1990s films "Trick" and "House of Yes," Spelling — best known as the virginal Donna on "Beverly Hills 90210" — had a decade of Hollywood hazing to live down: How she’d be working retail if daddy weren’t "90210" mega-producer Aaron Spelling; how she was spoiled, talentless, anorexic and plastic surgery-addicted (a rumor she denies).

"The stuff in the press used to make me cry," sighs the 28-year-old Jewish actress, who in person is attractive, funny, quirky and self-effacing. "But my instinct is to fight people and do what I want despite them. And what I most want now is to do physical comedy."

Which is why Spelling, who’s had the aspiration since discovering "I Love Lucy" as a kid, risked the demanding sketch comedy "Maybe, Baby." In the course of two hours, she must transform herself into 11 different characters, ranging from a junior high nerd to Medea on a blind date. And while critics have praised her exuberance and comic flair, there have been the inevitable digs, like this one in the Los Angeles Times: "Tori Spelling is making her professional stage debut. Quit waiting for the punch line."

Spelling just rolls her doe eyes and laughs good-naturedly. "I am so used to backhanded compliments that it would be weird if people just took me seriously," she says.

If the actress has a steel spine, it’s clear her survival instincts are genetic. During a recent interview, she tells a story about her father’s impoverished Dallas childhood: "When he was 10, he heard about a Christmas story contest and the winner would get a bike," she recounts. "So he spent days writing a beautiful story — even though he was Jewish, he felt Christmas was a time for people coming together. And he won the bike and he was so proud. And then they found out he was Jewish and they took it away from him."

Spelling may have been the actress everyone loved to hate, but at least she never experienced anti-Semitism. She grew up quietly celebrating the Jewish holidays in the family’s 100-room mansion: On Passover, her mother, Candy (who, contrary to popular lore, was born Jewish), hosted a seder, led by Aaron Spelling, who translated the Hebrew from the haggadah. On the High Holy Days, the family attended Sinai Temple. If the actress has one regret, it’s that she did not become bat mitzvah: "Being a child, if you’re given a choice, you go, ‘Oh, religious school, no,’" she says.

Another regret is her past choice of boyfriends, which is why the single actress was drawn to "Maybe, Baby" and its theme of soulmate-searching. She most identifies with the once-burned character of Medea: "When I was younger, I’d always pick the bad boys," says Spelling, who made the tabloids during her tempestuous relationship with Nick Savalas, son of "Kojak" star Telly. "Then you get older and you think, ‘Those nice guys are looking pretty good.’"

"Maybe, Baby" is helping her cope with dating as well as her career. "In the past, I’ve always been so worried about what’s going on with life and boys," she says. "But since I’ve been doing this play, I feel I can breathe for the first time in years. I wake up every day and I feel talented and beautiful and confident. The play has given me all of that."

"Maybe Baby" runs through March 23. For tickets and information, call (310) 657-7377.

Leave the Czech


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7 Days In Arts


Saturday, Aug. 4

The timeless story of Tevye, the milkman with five
daughters, is back on stage in the classic musical “Fiddler On the Roof.” Based
on the tales of Sholom Aleichem, the show tells the tale of a man who tries to
hang on to his traditional values amid the tides of change in Czarist Russia
through songs like “Sunrise, Sunset” and “Tradition!” The production at the
Canyon Club Theatre includes a pre-show buffet brunch $31 (general admission).
Senior, child and group discounts are available. Saturdays and Sundays at 11:30
a.m. 28912 Roadside Drive, Agoura Hills. For tickets or more information, call
(818) 879-5016.

Sunday, Aug. 5

Singer Neshama Carlebach, the daughter of the late
singer/storyteller Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach will reach into her Eastern European
roots for tonight’s vocal performance. The daughter of the Jewish legend will
combine Yiddish, Hebrew and English songs as part of Brandeis-Bardin’s Summer
Under the Stars series. Both adults and children will enjoy the way she, like
her father, can weave story with song. $25 (adults). Student discounts
available. 7:30 p.m. Brandeis-Bardin Institute, 1101 Peppertree Lane, Simi
Valley. For reservations or more information, call (805) 582-4450.

