Playwright Paula Vogel Photo courtesy of Paula Vogel

Playwright Paula Vogel Talks About Otherness, Anti-Semitism and Indecency


NAME: Paula Vogel
AGE: 65
BEST KNOWN FOR: She received the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for drama for her play “How I Learned to Drive.”
LITTLE-KNOWN FACT: Throughout the now nearly four-month run of “Indecent,” not one cast or crew member has left the production.


In the current social landscape that, thanks to the internet, allows everyone the sense of being heard, we seem to have forgotten basic listening skills and too often fail to validate each other’s perspectives. How can we engage in meaningful conversations if we don’t choose to hear one another? How can we work together if we don’t know who we are in relation to one another?

In her Tony Award-winning play, “Indecent,” Pulitzer Prize-winning author Paula Vogel tackles this challenge through the lens of the experiences of playwright Sholem Asch — my great-great-great-uncle — and his daring drama of the human condition, “God of Vengeance.”

“Indecent” captures the events surrounding Asch’s play, its people and the environment in which it was produced. Written in Yiddish in 1906 and performed throughout Europe, a 1923 English translation of “God of Vengeance” became known for its staging of the first lesbian kiss on Broadway, which caused such a stir in Jewish and theatrical communities that its entire cast was prosecuted for obscenity.

Vogel, a gay Jewish woman, makes sense of the cross-sections recognized in Asch’s original story, and now asks her audiences if, “almost a century later, is it now time to address our own obscenities?”

Jewish Journal: What made you want to tackle “God of Vengeance” in a contemporary play?

Paula Vogel: For a lot of us, this show is a signature play. It’s so unique for its time. I was 22 years old when I first read the play. I was floored that a young man wrote it. It has such an understanding and empathy for women.

And the love scene between his two women floored me. I literally stood while I read it. I couldn’t sit. I felt like I stopped breathing. It’s sort of a meta-expression of the desires that are growing in Americans today. “I can’t breathe” captures both the desire and the sense of a body being policed.

JJ: How did a college student in the 1970s connect so deeply with a play from 1906? 

PV: There was nothing old about it for me, except that the pages were yellow and it had been out of print. I was reading Henrik Ibsen and August Strindberg and George Bernard Shaw, so I didn’t feel any obstruction or resistance to Sholem Asch. There is a strange sense of time for anyone who practices theater. Nothing is an old play. We’re always rewriting what’s already been told.

JJ: “Indecent” is only partially a story of Asch. It’s a story about two women, born out of Asch’s mind, with the main character being Asch’s play itself. What choices did you make to tell this unique story?

PV: I wanted “Indecent” to be about the journey of the play, and about the dead troupe that comes back to life with every performance to tell the story that was so deeply entrenched in their hearts and minds. It was a desire and challenge to emphasize the women of the play, because there was no historical context for them. But by creating the actresses who in my mind would dare to perform Rifkele and Manka in that period of time, I could bring them to life.

JJ: The play explores Jewish taboo. What else is still taboo in the Jewish community? And what does that reflect about society as a whole?

PV: Anti-Semitism is a worldwide toxic air that we breathe. Anti-Semites are alive and well, and some are in the White House. This play documents a point in time in America when we turned our immigration laws against Jews and Italians. Today, it’s Muslims, but it’s the same toxin in our country.

What is taboo about Jewish families within that, is that we no longer question whether Jews are Americans. It’s this notion of outsiderness. We are still outsiders, but I feel that there has been an assimilation in Jewish communities. Yet, I don’t know if outsiderness ever goes away.

JJ: What are the risks with such inherently Jewish-specific material as Asch’s, especially in light of the recent rise in anti-Semitism across our country?

PV: I think it’s always tricky when you represent the Holocaust. One of the great concerns for me is that there are generations of people for whom the Holocaust is a historical footnote. Today, it’s not resonating in their bodies as it did for me. I was born in 1951, and all the adults who reared me bear witness to it. How do you present the ultimate obscenity and indecency in a way that respects those who have lived through it and survived it, and those who didn’t survive it? How do you then implant a knowledge of what this obscenity really is into the bodies of young people?

JJ: Does “Indecent” speak differently to Jewish audiences?

