“Icarus” filmmaker Bryan Fogel runs through tests before his race through the French Alps. Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute.

‘Icarus’ director points camera at doping scientist, international intrigue

Before Bryan Fogel embarked upon his debut documentary, “Icarus,” which revolves around Russia’s Olympic doping program, he was “desperate to not be the ‘Jewtopia’ guy.”

Fogel, 43, who grew up “Conservadox” in Denver, co-created “Jewtopia,” a comic play about a Jewish man who dislikes Jewish women and a non-Jew who wants to marry one. The play opened at the Coast Playhouse in West Hollywood in 2003 and became a hit. An off-Broadway production several years later enjoyed an often sold-out, three-and-a-half-year run. A “Jewtopia” coffee table book was published by Warner and dozens of “Jewtopia” plays were produced throughout North America.

But Fogel said that directing the 2013 movie version proved to be a “toxic experience” for him. The film was only briefly released in theaters and received poor reviews. Instead of launching his TV- and film-directing career, as he had hoped, “I came out of the film just completely beaten and really emotionally broken,” Fogel said. “I was really in a funk and a bit of a depression.”

As therapy, Fogel turned to his lifelong hobby of competitive cycling, a sport he avoided after a bike crash knocked out several of his teeth in a race when he was 19.

Then, in early 2013, one of Fogel’s cycling heroes, Lance Armstrong, admitted publicly that he had used banned performance-enhancing drugs throughout his winning of seven Tour de France titles, all the while evading detection. “So, I was going, ‘Wait, you tested him 500 times and you never caught him?’ ” Fogel recalled. “ ‘Like, are you kidding?’  So, I’m going, not ‘What’s wrong with Lance?’ [but rather] ‘What’s wrong with this bull—- system?’ ”

So, Fogel got the idea to film a documentary in which he would take the drugs, enter a major amateur cycling competition and see if he could beat the urine testing required by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA).

To do so, he sought out an expert to advise him on which drugs to take. One Los Angeles scientist declined Fogel’s request but recommended that he contact Grigory Rodchenkov, director of the WADA-approved antidoping lab in Moscow. The documentary chronicles how Rodchenkov eventually outlined Fogel’s doping regimen, even traveling to Los Angeles to smuggle the filmmaker’s urine back to his lab for testing. “All the labs in the world will be confused by your piss,” he gleefully tells Fogel.

The filmmaker goes on to evade detection as he competes in a grueling amateur cycling race through the French Alps.

Along the way, Fogel and Rodchenkov become good friends. But one day, Rodchenkov surprises Fogel by suggesting he view a 2014 German television documentary that features him in an exposé of Russian doping.

“I watched this thing and I went, ‘Holy s—,” Fogel said.

In November 2015, WADA published a report alleging Rodchenkov was the brains behind Russia’s Olympic cheating program.

In a Skype video call included in the documentary, the Russian scientist reveals to Fogel that he fears he might be assassinated for his allegations of a state-sponsored doping program. “I need to escape,” he says. Fogel promptly buys Rodchenkov an airplane ticket to Los Angeles — a round-trip ticket to avoid suspicion — and arranges for him to stay in a series of three safe houses in 2015 and 2016. “I felt a tremendous burden to protect him,” Fogel said.

Rodchenkov says he has wiped his laboratory computer clean but possesses three hard drives with thousands of incriminating documents. The filmmakers helped him hide the hard drives around Los Angeles, but the drives eventually were turned over to the FBI, the Justice Department and WADA, Fogel said.

Soon after fleeing to Los Angeles, Rodchenkov learns that two of his colleagues in the doping scheme died under mysterious circumstances in Russia. He is distraught and frightened by the news, as is Fogel. 

In the film, he tells Fogel meticulous details of how he and others arranged to thwart detection of doping at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia — cloak-and-dagger methods that included secretly swapping out dirty urine samples with clean ones.

Meanwhile, the FBI and U.S. Justice Department may want Rodchenkov to serve as a possible witness in their investigation of the Russian doping allegations, although Fogel is unclear about what the agencies’ goals are for investigating a case that involves another country.

Further into the film, Fogel helps the Russian scientist find attorneys and persuades him to go public with his knowledge, for safety reasons, by providing details to The New York Times. The Times runs a front-page story on Rodchenkov in May 2016. Thereafter, Rodchenkov says his relatives in Moscow have been interrogated, their passports seized and the family’s assets confiscated. Russian authorities also have instigated criminal charges against him.


In the film, we see Fogel representing Rodchenkov at a gathering of top WADA officials who want to know what the lab director did. “Is he sorry?” an angry scientist asks Fogel at the meeting. The filmmaker replies that Rodchenkov risked his life to reveal his documents, left his wife and children and all his belongings behind in Russia, and is now committed to telling the truth.

Meanwhile, Russian leaders deny — as they do now — that the state sponsored the doping project and insist that Rodchenkov was a lone wolf. Russian news media also run a number of stories on the scientist’s friendship with Fogel. “All the claims against the government, he did himself,” the Kremlin’s minister of sports says in a clip from a top Russian TV news show.

In July 2016, Rodchenkov went into protective custody with the FBI and the Department of Justice, which may use him as a witness or even prosecute him in their ongoing investigation, Fogel said. He added that he hasn’t seen or spoken to Rodchenkov in a year but has learned through the scientist’s attorney that Rodchenkov is OK, currently residing in an undisclosed location for his safety.

“Icarus” was well received at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. But a feature story in the Los Angeles Times suggested that Fogel portrayed the flawed scientist strictly as a hero — an interpretation Fogal disagrees with.

