Sunday, October 9
Those curious about how writers write and live get an inside look at the Workmen’s Circle’s “Writing Lives” program. Six L.A. authors, including Arnold Simon and Susanne Reyto, participate in a panel discussion, Q-&-A and book signing, discussing aspects of the writing process — from inspiration, to writer’s block to getting published.
2 p.m. Free. 1525 S. Robertson Blvd., Los Angeles. R.S.V.P., (310) 552-2007
Monday, October 10
Happy Birthday, Danny Pearl. The Wall Street Journal reporter who was killed by terrorists in Pakistan would have been 42 today. Since his tragic death, the Daniel Pearl Foundation has worked to promote the things Pearl cared about most, from journalistic integrity to music. Daniel Pearl Music Days have taken place annually since 2002, from Oct. 1-10, but various other events honoring his memory continue this month.
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Tuesday, October 11
Offering a voice of moderation between “Fortress America” and “open borders” immigration philosophies is journalist and author Tamar Jacoby. Hear her argument for “Fixing America’s Immigration System” at today’s Zacalo series public lecture at the downtown Central Library.
7 p.m. Free. Central Library Mark Taper Auditorium, 524 S. Flower St., Los Angeles. R.S.V.P., (213) 403-0416.
Wednesday, October 12
Joanne Gordon pays homage to the writings of lauded poet Charles Bukowski in the play she conceived and directed, “Love, Bukowski,” which opens Cal Rep’s 2005-2006 season. This is Gordon’s second tribute to the prose and poetry writer, which she describes as “dipping into the world of Bukowski’s books, broads and booze.”
$15-$20. Edison Theatre, Long Beach. ” width=”15″ height=”1″ alt=””>
Thursday, October 13
Catch a sneak preview of “Patriot Act: A Jeffrey Ross Home Movie” today at the American Cinematheque. What began as an opportunity to entertain troops on a USO tour became a life-changing experience for comedian Ross, who documented his experience, from pre-trip conversations with “M*A*S*H” creator Larry Gelbart to sharing a Rosh Hashanah meal with Jewish soldiers at Saddam’s Birthday Palace. Ross and additional cast members will appear for discussion after the film subject to availability.
7:30 p.m. $6-$9. Lloyd E. Rigler Theatre, 6712 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 466-3456.
Friday, October 14
Proud Jewess (“a word invented by others to conjure someone bossy… that I have reappropriated as prideful”) Jill Soloway reads from her chick-friendly humorist debut book, “Tiny Ladies in Shiny Pants,” at Serifos bookstore. It’s the last stop on the “Six Feet Under” co-executive producer’s book tour, and some of her favorite actresses, including Frances Conroy and Sprague Grayden, will be helping her out with tonight’s reading.
7 p.m. 3814 W. Sunset Blvd., Silver Lake. (323) 660-7467.
7 Days in The Arts
‘Call Waiting’ Rings Emotional Bell
There’s pain and then there’s the big pain.
Pain is what happens in a regular life — the predictable illnesses, disappointments and aggravations. The big pain is something like the Holocaust and the aftermath of surviving it.
The larger pain makes the regular mode of suffering seem unworthy, even whiny.
Coming to terms with someone else’s anguish is one subject of “Call Waiting,” a new film about the bedridden daughter of Holocaust survivors. The film stars Caroline Aaron, who recreates her successful turn from the stage version. Aaron can relate to the material, both because she is Jewish and because her family has its own significant pain.
“It’s odd how life morphs into art,” Aaron said.
In the film based on Dori Fram’s play, the fictional Judy Baxter (played by Aaron) is paralyzed not only by her excruciating bladder disease, but also by her inability to write her parents’ Holocaust story. There’s also a wartime secret that threatens Baxter’s relationship with her sister.
“So she represses her feelings, which makes her ill,” said playwright Fram, who also wrote the movie.
Aaron performed the hilarious, poignant play to rave reviews in 1994 and 2001. And she could personally identify with her character’s belief that as the daughter of Holocaust survivors, her own suffering doesn’t count.
Aaron’s late mother was a survivor of another sort. A Virginia civil rights activist, she had to endure cross-burnings on her front lawn and, more tragically, the loss of her husband and both parents at the age of 38.
“You don’t feel entitled to your pain when you come from the big pain,” Aaron said.
Aaron also related to the movie character’s sibling rivalry, because she, too, had a difficult relationship with a strong-willed older sister, Josie Abady — a prominent director. Abady resisted employing her sister because they were related.