 PV: I have watched audiences [respond to] four different productions. The core is definitely Jewish audiences and older audiences. When people in the audience know Yiddish, they’re laughing at the inside jokes, and I can feel that rapport. We project the stage directions on the troupe’s bodies as they turn into dust, and audiences feel that.

But I don’t ever want to write a play with one story and one viewpoint. There’s also a resonance expressed to me by people of color, by immigrants. People responded from the Latino communities and Asian communities in La Jolla, telling me, “This is the story of my family.” I get to talk to gay couples who feel that the show is about their journeys and their adversities.

JJ: Your play is quite powerful, and so many people are affected by it. Did working on “Indecent” change you in any way? 

PV: It’s led to a rich journey that continues for me wherever the play goes. I’m going into adult education. I’m trying to find time to learn Yiddish. I’ve rediscovered the power of music. I’m trying to learn about my Russian family and the family that emigrated in 1905. It’s been an exploration of legacy and how it works. It’s been the challenge of starting and continuing conversations.

JJ: In this age of alternative facts and divided worlds, do you feel that the conversation you’ve created in “Indecent” is a part of your legacy?

PV: It’s a starting point. It’s what your uncle’s novels did in his time. Sholem was talking about the multiple realities in “Uptown,” but he was able to present those multiple realities for the world to accept.

I think that the dissonance that I’m feeling in America as a gay woman is because there’s been no forum for a rational discourse. So, I formed my identity as a playwright with that tension in my mind and that forum in sight. “Indecent” fulfills that desire: Rifkele and Manka and Sholem talk to you and, for two hours, there is a beautiful acceptance of the human experience. Maybe I’m forming a new sort of rational discourse.

Barbara Minkus in “I’m Not Famous” at Santa Monica Playhouse. Photo by George J. Viennes III

A ‘Not Famous’ life celebrated onstage


spent the early part of my life searching for fame, and I found the more meaningful things in life. So, it doesn’t matter that I’m not famous,” Barbara Minkus said in a recent interview.

Minkus may not be famous, but, as she tells the audience in her musical memoir, “I’m Not Famous” at the Santa Monica Playhouse, she leads a full life as a performer, wife, mother, grandmother and psychotherapist. Her one-woman show is a gently comedic, sometimes poignant, trip down memory lane, revealing the turning points in her life and challenges she has overcome.

While not a household name, Minkus is a seasoned performer whose career includes appearances on such television shows as “The Danny Kaye Show,” “The Merv Griffin Show,” “The Tonight Show” and “Love, American Style.” She also was the first Lucy in the off-Broadway production of “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.”

She has played three Jewish icons onstage, as well: Fanny Brice, in a touring company of  “Funny Girl”; comedian Molly Picon, in “Picon Pie” at the Santa Monica Playhouse; and Catskill resort owner Jennie Grossinger, in the musical “Saturday Night at Grossinger’s.” Susan Morgenstern, who directed her as Grossinger, also directs her in this production, which she and Minkus wrote together.

In the show, Minkus talks at length about the eating disorder that ballooned her weight to 200 pounds as a preteen. She says she was ostracized by the other Jewish girls at school.

“The eating disorder came because I felt rejected — a lot of people go through this — by the kids. I was basically a homely person, and I didn’t know how to enjoy my look. I wanted to be like other girls,” she said. “That was a big hurt. But that’s long gone, long gone.”

She tells the audience a story about her first job in the Julius Monk New York revue “Bits and Pieces” in the early 1960s, when she learned something important from the New York sophisticates in the company, that people eat three meals a day.

“In my family, we ate all day long,” she said, “and then we sat down to eat three more times. I mean, I never knew that people stopped eating in between.” She tried eating only three meals and the weight came off, but Monk had hired her as a chubby cherub, so he ultimately fired her.

She said she struggled with closet eating until well into her late 30s.

“Once I worked that through with Overeaters Anonymous and having some goals, I don’t ever have to worry about being heavy again,” she said, adding, “The overweight issue isn’t with me at all anymore.”

Minkus also had to deal with learning disabilities. “Dyslexia wasn’t ‘in’ then, when I was growing up, and I felt very ashamed of the fact that I had learning issues,” she said.