Monday, August 6

Olympia Dukasis gave a riveting performance in “Steel Magnolias” as the talkative
and kindhearted Clairee and won the Academy Award for her portrayal of Cher’s mother in Moonstruck.
Tonight, she’s performing a staged benefit reading of Martin Sherman’s “Rose,” the story of woman
whose life takes her from a Russian village to the Warsaw Ghetto and eventually to the crazy world
of modern Jewish America. The Jewish Repertory Theatre, a non-profit corporation committed to
highlighting Jewish arts and culture, is sponsoring this event with a reception after the
performance at Mistral. $100 (suggested donation); $300-$500 (preferred seating). 7:30 p.m.
Canon Theatre, 205 N. Canon Drive, Beverly Hills. For reservations or more information, call (323) 293-7257.

Tuesday, Aug. 7

PBS takes a behind-the-scenes look at Mel Brooks’s
highly acclaimed Broadway musical “The Producers,” based on the 1968 comedy. The
show, about a desperate producer who, with his accountant, set out to make tons
of money by funding what they hope is the worst show ever, won a record 14 Tony
awards. With tickets starting at $100 for the Broadway show starring Nathan Lane
and Matthew Broderick tonight’s program “Recording ‘The Producers’: A Musical
Romp With Mel Brooks,” is a less expensive, and more local, alternative. 8
p.m.-9:30 p.m. KCET, TV-PG. For more information, call (212) 560-3053.

Wednesday, Aug. 8

Dennis Karmazyn, the principal cellist for the
Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, and pianist Beth Sussman enjoy drawing crowds into an
interactive concert experience. They not only play the music of Beethoven,
Strauss and Rachmaninoff, but they enjoy sharing anecdotes of the composers with
the audience. $10 (general admission). 7:30 p.m. University of Judaism, Gindi
Auditorium, 15600 Mulholland Drive, Bel Air. For more information, call (310)
440-1246.

Thursday, Aug. 9

An American Rhapsody is a powerfully moving true
coming-of-age account of a young girl. As a family flees war-torn Hungary for a
new life in the West, their youngest child is left behind and adopted by a
loving, but poor, couple who lives on a farm. After the war is over, Suzanne,
(played as an adult by Nastassja Kinski) is forced to reside in America with her
biological parents. She has trouble adjusting to her new life and finds that in
order to face her past, she must cross the Hungarian border. Director Eva Gardos
successfully relates her story of searching for identity amid drastic change. $7
(general admission); $6 (museum members). Museum of Tolerance, Simon Wiesenthal
Plaza, 1399 S. Roxbury Drive, Los Angeles. For tickets or more information, call
(310) 772-2452.

Friday, Aug. 10

“IntimiDating Strangers,” is an evening of two short
plays that deal with the quirks of relationships. The drama “Necropolis,” relays
a dangerous affair in war-torn Eastern Europe between an American journalist and
a woman with a dark past. “Do Over” is comedy about a woman who is confronted
with both her boyfriend of the present and the same young man from seven years
in the future. Net proceeds benefit Shriners Hospitals’ Children Amputee
Prosthesis program, helping kids who are missing limbs because of injury or
birth defects. $12 (general admission). Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and
Sundays at 7 p.m. Through Sep. 1. Third Street Theater, 8140 W. Third St., Los
Angeles. For reservations or more information, call (310) 289-2999.

Benefiting Women’s Theater


America’s favorite Italian mother from Long Island — who’s really a Jewish gal born in St. Louis — will headline a benefit Monday for one of Los Angeles’ most innovative cultural contributors.

Doris Roberts, who plays Marie Barone on the popular sitcom "Everybody Loves Raymond," will read the Grace Paley story "Goodbye and Good Luck" at a fundraiser for the Jewish Women’s Theatre Project (JWTP) on April 23.

Roberts agreed to participate in the fundraising evening after being approached by JWTP advisory board member Ellen Sandler, a former co-executive producer for "Raymond."

"She is a great performer; she is Jewish, and proudly so, and she wanted to lend her celebrity to our group," Sandler told The Journal.

It was JWTP producing director Susan Merson’s idea to use the Paley story, in which a woman reminisces about her long association with a Yiddish theater troupe.

Roberts, 75, first worked on Broadway in 1956 as the understudy to Shirley Booth in "Desk Set" and began her film career in the late 1960s.

Although Roberts has portrayed a number of Jewish characters over the years, including the kind neighbor Mrs. Kavarsky in the 1975 film "Hester Street" and Mrs. Van Daan in a TV production of "The Diary of Anne Frank," her most widely seen role before Marie Barone was probably that of secretary Mildred Krebs on the TV series "Remington Steele," which she played for four seasons in the mid-1980s.

She won an Emmy award in 1983 for her portrayal of a homeless woman in "St. Elsewhere" and has been nominated for her role as the overbearing but well-meaning Marie on "Raymond."