“I wanted nepotism to be on my side, but it was not,” Aaron said.
Her resentments melted away when Abady was diagnosed with terminal cancer some years ago.
“I realized I didn’t have time for sibling rivalry, because the luxury of growing old together was off the table,” she said.
The Los Angeles-based actress often flew to New York to spend time with her sister, attending every medical procedure and caring for Abady in the months before her death in May 2003.
She’d already been cast for the film version of the play, but had second thoughts after her sister died, because the material hit so close to home. Aaron was uncertain about whether she wanted to proceed when she met with director Jodi Binstock (“Boy Meets World”) and producers Dan Bucatinsky (“All Over the Guy”) and Don Roos (“The Opposite of Sex”).
“I thought the film would either give me a safe, constructive place to express my sorrow, or it would expand it into a gaping wound,” she said.
In the end, Aaron decided to use her anguish. She believed her performance would be more convincing, because she connected to the material in a new way: “For the first time, I understood what it meant for Judy to challenge her sister and risk losing her forever,” she said. “I knew the stakes, and it heightened and intensified my work.”
The 48-year-old Aaron (“Crimes and Misdemeanors” and “Bounce”) recently discussed the movie — which has won awards on the festival circuit — in her homey Hancock Park living room, surrounded by photographs of Abady and other family members. She exudes the same manic Jewish humor and melodramatic flair as her character, and like her character, also seems addicted to the phone, cocking her head each time the answering machine picked up (which it did four times in a half hour).
Dressed in black sweats and heavy silver jewelry, she recalled how she was startled when the producers said they wanted to shoot “Call Waiting” as a one-person movie. She had assumed that they would hire other actors to portray the characters on the other side of her character’s phone conversations. After all, one-person films are rare (one example is Robert Altman’s acclaimed “Secret Honor” (1984) starring Philip Baker Hall as Richard Nixon).
The producers believed such a movie would work, because “Caroline’s conversations in the play are so vivid, it feels more like a show with a dozen characters,” producer Roos said. Even so, the producers planned to make the monologue more cinematic by adding several scenes with one new character, who also is played by Aaron.
The new character is “desperately afraid to admit she’s needed by others, while Aaron’s character is scared to death to acknowledge that she needs her sister,” producer Bucatinsky said.
For Aaron — who often talks about how much she misses Abady — the film did not provide any kind of emotional catharsis.
“I don’t feel like I’ll ever completely work through the loss of my sister,” she said. “But at least the movie gave me a safe place in which to express those feelings.”
“Call Waiting” screens Oct. 5 at the Arpa International Film Festival. Other Arpa Jewish films include the documentaries “Between Two Worlds,” about a Jewish World War II pilot, and “American Holocaust,” which draws parallels between the Nazi and Native American genocides. For information, go to www.affma.org
“Call Waiting” will also screen Oct. 7 at the Majestic Crest Theater in Westwood: www.westwoodfilmfestival.com.
Kingsley’s ‘Twist’ on a Dickens Thief
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
‘Cinderella’ Villain Not Such a Bad Guy
Still’s ‘Waters’ Run Deep
In James Still’s “A Long Bridge Over Deep Waters,” a Catholic Cambodian asks an elderly Jew, “Why don’t you believe in Jesus?”
The senior citizen replies that she regards Jesus as “a revolutionary Jew,” not the savior — and that she would rather argue with God than feel awe for Him.
The debate is typical of “Waters,” a series of intense encounters between 57 members of 10 Los Angeles religious communities produced by the multicultural Cornerstone Theater. It’s the culmination of the company’s four-year faith-based theater cycle, which staged eight projects on creeds from Mormon to Baha’i. According to Cornerstone’s Lee Lawlor, “‘Waters,’ is a ‘bridge show’ incorporating all the groups, in our tradition of building bridges between diverse communities.”
With so much ground to cover, Still found “Waters” initially “overwhelming.” The 46-year-old playwright grew up Methodist in a Kansas town and did not meet many minorities until his church exchange program with a synagogue when he was 15. Yet he understood what it was like to be ‘the other,’ given that he was gay. “I yearned to find out if anyone else felt they were on the margins, or hated, or invisible,” he said.
Cornerstone’s faith project drew him, in part, because “it’s scary now for minorities to discuss religion in this country,” he said. “There’s pressure to talk about faith as one thing only, and that is Christianity.”