Despite her learning difficulties, she earned a graduate degree as a marriage and family therapist in the mid-1970s and was valedictorian of her class. She then began parallel careers, as psychotherapist and performer.

However, until about two years ago, she said her patients, who knew her by her married name, Barbara Barron, didn’t know about Barbara Minkus, the performer. Nor did those who knew her as an actress know she was a therapist. With this show, she is bringing together her identities.

During her performance, Minkus discusses the blessings in her life, particularly meeting ophthalmologist Arnie Barron on a blind date and marrying him, in 1972. At last, she said, she was accepted as who she was.

“For me, that was a turning point — and, I think, having my children at a very late age. I never expected that,” she said.

The couple had agreed that they were both too busy to have children. But then they went to Israel.

“Something happened to me in Israel,” Minkus said. “I felt, maybe, a little bit about my Judaism, but I don’t think Israel is just about being Jewish. It’s about where it all began, for whatever belief system people have. Being there and seeing the generations of life that started there made me realize that I would like to pass on my generation to another person, to little ones.”

They had two children, Benjamin and Jennifer, who are now parents, and became active in Stephen Wise Temple, where their children went to school.

“My grandparents were the founding members of Temple Emanuel (a Reform congregation in Chicago). So being in temple has always been part of my life,” Minkus said. “But I didn’t have the spiritual connection until I married my husband, who came from a very Conservative background. So, together we met in the middle and decided it was very important to have a spiritual home.”

Minkus wants her audiences to leave the theater feeling that they’re not alone in whatever life journey they are taking.

“That’s what I’ve been getting after the show,” she said. “I go out and meet people, and they all say the same thing: ‘Thank you for sharing who you really are and being that open about your struggles. It’s helped me.’ Isn’t that the greatest gift a person can get?”

“I’m Not Famous” will be playing through July 22 at the Santa Monica Playhouse, 1211 Fourth St., Santa Monica. For tickets and more information, visit this story at jewishjournal.com. 

‘The Ben Hecht Show’ highlights spiritual side of the Oscar-winning screenwriter


His star has largely faded with the years, but in his day — the 1920s through the mid-’60s — writer Ben Hecht was an icon. James Sherman, who created and performs a one-man play about Hecht called “The Ben Hecht Show,” currently at the Zephyr Theatre in West Hollywood, said he particularly admires Hecht’s versatility as a journalist, playwright, novelist and Oscar-winning screenwriter.

He also pointed out that though Hecht was adept at screwball comedies such as the films “Monkey Business” and “Twentieth Century” and the play “The Front Page,” which drew on Hecht’s experiences as a newspaper reporter and was adapted for the screen several times, he was equally skilled at crime vehicles, such as the movies “Scarface,” “Notorious” and “Underworld,” which earned him the first Academy Award for best story in 1927 (the category later became best original screenplay). 

But “The Ben Hecht Show,” set in 1943, is concerned with other aspects of Hecht’s life.

“What excited me about doing this show was Hecht writing about his own experience as an American Jew, dealing with his upbringing and with his growing consciousness about his connection to Judaism, and I think it’s a great story,” Sherman said. 

He added that Hecht’s growing awareness of anti-Semitism is personally meaningful to him. Sherman’s own consciousness as a Jew was raised in the late 1970s, when a neo-Nazi group wanted to march in Skokie, a Jewish neighborhood in Illinois.

The Skokie controversy prompted Sherman to ask some of the same questions Hecht had asked in response to the Nazi threat of the late 1930s and ’40s: “ ‘What is my response to this? What is my connection to Judaism and to American Judaism?’ When one decides to confront these questions, one can’t help but go on a journey — for answers,” Sherman observed.

He stressed that all the dialogue in his play comes from two of Hecht’s books: the autobiographical “A Child of the Century” and “A Guide for the Bedevilled,” in which Hecht deals specifically with his Judaism.

Sherman explained that the narrative begins as Hecht recounts a lunch he had with a Hollywood starlet, described as more famous than intelligent. “She asks him if he wants to talk about what’s wrong with the Jews. And he says, ‘This is the first time in my life that anybody ever addressed me as a Jew, and so I had to be one.’ ”

As the show indicates, Hecht learned about what was happening to the Jews in Europe during World War II from Hayim Greenberg, editor of the New York weekly The Jewish Frontier, who showed the writer eyewitness documents that came to him through Switzerland.