The benefit comes at a busy time for Roberts, who is also currently appearing in "The Vagina Monologues" at the Cañon Theater in Beverly Hills; the JWTP had to move the date of the fundraiser after Roberts was offered a three-week stint in the theater piece. "She never backed out," Lewis said. "We are grateful that she was able to give us her one night off."

The JWTP benefit will be held at the home of Maxwell Salter, the former mayor of Beverly Hills, and his wife, Janet, who is president of the Beverly Hills Theater Guild.

Sandler said the April 23 event, which includes a dessert reception, and Roberts’ participation in the evening comprise "a way for us to reach out into the community and expand our audience."

And be prepared for some yummy treats if you go. "This is an event planned by and for Jewish women," Sandler said, "so of course, there’ll be chocolate."

For information about the Jewish Women’s Theatre Project fundraiser, 8 p.m. Monday, April 23, call (310) 398-7117.n

‘Miracle’ in North Hollywood


Considering the many Jewish characters who people his plays, it’s tempting to label Art Shulman a “Jewish playwright.” But the author of “God, Bring Me a Miracle,” and “The Rabbi and the Shiksa” maintains he never set out to write “Jewish plays.” He never really set out to write plays at all.

The Brooklyn native followed a job to Southern California in 1974 and stayed, he says, because “I missed my Dodgers.” Several years later, he founded his own research company and began working at home. “I always liked to write,” he says, as if what came next were inevitable.

What came next was inspiration in the form of Studs Terkel’s popular book “Working”; sparked by the idea of short pieces about unusual jobs, Shulman wrote more than 40 humorous takeoffs in that style. “A friend took a look at them and suggested I could turn them into a play,” says the author, who reworked the monologues into a 15-character play, “Joe Carbone’s Job,” centered around the dissatisfied owner of a chicken slaughter house. Though the well-received piece wasn’t a box-office success, the undeterred author promptly began a second play, this time using the events of his own life as fodder.

“God, Bring Me A Miracle” is inspired by a Shulman family crisis that took place some five years ago. At the time, the author’s father was suffering from Parkinson’s Disease, while his mother was struggling to care for him and a sister ill with a brain tumor. In the play, an adult son has to help make the difficult decision of whether to place his father in a nursing home. The writer’s daughter and the home-duty nurse he was dating at the time helped to inspire parts of the characters.

“Miracle,” produced after numerous workshops and readings with Lonny Chapman’s Group Repertory Theatre, “really hits home” with audiences, the writer notes. “I think a lot of people can identify with this situation, with having to make this decision and live with it.”

Much of Shulman’s success comes from writing about characters and crises people can identify with. “My process for writing plays is pretty simple,” he says. “I ask, ‘What two characters can I think of who can conflict?”

Shulman has no plans to stop writing — or to shy away from a little conflict. His next play? The working title is “Sex Is Good For You.”

“God, Bring Me a Miracle” continues Dec. 15, 16 and 17, then Jan. 5-20 at Lonny Chapman’s Group Repertory Theatre in North Hollywood, (818) 769-PLAY.

‘Cabaret’s’ Dim Light


Something has happened to “Cabaret” on its way to the Wilshire Theatre in Los Angeles.

The award-winning musical — eight Tony Awards after its 1967 Broadway opening with Joel Grey and Jill Haworth, followed by eight Academy Awards for the dazzling 1972 film adaptation with Grey and Liza Minnelli — is not particularly well served by its current performances or its production.

Set in Berlin, circa 1930, and highlighting the last raucous days of the Weimar Republic, “Cabaret” strives to give us enthusiastic decadence, albeit overlaying a thin veneer of despair.

The setting is the Kit Kat Klub, where cynicism and sex in all combinations and permutations are to be found. This vision of “anything goes” is contrasted with the rooming-house setting, where several human dramas unfold — one between an elderly Jewish widower and the non-Jewish landlady, and the other, the central story, between a naive and sexually ambivalent American writer and the incomparable Sally Bowles.

Sally Bowles is and always has been the center of the story, from its original literary incarnation in the 1930s as part of Christopher Isherwood’s book “Berlin Stories,” to the 1950s play adaptation “I Am a Camera,” written by John van Druten and starring a young and incandescent Julie Harris.