To structure the sprawling “Waters,” Still drew on Arthur Schnitzler’s classic play, “La Ronde,” in which scenes are connected by protagonists moving from one sequence to another. To create his characters, he conducted more than 1,000 hours of interviews; a “spiritual restlessness” among some Jews inspired the fictional Alan, who is secular but considers synagogue after his mother’s death. Other characters include a Hindu who clashes with her Muslim roommate; an all-American family of atheists; and a lesbian Jewish mother, Connie.
Actress Lisa Robins, who plays Connie, feels spiritually challenged by her role. Like her character, she is a Jewish single mother who has explored other religions but is investigating Judaism now that she has a child. “But Connie has much more of a commitment to the religion,” she said. “When I say onstage that I believe in God, I’m actually wondering, ‘What do I believe.’ It’s awkward.”
Still intended awkward moments to occur throughout “Waters:” “The play is about how faith both unites and divides us,” he said.
“Waters” plays at the Ford Amphitheater June 2-12. For tickets, call (323) 461-3673.
Faith, Fans Keep ‘Everwood’ Climbing
7 Days in the Arts
Saturday, December 11
Today and tomorrow only, the award-winning “Underneath the Lintel” returns to the Sacred Fools Theater Company. Playwright Glen Berger’s story about a Dutch librarian who feels compelled to hunt down a man whose library book is 123 years overdue is really about the search for the sublime. Is the delinquent really the Wandering Jew of Christian myth? And if so, does Berger’s play have anti-Semitic undertones? In more modern mythology, the Wandering Jew has been upheld as a hero, rather than a villain, and that’s how many have interpreted the play. How will you?
10 p.m. (Saturday), 7 p.m. (Sunday). $10. 660 N. Heliotrope Drive, Hollywood. (310) 281-8337.
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7 Days in the Arts
A Bite Out
Playwright Leon Martell was dining at Canter’s when his thoughts drifted to Billy Gray, the Jewish comic whose name had graced a 1950s nightclub on Fairfax.
Billy Gray’s Band Box had been a sexy, Hollywood gangsterland kind of joint where stars like Lou Costello had schmoozed with mobster Mickey Cohen. But the club was long gone and Gray’s name had faded from Fairfax, Martell noted — until he glanced at the menu and saw the Billy Gray Band Box special.
"Billy lives on in the Fairfax — as a chopped liver sandwich," he said.
The special helped inspire a play, "The History of Fairfax According to a Sandwich," which traces how the neighborhood evolved while "preserving elements of the old inside the new," according to Martell. "You may be a headliner today and chopped liver tomorrow, but what we do while we are here echoes. And the Fairfax is full of echoes, from the Gilmore Adobe to the Silent Movie Theatre to Canter’s."
The play opens at Canter’s as a fictionalized version of Gray performs for "meshugge guitar kids" who wander in from the hipstery Kibitz Room next door. Other historical characters include Portuguese immigrant Antonio Jose Rocha, who owned the 1830s cattle ranch at what’s now Third and Fairfax; E.B. Gilmore, who created the Farmers Market a century later; Mickey Cohen, who smuggled arms to the Irgun; and Rabbi Jacob Sonderling, who commissioned new Jewish music for his Fairfax Temple in 1937.
"To stay alive, tradition must evolve," as that character says in the play.
"Sandwich" evolved when the artistic directors at Greenway Arts Alliance, located at 544 N. Fairfax, commissioned historical playwright Martell to write a piece on their neighborhood last year.
"There was surprisingly little written on the area, especially compared to Hollywood, so our project was like an archeological dig," Greenway’s Whitney Weston said.
"Sandwich" includes juicy historical tidbits that Martell ("Beautiful in the Extreme") unearthed during his research. For example: how a young, homeless Costello slept in the baseball dugout where The Grove is now; and how Cohen clashed with "respectable" Jews such as studio mogul Louis B. Mayer.
"What I hope to do is open up the Fairfax District — its many levels and peoples — and get a look at where it all came from on a personal level," Martell said. "History is a million personal stories interacting…. Together they’ve made the present what it is."
The play runs Oct. 1-Nov. 7 at the Greenway Court Theatre. For more information, call (323) 655-7679.
7 Days In Arts
Partying With the Many Faces of ‘Alma’
Alma Mahler-Gropius-Werfel, who married and bedded a string of the 20th century’s most creative geniuses, is celebrating her 125th birthday — and what a party it’s going to be.
For the occasion, guests, after running a paparazzi gantlet and imbibing a welcoming drink, will meet not one but three Almas in various incarnations, enjoy a three-course Viennese dinner, participate in a funeral procession for a famous composer and take a bus tour of downtown Los Angeles.