According to Sherman, those revelations prompted Hecht’s activism, beginning with his article “Remember Us,” which was published in the February 1943 issue of Reader’s Digest and helped bring the fate of European Jews to the attention of the widespread American public.

But Hecht’s attempts to enlist prominent Jews in helping publicize and address Nazi atrocities were met with unexpected and startling resistance. In the play, when he gathers 30 Jewish writers at the home of George S. Kaufman, his request for help elicits silence, even hostility.  

“When Hecht gathers these 30 literary celebrities together that all happen to be Jewish,” Sherman said, “Beatrice Kaufman says to him, ‘By asking them to portray themselves in public as Jews, you’re asking them to give up the fact that they’re Americans, which is what’s so important,’ as if those are mutually exclusive things. That’s what drives Ben Hecht crazy.”

Subsequently, in a particularly humorous section, Hecht, Moss Hart, Kurt Weill and Billy Rose convene 32 leaders of Jewish organizations to help plan a pageant titled “We Will Never Die,” as a memorial to the 2 million Jewish dead of Europe. What ensues is heated infighting, in Yiddish and English, with the leaders denouncing each other as socialists, fascists, Christians and other “villains.”

Sherman said he surmised that this explosion erupts because the pageant is viewed as “a shanda for the goyim.”

“The idea of it being ‘a shanda for the goyim’ is [that] we don’t want to portray ourselves, because then it’s like we’re giving them more reason to dislike us. I think in the play Hecht’s examination of Hollywood is fascinating, because of this industry that was invented by Jews, but there are no Jews in the movies, you know? And I think that’s part of the same thinking.

“The product that they put out to the world, they were very determined for it to remain as un-Jewish as possible. … Because of that, because the Jew vanishes from popular media, that actually serves to activate the rise of American anti-Semitism, because then the only people who are talking or writing about Jews are the anti-Semites.”

Sherman also said that, beyond its discussion of Judaism, his show is about whether people choose to remain complacent or to speak up when the times demand it. 

“The choice to speak is a very powerful choice that Ben Hecht makes, so I’m trying to set an example for that. I also think this play is important because people don’t know who Ben Hecht was, and I think he was really important.”

Sherman concluded, “There’s a lot of food for thought, and I’m excited to be able to lay out that buffet.”

The Ben Hecht Show” runs through Aug. 16 at the Zephyr Theatre. 

Playwright and successful TV writer and producer, Jerry Mayer, inspired by real life


At age 83, Jerry Mayer — a highly successful television writer and producer for such hit shows as “M*A*S*H,” “All in the Family,” “The Bob Newhart Show” and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” — is still going strong. Since 1986, he has been writing plays, most of them comedies, which have been staged here in Los Angeles, off-Broadway, and in theaters around the country and abroad. 

His romantic comedy “2 Across” is currently being given a 10th-anniversary revival at the Santa Monica Playhouse. The action begins as Josh (Kip Gilman), an unemployed, would-be actor, and Janet (Wendy Michaels), a psychologist, are riding the Bay Area Rapid Transit in San Francisco around 4 in the morning, each doing the daily crossword puzzle. 

Josh is Jewish, follows his impulses and never finishes the crosswords. Janet, known as “Granite Janet,” is Catholic and a rigid perfectionist who always finishes the puzzles. She has just said goodbye to her 18-year-old son and is visibly upset because he quit school to join the Marines. She and Josh begin opening up to each other, leaving the audience with the expectation that a promising relationship may develop.

“You know, it’s always nice when you have opposites meeting in a romantic comedy,” Mayer said. “As I wrote the play, I drew from stuff in my life.” 

Mayer’s career as a comedy writer was launched in 1966, when he met TV comedian Jerry Lester, known for having hosted the first late-night comedy and variety program, “Broadway Open House,” in the early 1950s. Mayer was working at his father’s construction business in St. Louis and had a side investment in Budget Rent-A-Car. One day the manager of the rental car business, knowing Mayer wanted to be a writer, told him Lester was in the city and needed a ride downtown. Mayer agreed to be the driver and, on the way, let it be known that he was interested in writing comedy. As it happened, Lester needed material for an appearance at a local going-away party for sportscaster Joe Garagiola and asked Mayer if he’d like to write a comedy routine.