Sally Bowles is the amoral British young singer in the Kit Kat Klub, set adrift in Berlin — out for parties and champagne, sex and pleasure, no looking back, no looking ahead. She is the sprite who bedazzles us. Truman Capote and Audrey Hepburn created an American counterpart overflowing with innocence in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” and Julie Christie imparted a hard and, at the end, a desperate edge to a similar kind of character in the 1960s film “Darling.” In this production, Teri Hatcher offers us a studied British accent and a bedraggled unhappiness from beginning to end. No levels of self-deception and no despair. Just a young woman, broke and pregnant, striving for a West End accent.

Nor does the decadence work. Here it seems merely naughty posturing. Norbert Leo Butz’s emcee gives us loud, boisterous wordplay in songs that are difficult to understand. The nightclub numbers are pumped-up, playful razzmatazz, which all but blankets the despair that is lurking in the wings.

Only the secondary story, the growing doomed love between the elderly couple, one of them Jewish, is rendered with feeling and care, thanks largely to Barbara Andres and Dick Latessa, who, fortunately, slow the pace of the play.

The director, Sam Mendes of London, has staged “Cabaret” (last year in New York with Natasha Richardson) so as to convert the theater into a nightclub, the Kit Kat Club, with the audience functioning as customers who watch the accompanying songs and dances. It makes for fluidity and intimacy of a sort, but it also distances us from the events by turning the actors in the club sequences into performers.

The music itself seems tired and not particularly memorable. And, I must admit, it kept me longing for Julie Harris and the original 1950s play — more complex and more moving and much more fun. — Gene Lichtenstein, Editor-in-Chief

Tickets for “Cabaret” are available by calling (323) 365-3500 or by visiting the Wilshire Theatre Box Office at 8440 Wilshire Blvd. Shows are Tuesday through Saturday, at 8 p.m.; Sunday, at 7:30 p.m.; weekend matinees, at 2 p.m. Limited run through April 25.

‘Ballyhoo’ Fails to Inspire


“The Last Night of Ballyhoo” arrived at the Cañon Theatre in Beverly Hills last month with impeccable credentials. The author, after all, is Alfred Uhry, whose “Driving Miss Daisy” deservedly swept the New York and Hollywood award boards.

And “Ballyhoo” itself garnered the 1997 Tony Award for its Broadway production, in addition to a basketfull of other honors.

Regrettably, something must have happened on the transcontinental flight to the West Coast, even with the play’s original director, Ron Lagomarsino, on board.

The play is again set in Uhry’s native Atlanta, the time is December 1939, and two major events are agitating Georgia’s capital city and its Jews.

One is the world premiere of “Gone With The Wind;” the other is the upcoming Ballyhoo, the premier social event of the well-established and assimilated German Jews of the city.

Within the Jewish community, there are also “the others” — descendants of more recent immigrants from Eastern Europe. These Ostjuden, unfortunately, make a point of being Jewish and actually seem to enjoy their faith and culture. Fortunately, they reside mainly up north.

Lurking somewhere in the background — rarely mentioned — is Hitler, who has instigated World War II, which probably won’t be good for the Jews.

In the home of the Freitag-Levy clan, they’re busy decorating the Christmas tree. Members of the household are young first cousins, Lala (Perrey Reeves) and Sunny (Rebecca Gayheart), their widowed mothers Boo (Rhea Perlman) and Reba (Harriet Harris), and Uncle Adolph (Peter Michael Goetz), a lifelong bachelor and owner of the Dixie Bedding Co.

Cousin Lala is a bit of a neurotic and frets a great deal about looking “too Jewish.” Cousin Sunny is blonde, beautiful and studying at Wellesley. Mom Boo worries whether daughter, Lala, will get a date for the Ballyhoo, where she might even meet a potential husband.

Something doesn’t click in this production, as the perfunctory applause and post-curtain comments among the mostly elderly, mostly Jewish, crowd indicated. The reason, though, isn’t entirely clear. There is no doubt, as this reviewer knows from personal experience, that the type of German Jew portrayed here actually existed.

But at the Cañon, the emotional interplay among the characters — which rang so true and affecting in “Miss Daisy” — rarely enlists the concern and sympathy of the viewer.

The play closes with an astonishing scene, in which the whole clan, which has spent the last 90 minutes proving its indifference, if not embarrassment, at being Jewish, sits around the Shabbat table.

All link hands in a calendar-art painting of the devoted Jewish family. Some critics have found this scene affecting, but hokey might be more apt.

The stage setting by John Lee Beatty is brilliant, effortlessly switching from drawing room, to dance floor to a train compartment.

“The Last Night of Ballyhoo” runs through Jan. 3 at the Cañon Theatre. For information, call (310) 859-2830.

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