All right, ma’am, the facts: Previews for “Alma” started Sept. 23, with an opening night of Sept. 30 at the resurrected Los Angeles Theatre, the ultimate movie palace of the 1930s. Closing night is Dec. 5.
Israeli playwright Joshua Sobol, remembered for his rather more somber “Ghetto” and “The Soul of a Jew” at the Taper Forum in the late 1980s, describes “Alma” as a polydrama — which means that the audience, limited to 200 per performance, doesn’t just sit there, but moves with the play and its individual characters through some 15 locations on different levels inside and outside the theater.
At any given point, there are five different scenes under way simultaneously, and depending which scenes and characters the spectator chooses to follow, each experiences a different play.
“What we have is the theatrical equivalent of surfing the Internet,” said Sobol during an interview at the L.A. Athletic Club. “You dive in and out, change Web sites or follow an interesting link. We’re exploring a new relationship between the audience and the actors.”
During a really, really full life of 85 years, Alma, born in Vienna in 1879 and died in New York in 1964, bewitched and dazzled a who’s who of great artists with her looks, charm and intelligence.
At 22, she married composer-conductor Gustav Mahler, 20 years her senior. In one scene of the play, taken from life, Mahler consults Sigmund Freud about his impotence problems.
After a nine-year marriage, Mahler died and Alma wed Bauhaus architect Walter Gropius; although passionate, the marriage didn’t last.
When she was almost 50, she was wooed and wed by novelist Franz Werfel, 11 years her junior. During and between various marriages, Alma engaged in intense affairs with painters Gustav Klimt and Oskar Kokoschka, and a list of other great artists.
Even when she was in her 60s, and rather stout, such screen idols as Charlie Chaplin and Errol Flynn paid her court, while she and Werfel lived on Bedford Drive in Beverly Hills. Her last recorded lover was a priest.
As satirist Tom Lehrer put it in his song (which will be heard in the play), “The loveliest girl in Vienna/ Was Alma — the smartest as well/ Once you picked her up on your antenna/ You’d never be free of her spell.”
And then, “Alma — tell us, all modern women are jealous/ Though you didn’t even use Ponds/ You got Gustav and Walter and Franz.”
Among the curious psychological aspects of Alma, who married the Jewish Mahler and Werfel, was her anti-Semitism, which she easily absorbed in the prevailing Viennese milieu. Her stepfather later became a prominent Nazi.
“Alma didn’t particularly like Jews, but she couldn’t imagine living without them,” observed Paulus Manker, the play’s director.
Added Sobol, “She was attracted by Jewish intellectualism, and though she boasted of receiving the ‘pure Aryan seed’ of a Gropius, after a while she seemed to find her gentile lovers boring.”
Sobol visualizes Alma as a transitional figure between the dutiful Germanic housewife of the late 19th century and the liberated woman of a century later.
When she married Mahler, for instance, she accepted his condition that she drop her own musical ambitions and devote herself solely to his welfare.
“But after that, she picked her own geniuses and tried to dominate them,” Sobol said.
“Alma,” the polydrama, premiered in the title character’s birthplace in Vienna, then opened in her waystations of Venice and Lisbon. The performances in Los Angeles, where she spent 12 years, will be followed next year by New York, her final retirement place, ending the international tour. The play visits all these cities, as well as Tel Aviv, where Alma and Werfel spent their 1926 honeymoon.
In its premiere production in Vienna, “Alma” was scheduled for 15 experimental performances, but, after word of mouth got around, it ran for seven years, Sobol said.
The Los Angeles Theatre, at downtown Sixth Street and Broadway, was built in the French baroque style recalling the royal court of Louis XIV, France’s “Sun King.” It opened in 1931 with the gala premiere of Chaplin’s “City Lights,” in the presence of the star and a visiting Albert Einstein.
Director Manker gave a visitor a tour of the refurbished theater, now transformed to include elegant salons, a bathing cellar, Italian cafe, kitchen, ballroom and Alma’s active boudoir. And don’t miss the marble-inlaid rest room, where in one scene Alma’s three husbands get together to compare notes on their beloved. Karen Kondazian, last seen here as Maria Callas in Terrance McNally’s “Master Class,” will play the key role of the elderly Alma.