“So I went home,” Mayer said, “and wrote him a bunch of jokes about St. Louis, the Italian section and stuff like that, and he did them at the Chase [Hotel]. [My wife] Emily and I were there, and they were getting laughs. 

“And then he said, ‘You know, I know the producer of “McHale’s Navy.” If you want to write a spec script, I’ll get it to him.’ So I did, and they bought the story idea and had one of the regular writers punch it up.” 

Mayer continued: “That was the beginning. We moved out — I think I was 36 at the time — with three kids, to L.A., and I wrote a spec script for ‘Bewitched,’ and they bought it. It built from there.”

He took the initial step toward a career as a playwright in the mid-1980s, while working as executive producer of the hit TV series “The Facts of Life.” 

“A friend of mine, who’s an actress, said that Oliver Hailey, a well-known playwright, ran a playwright’s group. ‘Would you like to get in?’ And I said, ‘Oh yeah, I’ll try that.’ 

“I went over and started writing my first play, and I would get actors to do it in front of people to try it out, and, God, it was the best thing I ever did.

“As a matter of fact, after six years, I actually got edged out as exec producer of ‘The Facts of Life,’ because they were paying me a lot of money, and they ended up replacing me with someone they were paying a lot less. So I started writing plays, and I’m working on my ninth and 10th, and I have this wonderful life. I enjoy writing, and I don’t have to change things because of the network, and so on.”

Mayer’s plays usually have some Jewish references, sometimes very subtle ones. “I work it in often,” he said, “and I try not to beat it to death.” He attended Hebrew school, used to go to temple in St. Louis, and said he is “very proud to be a Jew who doesn’t believe in God.”

“I just believe in do unto others, you know, that kind of thing. I believe in a lot of the Ten Commandments. I guess for a while I was hiding behind being an agnostic — maybe there’s a God. I don’t buy it, and I’m at peace with it. I’m living a fun life, and when I go, I go.”

In the meantime, Mayer writes comedic plays that he imbues with deeper meaning under the surface. 

“What I like is the laughs, but I also like the heart,” he said. “I guess, in every one of my plays, at the end I want them to come out learning a lesson and saying, ‘It was worthwhile.’ ”

For information about the show, visit http://www.santamonicaplayhouse.com/2-across.html

‘Oy’ bring the past to the present at Culver City’s Actors’ Gang


For Academy Award-winning actor Tim Robbins, who founded Actors’ Gang and serves as its artistic director, presenting plays that are relevant to our time is paramount for the company. To that end, the Culver City-based theater’s current offering is the U.S. premiere of “Oy,” a tale set in 1995 of two German-Jewish sisters, Selma (Mary Eileen O’Donnell), age 89, and Jenny (Jeanette Horn), age 86, who have accepted an invitation to visit Osnabrück, the town in Hanover, Germany, where they were raised and which they left as Hitler was consolidating his power. Because the sisters are among the dwindling number of survivors with recollections of the Nazi era, the town’s mayor has invited them to come to bear witness to that history for the younger generation. 

As the story begins, the two women are back at Selma’s house in Paris, ruminating on their trip and their memories of the past. The question, “Is the past relevant?” is, according to Robbins, the most important theme explored in the play.

“I think there’s something in human nature,” he said, “for some reason, I don’t know why, that wants to make the past irrelevant, that wants to make it ‘another time,’ to say, ‘That would never happen now,’ or ‘It can’t happen here,’ or any number of modifications or compromises. The truth is that until we really understand history and understand the root causes of something as nightmarish as the rise of Hitler, it will continue to happen; it will continue to visit itself upon us. 

“This play, for me, is extremely relevant,” Robbins said. “If you go over to Europe, there is a right-wing strain in the oppositions, the neo-Nazis. The hatred still exists. As long as the hatred exists, this play is relevant. Unfortunately, it’s still relevant today.”