“I see him as a very, very complicated person because he’s lived a very, very complicated life,” Fogel told the Journal. “I think it’s easy from a Western perspective to go into the very simple good/bad, right/wrong point of view. But from a Russian perspective, from Grigory’s perspective, this was a guy who was born into the system … [and] the entire system was always doping and trying to avoid detection.”

Why did Rodchenkov offer Fogel intimate information about his conspiracies on camera? He did so not only to save himself from potential Russian retribution, he wanted to come clean, the filmmaker said.

“He had had enough,” Fogel said. “He no longer wanted to live with this information.”

“Icarus” opens in Los Angeles theaters on Aug. 4 and is available on Netflix.

Finding ‘Jewtopia’

I sat somewhere between anxious and bored in my seat, picking at the polyester threads as they unraveled from the sleeve of my robe. One after one, my classmates were called to the bimah, and in the same sing-song cadence of their bar or bat mitzvah speeches, they started their presentations which all began (at the direction of our teacher) “I am a Jew because … ”.

Our class was comprised of a much smaller group than had made the b’nai mitzvah circuit 3 years before. Now what remained was a group whose parents either guilted them or bribed them to continue their studies through Confirmation (most of them) and those who actually enjoyed learning more about Jewish heritage, prayer and texts (me). But I played along and rolled my eyes during the boring parts.

The Rabbi called the name of one of my classmates once, twice – but no one appeared. “Bueller, Bueller,” the class clown said just loud enough to send a wave of laughter through the room. Suddenly, our giggling was interrupted by what sounded like elephants clomping up wooden stairs.

“I can’t believe he showed up!” Someone exclaimed as our classmate, shirt untucked, hair umkempt and kippah holding on by a half of a pin for dear life, clamored up on stage to give his speech.

He pulled out a piece of crumpled paper from his pocket..

Read the rest of the story on hollywoodjournal.com.

In producing Jewtopia, Courtney Mizel mixes her passion for the arts with business acumen garnered over decades of experience in the entrepreneurial, consulting, sales, marketing and entertainment industries. She is also the Founding Director of the Counterterrorism Education Learning Lab, and a voiceover artist. Courtney is most proud of her endeavors in the philanthropic world and of her two amazing daughters, Zoe and Isabella.

Little-known stories live large on screen

Several tales largely unknown to mainstream audiences are brought to the fore in many of this fall’s cinematic offerings.

Among these is “Kill Your Darlings,” a coming-of-age film about the celebrated beat generation poet Allen Ginsberg during his time as a student at Columbia University in 1944. The movie blends the theme of youthful counter-culture activity with issues surrounding sexual identity and a sensational murder that is rarely discussed today.

Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe) is a shy Jewish boy from New Jersey helping to care for his mentally ill mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh). When he arrives at Columbia, he meets the beautiful, magnetic and rebellious young Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan), who jumps on a table during a tour of the library for new arrivals and recites a lurid passage from Henry Miller. Ginsberg is mesmerized by the sophisticated, androgynous rebel and becomes part of Carr’s fast-living circle that includes William Burroughs (Ben Foster), another beat poet slated for celebrity, and David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall), an older man who is obsessed with Carr. Into the mix comes Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston), a former football player and merchant marine who would also become a noted beat generation writer.

The group engages in a series of outrageous pranks, and, as Ginsberg and Carr draw closer,  Kammerer feels excluded and becomes intensely jealous. Events reach a crescendo when Kammerer confronts Carr hysterically and Carr stabs him to death. Ultimately, Carr claims that the murder was an honor killing, because he was defending himself from Kammerer, who was a homosexual. In 1944, that was an acceptable defense, and Carr receives a light sentence.

Director John Krokidas, who makes his feature film debut with this effort, said he has admired Ginsberg’s daring since he was a teenager.

“Like many an adolescent who grew up in a pretty regular family in the suburbs, reading the beats for the first time was extremely attractive, because they presented an alternate way of living your life, a more authentic life, a life full of spirit and rebellion and living for your art. What potential artist doesn’t romanticize that dream at the age of 16 or 17? Plus, at that time in my life, I was closeted, so imagine reading the works of Allen Ginsberg, where he’s so up front and honest about his sexuality.”

Ginsberg’s character is heavily influenced by the fact that he was Jewish, Krokidas added. “When he got to school for the first time — not just because of his sexuality, but because of his Jewish heritage — he was seen as ‘the other,’ was seen as different.

“I remember reading interviews with him, and when people asked, ‘Are you a Jewish poet?’ he said, ‘I am a Jewish poet. I’m Jewish. I am a poet. I’m also a gay poet, but, yes, I’m a Jewish poet. I wrote a poem called ‘Kaddish.’ You might have heard of it.’ ’’

Krokidas said his own mother is Jewish, but he is also of Greek-Orthodox and Italian-Catholic heritage. However, he grew up mainly in the Jewish community, and he considers his Jewish roots part of his artistic identity. In fact, several members of his cast and crew are Jewish.

“This was a very Jewish production,” Krokidas said. “That wasn’t a conscious decision, but you find out it’s in the people that you belong with, and in an artistic endeavor like a low-budget independent film, a lot of the instinctual decisions you make on who to work with are based on an idea of shared vision, academically, of course, but also a common emotional and personality shorthand and understanding.” 

“Kill Your Darlings” opens Oct. 16.