“Alma,” will run Thursday through Sunday evenings at 615S. Broadway, Los Angeles. On opening night, Sept. 30, tickets are $125, whichincludes welcoming drinks, the gourmet repast and free valet parking. Fortickets, call (213) 688-2994. For more information, visit www.alma-mahler.com .
7 Days In Arts
Playwright’s Alter Ego Returns Home
For Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Donald Margulies, "Brooklyn Boy" represents both a return and a departure.
Like several of his early plays, the drama explores obsessions culled from his Brooklyn boyhood: "The legacies parents instill in their children, the continuity of wounding that occurs from generation to generation, the relationship between fathers and sons in particular," the 49-year-old author said.
"But while my previous Brooklyn plays have involved the coming of age of various Marguliesian figures, I’ve never really let myself be a man in Brooklyn," he continued. "This is the first time I’ve placed a middle-aged alter ego on that turf."
"Boy" revolves around 40ish novelist Eric Weiss, who returns home — actually to the hospital where he was born — to visit his dying father, Manny, a shoe salesman. It’s his first trip back in a while, and he’s ambivalent: "I saw what Brooklyn did to my parents, and I knew I had to get the hell out of here," he tells a friend. "I saw … the fear, the xenophobia, the suffocating double grip the Holocaust and the Depression had around their throats."
Yet Eric has just had his first literary success with a semiautobiographical novel.
"So he’s at a juncture where he’s realizing that Brooklyn isn’t just a place he has to keep himself in exile from," actor Adam Arkin (Eric) said. "He’s coming to see that whatever he has to offer as an artist is going to have to embrace who and what he was there. And what he had regarded as a kind of purgatory now can be a kind of key to his being whole."
It appears that Margulies made a parallel journey. Before a recent rehearsal at South Coast Repertory, he described growing up surrounded by Holocaust survivors who "instilled in me a kind of fatalism and morbid fascination for recent Jewish history." His American-born father, meanwhile, was an overworked wallpaper salesman, "physically affectionate but prone to mysterious silences," who lived in fear of losing a job he loathed.
These twin shadows of the Holocaust and the Depression "instilled certain fears in me, legacies I had to shake," Margulies said.
The playwright did so, in part, through his work. "The Model Apartment" (1984) is a kind of "Frankenstein" story in which Holocaust survivors have created a monster in their schizophrenic daughter; "What’s Wrong With This Picture?" (1985) features an artsy kid named Artie who spars with his father; "The Loman Family Picnic" (1988) tells of a downtrodden salesman whose son is writing a musical comedy version of "Death of a Salesman."
Margulies’ intensely personal (but not strictly autobiographical) work places him in a unique niche.
"[He] does not have the master work plan of an August Wilson … or the political urgencies of a Paula Vogel or Tony Kushner to shape and drive his work from play to play," said Jerry Patch, dramaturg of South Coast Repertory. "Instead, his theatrical output, now more than a dozen plays, six of which have enjoyed prominent lives on American stages, has come from assessing his own changing vision of himself and the world in which he lives."
So it makes sense that Margulies eventually left Brooklyn — and tales of restless, artist sons — to explore midlife concerns. "Sight Unseen" (1991) describes a painter, catapulted to superfame, who struggles with his identity as an artist and a Jew. The Pulitzer-winning "Dinner With Friends"(1999) was inspired by Margulies’ observations of "a succession of domestic catastrophes" in his circle.
"Brooklyn Boy" began with another observation several years ago.
"My wife and so many of our contemporaries were dealing with failing and dying parents," he said. Since Margulies’ own parents had died by the time he was 32, inventing the fictional Manny was "an opportunity to create a fantasy of what an aged version of my father might have been like."
The character also "embodies so many of the generation who are now failing and dying; very often first-generation American Jews who were battered by the war and the Depression; who married and did all the traditional things and are now at the end of their lives with their generally overpsychoanalyzed children."
It was the late playwright Herb Gardner ("Conversations With My Father") who persuaded Margulies to set the piece back home: "I’d steadfastly steered clear of Brooklyn for a time in my work, because I feared I’d tread familiar ground," he said. "But Herb convinced me it was an exciting prospect to revisit Brooklyn at this stage of my life, not as a boy but as a man."
Perhaps the play is Margulies’ way of acknowledging Brooklyn as a source of creativity, as well as shadows.
"’Brooklyn Boy’ feels to me like the work of a more mature writer, so I’m glad I made the trip," he said.