Though the work is basically fictional, playwright Hélène Cixous, 75, speaking from Paris, said the characters were inspired by her 102-year-old mother and her mother’s younger sister. Their family, which was Jewish, had lived in Osnabrück for centuries, and, decades after the war, the sisters were invited back by the mayor.

“My mother and her sister were wondering whether they should accept or not, because it was really an ethical and political decision. So, they decided to accept. Of course, all kinds of things happened, which I excerpted and condensed and turned into metaphors. They really did go back to the city of their childhood, where nothing was left except ghosts.

“It was a way of reconciling the city with its past,” Cixous said. “It’s something that happens in some cities in Germany. In Berlin they do it. It’s not everywhere. Here and there, there are cities that do this type of thing — open or build synagogues where there are no Jews. It’s very paradoxical.”

The paradoxes and the complex layers of meaning underneath what might appear to be a simple surface are part of what attracted director Georges Bigot to the work.

“There is life in the play, because the playwright chooses two old women to transmit the themes about big questions, such as whether or not to forget, the evocation of racism from the beginning of the century and the racism of today, the universality of these two characters and also to forgive or not forgive. These questions are still burning.”

The idea of forgiveness in the play, Cixous explained, is not forgiveness in the Christian sense. 

“It is simply coming to terms with reality and its complexities. It is exactly what happened in South Africa. It’s ‘I’m not going to judge them.’ You can’t be a judge. That would mean, ‘I’m superior morally,’ which is, of course, something that no one is entitled to think,” she said, adding that “those Germans who have invited the sisters belong to another story. Of course, they’re not responsible. The fact that they make these gestures is quite remarkable.”

At the center of the play is the idea that, once the visit is over, the sisters can discuss things they didn’t dare express in Osnabrück. “There is a subtitle,” Cixous said, “which is ‘This, You Mustn’t Say.’

“They refrain from saying what they see — for instance, the brutality — and something that can be murderous in the head of the Jewish community, who beats his wife, [which] leads to her death.”

Another forbidden subject arises from the pun on the title, “Oy,” which in French sounds the same as the word for garlic.

“The Nazis would say that the Jews reeked of garlic. They would walk by and pinch their noses and say that it was horrible, that the Jews were impregnated with garlic,” Cixous said, adding that her own grandmother, whom she called “a very distinguished lady,” didn’t use garlic: “And she would tell me, ‘Only the Polish use garlic,’ which was a way of being innocently racist.”

In the play, Selma says: “Everyone is racist. Jews were the most racist of all. With the Poles. The Poles were always having pogroms; they’d turn up on our doorsteps, a bunch of wretches. That’s a thing you can’t say — no point spitting in our own soup. They’d turn up on our doorsteps, they’d say, ‘We are miserable poor souls.’ They’d come to the Elders. The Elders would offer them tickets to the next city.”

The play’s weighty ideas are leavened with humor, which is at times gentle, as when the two old women clash like children over whose memories are the most valid; at other times, the humor can be quite dark. At one point, the sisters talk about the fact that since there were no Jews left in Osnabrück, the townspeople imported and paid Jews who were “not really Jews” so there would be enough for a service in the rebuilt synagogue.

“They were Russians,” Cixous said, “and they knew nothing about Judaism or being Jewish, but it was important that they make ‘as if.’ It was all a kind of ‘make as if,’ which is, of course, the strategy of comic writing.”

Another example of the play’s dark humor, according to Bigot, is the gift of stones from the old synagogue that the sisters received. “One can say that it’s a nice present,” the director said, “but to receive a present of old stones from the synagogue that was destroyed by the Nazis is, for me, to kill them twice. There is something awful about this, but also something comical.”

As for what the director hopes will emerge from the play, Bigot said, “I would like everyone in the audience to make a little peace with themselves.”

For his part, Robbins would like audiences to come away with “a full heart.” And Cixous wants audiences to think about racism, which she believes is universal and not limited to any particular nationality.

“It’s everywhere. It’s always there; it’s the curse of humanity, and one has to fight it back all the time, everywhere. And when you think that you have put out the fire in one place, it breaks out in another place. It’s unfortunate. It’s most important to realize that no one is innocent, no one.”