“A.K.A. Doc Pomus.” Photo courtesy of Clear Lake Productions

Another gem is the documentary “A.K.A. Doc Pomus,” which chronicles the rarely publicized life of Jerome Felder, a Jewish boy from Brooklyn who contracted polio as a child and remained dependent on crutches and a wheelchair but became one of the most admired and successful songwriters in the music business.

Felder’s daughter, Sharyn, spearheaded the project and serves as one of its producers. “I always knew, from the time I was a little girl, that my father’s dramatic life story was unparalleled,” she said. “His story just had to be told, and I was obsessed to make a documentary about him. I began working on this film about eight years ago.”

Felder’s story is filled with pain, joy, struggles, triumphs, heroism and a great deal of heart. He loved the blues, and, although disabled, managed, as a youth, to worm his way into singing blues songs in nightclubs. He changed his name to Doc Pomus so his mother wouldn’t see his real name on the marquees.

He came into his own as a songwriter with the advent of rock ’n’ roll, amassing an abundance of hits, including such standards of the era as “Save the Last Dance for Me” (even though he could never dance), “This Magic Moment,” “A Teenager in Love,” “Viva Las Vegas,” “Can’t Get Used to Losing You” and numerous others.

Felder married the woman of his dreams, had two children, divorced and then found another love. As he grew older, he became a mentor to aspiring songwriters and helped further several careers. He died of lung cancer in 1991 at the age of 65.

The movie about his life is replete with music, archival material and sections from Felder’s journals read by singer Lou Reed. There are also interviews with Felder and many of his colleagues, including Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, B.B. King, Dion, Dr. John and Joan Osborne, among other notables.

Asked why her father’s story is not more widely known, Sharyn Felder replied, “The songwriter in general is often largely unknown. You know the songs, but not the songwriter’s name. In addition, my father may not be well known because he didn’t travel and shmooze extensively, thus not making himself known all over, largely due to his disability.”

Ruminating on her father’s success against such great odds, she commented, “My father believed that you have to persevere. In his own words, ‘Some days the world owns you, but other days you will own the world, so you just have to push and shove, and there is a place for you.’ He was a very determined man. His entire family was that way. He would say to me when I was hemming and hawing about something, ‘Just do it!’ ”

She added, “My father had struggles his entire life that I was well aware of. But he was incredibly productive, a very loving father, a brilliant mind and hysterically funny. His struggles seemed minor in many ways.”

As for what she hopes audiences will take away from the documentary, “I want people to be inspired by and enlightened by my dad, the man, and, also, to become educated about his music and its impact on the music world.”

“A.K.A. Doc Pomus” opens Oct. 11.

Dorothy and Herb Vogal from “Herb & Dorothy 50X50.” Photo courtesy of Fine Line Media

From music, we segue to art with “Herb & Dorothy 50X50,” the sequel to Megumi Sasaki’s 2008 documentary “Herb & Dorothy,” about retired postal worker Herb Vogel and his librarian wife, Dorothy. The couple began collecting contemporary art by young, as-yet-unknown painters soon after their wedding in the early 1960s. The paintings they bought had to be affordable and fit into their one-bedroom Manhattan apartment.  

Over the years, they assembled a collection of some 2,000 works by artists who would go on to international fame, such as Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Richard Tuttle, Robert Mangold, Sylvia Plimack Mangold and Robert Barry.  

In 1992, they gave their collection, worth millions, to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. The Vogels continued to buy art even after the gift, and the collection came to include about 5,000 paintings, more than the National Gallery could handle, so the Vogels decided to take 2,500 paintings and give 50 to one museum in each of the 50 states.

“50X50” is something of a travelogue as it follows the Vogels to 11 of the museums and shows them consulting on the hanging of the art, being entertained at the various institutions and appearing on panels and at openings.

The movie goes through the summer of 2012, when Herb died and Dorothy announced the closing of the collection. She is shown sifting through Herb’s effects and taking paintings off the walls of her apartment.

“Herb & Dorothy 50X50” opens Sept. 13.

Howard Lutnick at the missing-persons wall in “Out of the Clear Blue Sky.” Photo courtesy of Asphalt Films

As Sept. 11 approaches, we segue to the documentary “Out of the Clear Blue Sky,” which depicts the devastation of the bond trading firm of Cantor Fitzgerald and the families of its employees who died during the terrorist attack. Cantor, which was a hugely prosperous firm and occupied the top five floors of the World Trade Center, was not widely known to the public before the events of that day. The firm suffered the greatest number of casualties of any one company, as 658 members of its staff were obliterated by the terrorists.  

Filmmaker Danielle Gardner was in the neighborhood and an eyewitness to the catastrophe. Tragically, her brother, Doug, was among the Cantor victims. The filmmaker recalled it as such a chaotic, confusing and highly emotional time that she was compelled to document what was going on around her. 

 “I was a documentary filmmaker before that,” she said, “and I never made anything about my life personally. Before this, I liked to go out into other worlds and other subcultures and learn about them, but, as I said at one time, all of a sudden I became the subject rather than the outsider.”  

Gardner, who happens to be Jewish, described her film as encompassing the twin worlds of both the grieving families and the business. She explained that the CEO of Cantor, Howard Lutnick, who is also Jewish, figures prominently in the documentary because he was part of both worlds: He ran the company, and his younger brother was killed in the attack.  

Lutnick was taking his son to the boy’s first day of kindergarten and was among the few staff members who happened to be out of the offices. People may remember the CEO, reputed to have been a cutthroat businessman, being interviewed numerous times and sobbing uncontrollably over the deaths of his brother and so many close associates. 