The play runs Sept. 10-Oct. 10 at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa (previews are Sept. 3-9); for tickets, call (714) 708-5555 or visit www.scr.org. Margulies will speak Sept. 9 as part of Chapman University’s Visiting Writers Series at Kennedy Hall. For more information, call (714) 997-6750.
7 Days In Arts
Odets Revival Hits Venice, Long Beach
Clifford Odets burst onto Broadway in 1935, when three plays by the 29-year-old actor-writer — "Waiting for Lefty," "Awake and Sing" and "Paradise Lost" — opened in the same year.
Odets, the son of Jewish immigrants, was an early member of the fabled Group Theatre in New York, which combined left-wing politics with social realism to help bring American drama into the 20th century.
Some 40 years after this debut, so conservative a critic as Walter Kerr of The New York Times classified Odets as the most talented American playwright next to Eugene O’Neill.
By a happy coincidence, or astute sense of timing, there is a mini-Odets revival under way in the Los Angeles area, with two of his plays now on the boards in Venice and Long Beach.
"Rocket to the Moon" forsakes the proletarian rhetoric of Odets’ early plays for a subtler probing of middle-class characters, caught in the Depression and the wearisome routine of their daily lives.
"Rocket" is among Odets’ rarely revived dramas, which is our loss as demonstrated by the gripping performance by the Pacific Resident Theatre in Venice, teaming up with the West Coast Jewish Theatre.
Set during a sweltering New York summer in 1938, the action revolves around Ben Stark, a dentist in an unfashionable neighborhood. He is a nice guy, as in "nice guys finish last."
He forgives payments from impoverished patients, doesn’t collect rent from his alcoholic partner and buckles under to his embittered wife, Belle, who is utterly frustrated by his unbusinesslike ways.
His father-in-law is the dapper, cynical and wealthy Mr. Prince, hated by Belle and looking for some happiness in his declining years.
In between long waits for patients, various people drop by Stark’s office for conversation and drinks at the water cooler. Among them are a podiatrist named Frenchy, partner Phil Cooper, Broadway impresario Willy Wax and Stark’s wife.
Enter 19-year-old Bronx-bred Cleo Singer as Stark’s new secretary/dental assistant. She is pretty, bubbly, a bit klutzy, a bit silly and up-to-date on the current slang and stage celebrities.
But she has one trait all the others lack: an irrepressible hunger for life and love, which forces those around her to reexamine the rut of their own existence.
Odets’ pitch-perfect ear for dialogue is here at its best, and even the outdated slang comes alive again.
In the background looms the Depression, but it is not hopeless and stifling. The nice girl comes through and even the nice guy is granted at least a fling at happiness.
The first-rate ensemble cast, under director Elina de Santos and artistic director Marilyn Fox, proves that some of the most enjoyable productions in town are often found at under-publicized small venues.
"Awake and Sing" is one of Odets’ best-known works, yet as a more time-bound "message" play, it feels less relevant than "Rocket."
It revolves around three generations of the Jewish Berger family, living and quarreling in a Bronx tenement during the depth of the Depression.
The dominating figure is Bessie Berger, who keeps the family in line and bread on the table by running the lives of all others.
It’s quite a job, what with passive husband Myron; Karl Marx-spouting grandfather Jacob; frustrated children, Hennie and Ralph; wealthy brother, Morty; and cynical boarder Moe Axelrod.
Presented at the handsome and comfortable International City Theatre in Long Beach, the play intertwines a deepening family crisis when the unwed Hennie gets pregnant, with political sparring between the idealistic grandfather and grandson on one hand, and the capitalistic Morty on the other.
As directed by the respected Simon Levy, the male roles come off much stronger, especially the portrayals of grandfather Jacob by veteran Joseph Ruskin and the boarder and wounded war vet Moe by Tom Astor.
In the central role of Bessie Berger, Jacqueline Schultz, a capable actress, is just too blonde, too tall and too youthful-looking to pass as the archetypical, harassed Jewish matriarch. Paige Handler struggles with the play’s least defined character as daughter Hennie.
A pleasant surprise in the small role of supernebbish immigrant Sam Feinschreiber is Sasha Kaminsky in his American debut.
Born in Kiev, then immigrating to Tel Aviv, the 33-year-old Kaminsky has won a slew of stage and film awards as a Russian, and then Hebrew- and Yiddish-speaking actor, and is now launching his career in English.
"Awake and Sing" continues through July 11 in Long Beach, call (562) 436-4610. "Rocket to the Moon" plays through Aug. 1 in Venice, call (310) 822-8392. Performances for both plays run Thursday-Sunday.
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