“Oy” Ivy Substation, 9070 Venice Blvd., Culver City. 8 p.m. Thursdays, 7 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends July 28. $20. Thursdays are pay-what-you-can. (310) 838-4264 or www.theactorsgang.com.

Theater: Tolins draws on his own mentorship ‘Secrets’


“Everything I write is a question of identity,” Jonathan Tolins says over tea after a yoga class in Sherman Oaks. “What choices do you have? What roles do you take on?”

Those concerns are readily apparent in a body of stage- and screenwriting that has touched on the Jewish family and sexual politics (“Twilight of the Golds”), the geography of gay life (“Last Sunday in June”) and the distinctive tangle of love and human frailty that gets exposed through the process of adoption (“Martian Child”).

While the work he has done for film and television (including several episodes of “Queer as Folk”) has afforded him a comfortable life, “My heart is in playwriting,” Tolins says. “What I love most — ambiguity and complexity — I can do best in the theater.”

Tolins is indeed at his best in “Secrets of the Trade” (currently running at the Black Dahlia Theater through April 20), a work that the playwright calls his “baby” and his “favorite” out of all the things he has written.

While the underlying thread of “Secrets of the Trade” is somewhat autobiographical — like Andy Lipman, the play’s Broadway-smitten central character, Tolins as a teenager wrote a fan letter that led to a tempestuous, revelatory mentor relationship with an older gay man — the playwright’s interest in “Secrets of the Trade” extends well beyond the points at which the storyline intersects with his own narrative.

“It’s a play about family,” Tolins says, “particularly the expectations one has with one’s child.”

That angle of artistic inquiry leads Tolins into some rich but very rough terrain — just the place an artist wants to be. It comes as no surprise then that Tolins gets the transformative and sometimes combustive alchemy of mentorship exactly right as he explores how Andy’s relationship with his mentor affects the other members of his family.

That rightness shines nowhere more brightly than in an exchange between Martin Kerner, the gray-tinged lion of the New York theater whom Tony-winner John Glover brings to life with plenty of snarling and purring, and Joanne Lipman (Amy Aquino), mother of recently-out-of-the-closet Andy, the brilliant Harvard undergraduate and cast-album aficionado whose spark Kerner has decided to nurture.

“What is this world of talented gay men passing on their secrets?” Joanne asks Marty as the two of them face off in Marty’s office.

Marty assures Joanne that while erotic attraction figures into his relationship with Andy, there are no secrets — sexual or otherwise — passing between him and her son.

“I’m simply giving him permission to become himself as fully as possible,” he says.

When Joanne wonders what Marty gets out of the bargain, he replies, “I get to look into a beautiful, intelligent face that sees none of my personal failures.”

This scene in the play’s second act is as much about Joanne’s loss — of her son’s unquestioning admiration, of her status as a “cool” teacher at the Long Island high school where she works, of her own youthful aspirations as a dancer — as it as about Andy’s sexual and artistic awakening.

Earlier, in the first act, as Joanne and her husband Peter (Mark L. Taylor) discuss Andy’s blossoming relationship with his idol, Joanne confides that it has been a long time since she has seen the look in the eyes of a student that says, “You are opening up new worlds to me.”

“I never thought I’d see that look on a kid’s face again,” Joanne laments. “Now I have, and it’s not for me.”

Tolins says he counts Joanne’s revelations among “the moments I feel I got just right. That’s why I got such great actors” — including relative newcomer Edward Tournier, who as the play’s starry-eyed, apple-cheeked purveyor of “that look” turns in work that displays a maturity beyond his meager years.

Still, getting those moments of parental anguish “just right” entails some apprehension as well as satisfaction for Tolins. He and his partner, writer-director Robert Cary (“Ira and Abby,” “Anything But Love”) recently adopted a 4-year-old girl named Selina.

The sweet love of childhood, the pain that often accompanies the separation and disillusionment of young adulthood and the deeper love that comes with an adult child’s mature appreciation of his or her parents are all in the mix for Tolins.

“These are themes that any Jewish parent will recognize,” he says.

Trust the man. He knows.