At first there was great sympathy for him as he tried to salvage the company and help the bereaved families. But very soon, when he hadn’t paid the salaries of those who were lost, the families and the media turned against him, and he became an outcast.

“People in the first week,” Gardner said, “would ask me, ‘Why isn’t Cantor doing this?’ and, ‘Why isn’t Cantor doing that?’ And I was thinking, ‘There’s a tremendous disconnect here. There is no Cantor. There’s a couple of people sitting in a living room frantically trying to figure out who’s alive.’ I remember thinking, ‘There’s no office. There are no people. I don’t know where you guys have been.’ ”

Lutnick regained favor when he subsequently announced that the firm would give the families medical coverage for 10 years and donate 25 percent of its profits to them for five years. A Cantor Relief Fund, run by Lutnick’s sister Edie, was also organized to gather donations, coordinate volunteer efforts, hold events for the families and their children, and provide other forms of assistance.  

Gardner said she found the support groups that were formed particularly helpful.

“The most help everyone received was from ‘fellow travelers,’ as it were,” she said. “I definitely needed to be around people who were going through what I was going through, because it was a uniquely horrible experience. The community that was formed was absolutely helpful. There was a memorial for the first five years. Then they said, ‘Let’s do that for the first 10 years.’ And now I don’t know if we’re ever going to stop doing it, because, honestly, you need a place to go. And the best place to go is where you know you’ll be understood.

 “Nothing’s ever OK again, and nothing’s the same,” she concluded. “I don’t accept what happened here at all, but you live. I don’t think we’ve moved on. We’ve made it part of us; it’s always there, but we chose to live.”

“Out of the Clear Blue Sky” will be screened one night only, on Sept. 11, in theaters around the country.

Dr. Warren Hern listening to a patient in “After Tiller.” Photo courtesy of Oscilloscope

Veering off in a completely new direction, we come to the subject of late-term abortion with the film “After Tiller.” Dr. George Tiller, who practiced at his clinic in Wichita, Kan., was one of only a few doctors in this country who performed abortions after the third trimester, defined as beginning at 28 weeks of a pregnancy. Having survived a couple of attempts on his life, Tiller was murdered in 2009 by an anti-abortion extremist, leaving only the four doctors featured in this documentary to carry on his work.

The four include Dr. Warren Hern of Boulder, Colo., who talks of being lonely after his first marriage ended due to threats on his life because of his work, until he met and married his second wife, who once performed abortions in Cuba; Dr. LeRoy Carhart, who had to leave his practice in Nebraska when the state outlawed abortions after 20 weeks, with limited exceptions, and relocate to Maryland, where he was again confronted by anti-abortion activists; Dr. Susan Robinson, who trained under Tiller; and Dr. Shelley Sella, a former midwife, who alternates with Dr. Robinson at their practice in Albuquerque, N.M.

According to the nonprofit Guttmacher Institute, an organization that advocates for reproductive rights, third-trimester abortions account for less than 1 percent of all abortions performed in the United States. The film illuminates many of the reasons women, some of them actually anti-abortion, seek to terminate a late-term pregnancy, including fetal abnormalities, rape or incest and, sometimes, failure to realize or accept they are pregnant.

The film also makes clear the doctors, far from cavalier about their work, struggle with the complex issues and decisions they must make.  

At one point, Dr. Sella, who is Jewish and a lesbian, says she realizes that third-trimester abortions involve the delivery of a stillborn baby, and that she can’t think of the babies merely as fetuses.

In another section, Dr. Robinson, after contemplating one woman’s reasons for wanting an abortion at 28 weeks, decides not to perform the procedure.

“After Tiller” opens Oct. 4.

From left: Waad Mohammed and Abdullrahman Al Gohani in “Wadjda.” Photo by Tobias Kownatzki © Razor Film, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

We travel now to Saudi Arabia, where movie houses are banned and women are not supposed to mix with men at work. Nevertheless, Haifaa Al-Mansour defied tradition to become the first female filmmaker from that country. Her movie “Wadjda,” centers on a 10-year-old girl living outside Riyadh, the Saudi capital, who also defies her culture’s rules by attempting to raise money to buy a bicycle in a society that considers bike riding a threat to a girl’s purity. 

Wadjda (Waad Mohammed), wants to win a race with her friend Abdullah (Abdullrahman Al Gohani) and enters a school contest for Quran recitation in which the winner will get money. As she masters verses from the Quran, she begins to impress her teachers with her seeming piety. The competition is difficult, but the girl perseveres.   

Director Al-Mansour is quoted in the press notes as saying, “I hope I have made a film that is close to the lives of Saudi women and inspires and strengthens them to challenge the very complicated social and political encumbrances they are surrounded by. Although it is hard to deconstruct the deeply rooted traditions that deny women a dignified existence, especially since they are mixed with narrow interpretations of religion, it is a purpose that is worth striving for.”

“Wadjda” opens Sept. 13.

A still from “Salinger.” Photo courtesy of The Weinstein Company

J.D. Salinger, the elusive author of the iconic novel about adolescence, “Catcher in the Rye,” is the subject of a new biopic. Advance promotion promises that the film, “Salinger,” will include interviews with many of the writer’s friends and associates who have never before spoken publicly about him. Salinger was the product of a Jewish father and a mother of Scotch, German and Irish heritage.

Following the enormous success of “Catcher in the Rye,” the author became reclusive, moving from Manhattan to Cornish, N.H., where he died in 2010 at age 91. In the film, he is reportedly called “a modern-day Howard Hughes.”  To this day, he remains a figure about whom there is a great deal of myth and speculation.

In a New York Times interview published June 13 of this year, filmmaker Shane Salerno said, “Salinger is a massive figure in our culture and yet remains an extraordinary enigma. The critical and popular game over the last half-century has been to read the man through his work because the man would not speak, but the untold story of his life is more dramatic than anything he ever wrote. And that’s the story I wanted to tell: his life. Not the myth that has burned so brightly for nearly 50 years. I had three questions when I began this project nine years ago: 1. Why did J.D. Salinger stop publishing? 2. Why did he disappear? 3. And what has he been writing for 45 years?”

“Salinger” opens Sept. 6. 

“Jewtopia,” from left: Jon Lovitz, Rachel Fox, Rita Wilson, Joel David Moore, Jamie-Lynn Sigler, Camryn Manheim and Tom Arnold. Photo courtesy Jewtopia

Finally, we end with the comedy “Jewtopia,” adapted from the long-running off-Broadway play. Childhood friends Chris O’Connell (Ivan Sergei), who is not Jewish, and Adam Lipschitz (Joel David Moore), who is reunite as adults. Chris is determined to marry a Jewish girl, because he wants someone else to make all his decisions. He persuades Adam to train him to pass as a Jew so he can marry Alison Marks (Jennifer Love Hewitt). Meanwhile, Adam is engaged to the gynecologist Hannah Daniels (Jamie-Lynn Sigler) but is uncomfortable in the relationship.

The film is a satire on the clash of cultures and abounds with over-the-top stereotypes; the non-athletic, intellectual, asthmatic Jewish boy; the materialistic, controlling Jewish woman; the guilt-inducing, smothering Jewish mother; the militaristic, blue-collar gentile addicted to hunting, etc. 

Rita Wilson, Tom Arnold, Jon Lovitz, Wendie Malick and Rachel G. Fox round out the all-star cast.

“Jewtopia” open Sept. 20.

‘Jewtopia’s’ universal truths

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

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

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

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

“He deserves this,” Katz said. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jennifer Love Hewitt cast in ‘Jewtopia’ movie

Jennifer Love Hewitt was cast in a leading role for a movie version of “Jewtopia.”

Love Hewitt, who starred in the television show “The Ghost Whisperer,” and “Crossing Jordan” star Ivan Sergei will head the cast in an adaptation of the hit play and best-selling book, Variety reported.

“Jewtopia” is the longest-running off-Broadway comedy in history, with more than 1,200 performances.

Sergei will play Christian O’Connell, a non-Jewish plumber who wants a Jewish girlfriend to make all his decisions for him. He poses as a Jewish doctor with the help of his Jewish childhood friend Adam. 

Love Hewitt will portray Alison Marks, who meets Christian at a singles mixer at a synagogue.

Shorter, Snappier ‘Jewtopia’ Returns to L.A. Stage

Everything was at stake for Bryan Fogel before “Jewtopia,” the comedy he wrote and starred in with Sam Wolfson, opened at the Coast Playhouse in May 2003 and became a runaway hit.

The then-28-year-old actor racked up charges on his credit cards for the $80,000 production about two guys on the Jewish singles scene. If the effort bombed, Fogel promised himself and his concerned Jewish parents, he was going to quit show business.

“At the time, ‘Jewtopia’ was about trying to get an agent or a manager, because no one was having me,” he said while preparing to direct a new version of the show, opening July 15 at the Greenway Court Theatre. “It was an all-or-nothing, no-guts-no-glory kind of moment of trying to catch a break. But I couldn’t have begun to imagine that it would turn into what transpired.”

The eight-week run stretched into 17 months, becoming the longest-running original comedy in Los Angeles theater history. An off-Broadway production recouped its $625,000 investment within 20 weeks, prompting a story in Crain’s New York Business, and sold out many of its 1,100 shows in a two-and-a-half year run. Warner published a coffee-table book, “Jewtopia,” inspired by the play; more than 40 productions ensued around North America; and a movie adaptation is in the works, with Fogel attached to direct. Joan Rivers and other celebrities attended performances — as did Salmon Rushdie, who shmoozed with the playwrights over dinner after the show.

Seven years after its auspicious beginnings, Fogel is bringing “Jewtopia” back to Los Angeles to raise support for the film and to hone his own directing skills, as he has never officially directed the play. He is also welcoming the break from other Hollywood endeavors, especially “the development world, which is enough to make anyone want to kill themselves,” he quipped. “In the theater, the playwright really is king.” (Wolfson, who is not involved with the Greenway endeavor, has a new show, “Play Dates,” opening at The Elephant Theatre on July 10.)

The new Los Angeles “Jewtopia” production is “radically different” from the original, Fogel said: The script, published by Samuel French last year, is 40 minutes shorter, the result of tweaking over several thousand drafts. “We wanted to make it quicker, faster, funnier,” Fogel said. “A lot of moments in the old show were sweet or philosophical, especially at the end when the characters spoke about God and faith. But any time we’d see any kind of seriousness, we realized this isn’t the show for that.”

The play still opens as childhood friends Adam Lipschitz and Chris O’Connell bump into each other at an Inter-Temple Rockin’ Young Singles Mixer: “I love Jewish girls,” the Irish Catholic Chris proclaims. “Why?” Adam incredulously replies.

Chris explains that he wants to marry a Jew so he “never has to make another decision”; Lipschitz says he’s attending the event only to satisfy his mother, who forwards him the phone numbers of dozens of “nice Jewish girls” daily. And so the two men strike a deal: Chris will teach the socially awkward Adam how to pick up women, and Adam will show Chris how to come off as an MOT so he can land his dream girl. Broad, and at times raunchy, comedy ensues, including riffs on stereotypes such as cheesy Purim carnivals, inept rabbis, nightmare dates, and Jewish women and their mothers.

“Jewtopia” received criticism early on for what some perceived as unpleasant images of the Tribe, especially Jewish women; the new version still “skewers everyone,” Fogel said. “I believe the success of the comedy is that it’s an equal-opportunity satire,” he added. “Jewish men, for instance, come off as needy, health-obsessed, whining, complaining and unable to make decisions on their own.”

Even so, Fogel acknowledged some of the early jokes did go too far: The writers nixed a scene in which one of Lipschitz’s Jewish dates, a performance artist, urinates on him, and another in which Adam’s mom attempts to elicit guilt by citing the Holocaust.

“But everything in the show comes from a place of love,” Fogel insisted. Even the stereotypes. Like the fictional Adam, Fogel talks to his own mother at least seven times a day and begins each morning with an antacid and a puff on his asthma inhaler. His direction aims to play up the fun: “It will be very campy, very ‘Saturday Night Live,’ ” he said.

While seven or eight viewers used to walk out of early productions, Fogel believes audiences at the Greenway will stay put. “At this point, people know they’re coming to a comedy — a ridiculous comedy — not ‘A Shayna Mai-del,’ ” he said, referring to Barbara Lebow’s 1985 Holocaust drama.

And he attributes the show’s success — with audiences that have been about 65 percent Jewish and the rest non-Jewish — to its universal themes.

“We all know parents who nudge and children who rebel,” he said. “People recognize their own families, and themselves.”

“Jewtopia” is playing at the Greenway Court Theatre, 544 N. Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles. Previews are running now through July 11; the play officially opens July 15 and runs at least until Sept. 19. For tickets and information, visit www.jewtopiaplay.com or call (800) 595-4849.

Choice of a Jew generation

If you’re in a bookstore and see a book with two impish-looking guys trying to sneak a light for their cigarettes from a chanukiah, then you’ve happened upon “Jewtopia: The Chosen Book for the Chosen People” (Warner).

Yes, the saga of Los Angeles’ longest running original play continues. “Jewtopia,” the play, was first brought to us in 2003 by two unemployed writers/actors who maxed out their credit cards to mount the funny, if somewhat stereotypical, comedy about dating and Jews. It was originally supposed to run for six weeks but was so popular that it extended for another year, then left in 2004 for an off-Broadway run in New York, where it’s still playing to sold-out audiences.
Now Bryan Fogel and Sam Wolfson, the creators and sometime actors in the play have expanded their “Jewtopia” vision into a book, and they are working on a movie deal as well. The 200-plus page color book, might be mistaken for a coffee table book — except that much of the material inside is not fit for the living room.

Consider, “The Jewish Kama Sutra: An Illustrated Guide to Lovemaking,” because “Jews are certainly not known for their prowess and skills in the bedroom.” Positions include “The Challah,” “The Heimlich,” “The Reader” “The Minyan” and “Bubbe’s Visit” (She cleans while he…oh, don’t ask.)

“It’s to be read in the bathroom only,” jokes Wolfson, who plays Adam Lipschitz, a Jewish guy facing extraordinary parental pressure to marry a Jewish woman.

“I think it should be read at the family seder — it’s a good substitute for the Haggadah,” replies Fogel, who in the show plays Chris O’Connell, a Christian obsessed with meeting a Jewish woman who strikes up a bargain with Adam to help him pass as a Jew if Chris can find Adam a date.

To be sure, there’s more than just sex jokes in “Jewtopia: The Chosen Book…” There’s a chapter on Jewish History, the Holidays (“Celebrate the Bad Times”), Food (“Anyone Have Some Zantac?”) Travel (“Planes, Trains and Diarrhea”) and Conspiracy Theories (“Do Jews Control the World?”) with real, live facts mixed in with, well, bubbemeises, like Moses’ lost diary or the game “Match the Nose to the Jew.”

In a world where it’s hip to be sardonic about Jewish identity (Heeb, Jewcy, Rabbis Daughter) “Jewtopia: The Chosen Book…” is a more idealistic, “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Jewish Stereotypes” kind of take on our people-sophomoric and sometimes scatological humor by two guys who are clearly having fun.

“We kind of consider ourselves the Trey Parker and Matt Stone of the Jewish world,” Wolfson says, referring to the creators of “South Park.” “Not so much enforcing stereotypes but having fun with them.

So they’re not self-hating Jews?

“We hate ourselves for so many other reasons,” Wolfson says. “There are so many good reasons to hate ourselves aside from being Jewish.”

Bryan Fogel and Sam Wolfson will be reading from “Jewtopia: The Chosen Book for the Chosen People” on Nov. 2, at 7:30 p.m. at Barnes and Noble, 16461 Ventura Blvd., Encino.— Amy Klein, Religion Editor

Q & A With Jewtopia Creators Bryan Fogel and Sam Wolfson

“Are you interested in a 29-year-old Jewish girl?”

I’m standing in the foyer of the Coast Playhouse in West Hollywood talking to Bryan Fogel, the co-writer/co-producer/co-star of “Jewtopia” — a play that parodies dating, JDating, interdating, rabbis, Passover seders, Purim, Chanukah bushes, bar mitzvahs, shofar blowing, other types of blowing, goyim, Asian fixations, synagogue memberships and, most of all, Jewish women and their overbearing mothers — when this overbearing Jewish mother shamelessly accosts Fogel outside his dressing room to peddle her daughter to him.

“I tried to bring her today, but she couldn’t come,” the gray-haired woman continues, describing her daughter, eventually extracting Fogel’s information from him (“It’s on the Playbill,” Fogel says).

The whole exchange was all the more surreal because we had just spent the past two hours watching a play in which she could have been one of the characters.

That seems to be the thing about “Jewtopia:” it skewers Jewish stereotypes, and still leaves most of the subjects of the satire laughing (like the aforementioned unfazed pushy mother).

The two-hour play tells the story of Adam Lipschitz (Sam Wolfson), a Jewish guy facing extraordinary parental pressure (normal for Jewish parents) to marry a Jewish woman, who meets up with an old friend, Chris O’Connell (Fogel), a Christian obsessed with meeting a Jewish woman. They strike a Faustian bargain: Sam will help Chris pass as Jewish if Chris helps Sam find a Jewish woman to marry.

When The Journal first saw “Jewtopia” on opening night last May, it was originally set for a six-week run. Nine sold-out months later and 40 minutes shorter, the play is about to hit its 150th performance. Fogel and Wolfson, together with Clear Channel Communications, are taking “Jewtopia” to Chicago in April and, if all goes well, they plan to open in Boston, Miami and New York within the next year.

The Jewish Journal: What do you think of this “Jewtopia” phenomenon?

Bryan Fogel: When we wrote “Jewtopia” we were hoping it was funny, that people would have our sense of humor and our sensibility — but statistically, [knowing] L.A., we were holding our breath — and we were prepared to be $80,000 in debt.

Before the opening weekend we did a marketing thing with JDate and The Jewish Federation and other singles groups, and from that point on it just took off. Once the [Los Angeles] Times review came out [last May] we sold 1,500 tickets. From that Friday on, we were sold out two months ahead of time. It was just totally bizarre.

JJ: How do you account for the popularity of the show?

Sam Wolfson: Who knows why people laugh at what? [At] our show last night one-third of the people were between 20-30, one-third were between 30-60 and one-third were between 60-80 years old. [Comedian] Jan Murray brought like 12 people with him. They laughed as much as the 20-years-olds.

There’s been this wild age crossover.

BF: There’s our generation, and my grandparents’ and parents’ generation, who stayed where they were born. There was never any issue that they weren’t going to marry a Jew; our generation is the first generation — and I think it’s similar for Christianity, too. I love being Jewish, but I think that our generation is the first generation that crossed that line between being a cultural versus a practicing Jew. I think that our generation has started to question all that.

SW: A perfect example of why people are going nuts for it: This woman, she must’ve been 70 or something, and she said, “My son married a Mongolian [a character in the play meets a Mongolian woman]. I can’t believe it! How did you come up with Mongolia? This is my life!”

BF: We had the founder of JDate, Alon Carmel [and he said], “This is my Mongolian wife — she’s Japanese, and this is my half-breed child.” My character Chris [is based on my sister’s husband] — he had the same military/hunting/fishing background; he converted, and he’s more Jewish than she’s ever been.

I think that what’s working — everything we’re doing is in really, really good fun. The whole show comes from a love of Judaism. I love being Jewish. We’ve taken some stereotypes and turned them on their head in a way that everyone can identify. What we’re doing is not spiteful, it’s not coming from any other place but this zany, irreverence for our culture. When the Buddist says at the seder, “We can stop suffering and reach enlightenment, and the grandfather asks, “Stop suffering?” it’s about a love for our culture, and I think that the audiences love it. We’re pleasing most of the people. There’s always one person who says this is offensive. But I think that people can say that we’re not making fun.

JJ: People either love it or hate it. What offends people? And does this bother you?

BF: In my opinion, 97 percent love it. That 2 or 3 percent who hate it, I think that’s a small percentage. It seems to be the older people, or observant, who think we take it too far, that it reinforces Jewish stereotypes.

SW: These jokes have been going on for 100 years and suddenly we’re responsible for perpetuating it?

BF: Jackie Mason, Jerry Seinfeld, Larry David, this self-deprecating humor is Jewish humor, so when I hear that they are offended, I think they would be offended by Jackie Mason, too.

SW: I do feel like if a lot of these jokes were done by those guys — if it was in “The Producers” they [audiences] wouldn’t think twice. It’s OK if it’s an established comedian, but not from two punks who haven’t done it before. Nobody likes everything. But the fact that people who don’t like it really don’t like it — I think that it means we’re doing something right.

JJ: Speaking of offensive, I thought the play was a bit misogynistic. (Are Jewish women really that bad?)

BF: I don’t think the play is misogynistic at all. There’s no gray area in the play — we just decided to make everything zany and over-the-top. Obviously in real life you don’t get peed on [as Sam does on one of his 150 JDates] but I don’t think that the stereotypes are directed at Jewish women…. Just overall craziness, rather than anything grounded in reality.

SW: Stereotypes are so ridiculous. We made a conscious decision never to make the Fran Drescher-type, “Friends” Janice-type. In terms of presenting the Jewish girl … when I’m on the phone [making dates with 150 Jewish women] I’m happy about it! I’m excited! I break down because I’m broke and haven’t had sex for six months…. We never wanted it to be “Jewish women are bad and evil.”

BF: It’s coming from the two guys that wrote it, and the single dating world. My mother is my best friend. There was nothing in our writing spiteful. Sam’s last three girlfriends have been Jewish.

JJ: Go Sam! Perhaps misogynistic is the wrong word. Perhaps it’s just uneven — skewering Jewish women and not Jewish men.

BF: We did write about Jewish men. He has the pressure of marrying a Jewish woman. These two guys have a lot of flaws. You couldn’t look at these guys and think they’re the ideal guy.

SW: No Jewish women were harmed when writing this play.

JJ: What is the message of this play? Is Adam’s statement at the end, that “we’re all people and we should all get along,” a statement in favor of intermarriage?

BF: It’s a reality, that last monologue, that for better or for worse, it’s more grounded in the real world. In the ideal world, I’d find a Jewish girl and you’d find a Jewish guy, but the importance has diminished because there hasn’t been the threat of persecution — that we have to stay together or we’ll die. If I could just find a Jewish girl that I was into, wouldn’t my life be easier. Well, that’s not as exciting.

SW: I’m sure it’s the same for everyone and every religion. It’s a part of the culture, I guess.

JJ: Has this gotten you more dates?

SW: Well, it hasn’t been bad. We have both met girls through the show.

JJ: Bryan, would you go out with that girl whose mother was peddling her the day I saw the show?

BF: I would certainly entertain the idea.

“Jewtopia” plays at 8 p.m. (Thursdays-Saturdays) and 3
p.m. (Sundays) at the Coast Playhouse, 8325 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood.
Tickets are $27.50 and can be obtained by calling (800) 595-4849 or visiting www.jewtopiaplay.com .

O.C. Finds Itself in a State of ‘Jewtopia’

The hit play “Jewtopia” began when Sam Wolfson and Bryan Fogel envisioned two guys at a temple singles mixer with “Hava Nagila” pumping. “We decided the gentile was there because he likes Jewish girls, and the Jew was there because of family pressure,” Fogel said.

The scene evolved into an irreverent comedy about Adam (Wolfson), a Jew who dislikes Jewish women, and Chris (Fogel), a non-Jew who lusts after them. It includes over-the-top riffs on cliches such as JAPs, cheesy Purim carnivals, theme bar mitzvahs and the politically incorrect word shvartze. The goal is to “lovingly exploit Jewish stereotypes the way plays like ‘Nunsense’ exploit Catholic ones,” Wolfson said.

While the authors initially worried the piece might offend viewers, the opposite occurred. Since its May debut, “Jewtopia” has consistently sold out West Hollywood’s Coast Playhouse and drawn groups from organizations as diverse as JDate and the Jewish Community Center (JCC) of Orange County.

Two JCC nights proved so popular that a third is set for July 20. “We’re still talking about it,” the center’s Marlisse Marcus said of the play. “Like when people take forever to order in a restaurant, we’ll go, ‘That’s just like the Jews in ‘Jewtopia.’ The play is hysterical and makes an impression on anyone who’s ever been single, which actually is everyone.”

The Orange County participants also made an impression on the playwrights. “They took pictures of us outside the theater and asked for our autographs,” Wolfson said. “It was like we were real Hollywood celebrities.”

The authors, both 30, were struggling actors when they began creating what would become “Jewtopia” last year. Because they wanted a short piece to perform at one-act festivals, they improvised a sketch set at a synagogue mixer. “Jewtopia” was born when ex-Paramount chief Frank Yablans saw the piece and urged them to write a full-length play.

For material, the authors turned to their Jewish roots. Wolfson, of Jacksonville, Fla., remembered how he dressed up as “Miami Vice” star Don Johnson at his bar mitzvah party. Fogel, raised “Conservadox” in Denver, recalled how guilty he felt when he married a non-Jew.

In the play, Fogel’s Hungarian wife becomes Rachel the Mongolian, who shocks Adam’s parents at the family seder. Adam’s mom, like Wolfson’s, insists it’s his duty to marry Jewish. She leaves the kind of messages Wolfson receives on his voice mail: “My relatives will call and say, ‘ I want you to phone Allison Steingold. I haven’t spoken with her, but her mother’s friend’s canasta partner says she’s very pretty.'”

The characters’ JDate exploits also reflect Wolfson’s experience. “Firetushy is real,” he said of one woman’s screen name. “Jewable is real.”

Mining cliches struck gold for the novice playwights when Yablans agreed to raise one-third of “Jewtopia’s” $80,000 budget and to produce it at the prestigious Coast Playhouse. Acclaimed theater director Andy Fickman (“Reefer Madness!”) signed on because the characters “reminded me of my Jewish family,” he told The Journal.

Nevertheless, the authors appeared to panic during an interview just before opening night two months ago. While fiddling with his briefcase full of allergy medications — another stereotype in the play — Fogel worried he’d be perceived as self-hating. “But we’re nice Jewish boys who love our mothers,” he said, administering a squirt of nasal spray. “We don’t mean any harm.”

Both authors were relieved when audiences appeared to agree. “Jewtopia” is playing at the Coast through Aug. 10, two months longer than expected. Off-Broadway venues such as the Manhattan Theatre Club have expressed interest in booking the show.

The authors, meanwhile, are fielding calls from A-list agents who hope to sign them. “This is so surreal,” Fogel said of his newfound success. “Because I’m a nervous, neurotic person, I’m convinced it all could disappear in an instant.”

The more laid-back Wolfson has a different concern.

“Please say in the article that I’m looking for a nice Jewish girl,” he told a reporter. “And send all inquiries to my mother.”

To attend the July 20 JCC event and to find out about other possible “Jewtopia” outings, call (714) 755-0340, ext. 135. For tickets to other “Jewtopia” performances, call (877) TIX-4JEW.