“Secrets of the Trade,” Wed.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun. 7 p.m. Through April 20. $25. Black Dahlia Theater, 5453 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. For more information, call (323) 525-0070 or visit

Kushmet


Last Monday night, I was sitting on stage at American Jewish University interviewing Tony Kushner, talking Life and Judaism and Big Ideas to a man who is arguably America’s greatest living playwright, when, suddenly, the words of what is arguably the world’s cheesiest bubble-gum song popped into my head:

Torn between two lovers/Feeling like a fool/Loving both of you is breaking all the rules.

It didn’t come to me just as punishment for listening to too much AM radio in the ’70s. It was something Kushner said. He called David Mamet a name. I love Mamet, author of “American Buffalo” and “Glengarry Glen Ross” and “Speed the Plow.” I love Kushner, author of “Angels in America” and “Homebody/Kabul.”

I would stand in the TKTS line on any freezing windy gray February day in New York for discount tickets to see anything either man has written — who can afford Broadway at face value? — and here I was, hearing one of them groan at the mention of the other.

Not at the artistry. Let me be clear. Because of the politics. Yes, it was not artist versus artist, but, wouldn’t you know it, Jew versus Jew. Mamet’s name came up because I asked Kushner about how it is that Phillip Roth and Arthur Miller bristle at being called “Jewish writers,” whereas Kushner and Mamet both identify strongly, even pugnaciously, as Jewish writers.

“Yeah,” said Kushner. “He’s definitely more pugnacious than me.” But then Kushner sighed. He is, in person, somewhat slight, with a beautiful looping Jewish nose, a high forehead, a chin veering toward weak, and enough curly brown hair to make a man of 51 look almost inappropriately young. What he said next about Mamet came out with almost a touch of despair. “He’s so butch.”

The audience laughed; it was funny because, to quote Homer Simpson, it’s true.

Mamet is built like a Battle-Bot, he has pecs on his pecs, a close-shaved head and in between writing lines like the opener to his book “The Wicked Son” — “The world hates the Jews. The world has always and will continue to do so.” — he practices jiu-jitsu almost every day — with his rabbi. That’s not just butch, that’s shtarker.

As a fellow artist, Kushner offered nothing but adulation for Mamet’s work. “I’m hugely indebted to him as a playwright. I think Mamet invented a new kind of stage language that everybody in America [has followed]. I certainly couldn’t have written Roy Cohn … had I not listened to Mamet. He’s a big influence. And I say that just gasping in horror at a lot of things he says politically.”

In “The Wicked Son,” Mamet’s non-fiction book of essays about Jews, he takes off after members of Kusher’s beloved New York Upper West Side Secular Left for their collusion with “Israel-indicting bodies,” their “blame the victim mentality” and their “idiotic, immoral cant.”

For Mamet, equivocation or hesitation when it comes to anything but the quick, sharp defense of the Jewish state is a sign of capitulation at best, apostasy at worst.

But Kushner embraces uncertainty. “I have very mixed and complicated feelings about the state of Israel as a Jewish American,” he said on Monday evening, “and I’m furious at being represented as this kind of marginal crazy who’s plotting to destroy the state of Israel. I think everybody harbors their own secret doubts, or at least most of us do, and everybody’s afraid to say them, because the orthodoxy is policed with such violence and vituperation.”

Kushner and director Steven Spielberg endured a wave of criticism from some within the Jewish community who felt their film “Munich” stretched too far in trying to humanize Palestinian terrorists, or in trying to insert moral quandary into the minds of Israelis assigned to kill those terrorists.

I asked Kushner why Mamet, among others, finds his position so unpalatable. “It’s because they’re trying to defend the indefensible,” Kushner said. “It’s trying to uphold the reality you can’t uphold. It’s a cartoon version of Middle Eastern politics that almost no one in the state of Israel recognizes. There’s easily 50 percent of the Israeli population that’s progressive.”

I’m not sure of that number, especially in the wake of the Hamas takeover of Gaza, but Kushner was clearly still feeling the sting of “Munich.”

“I can’t feel neutral about the state of Israel because I’m a Jew,” Kushner said, “and I would like to see Israel survive and prosper. I absolutely don’t believe in single-state solution. I believe in a two-state solution. I’ve never anywhere on earth said I believe Israel should be forced to give up its identity as a Jewish state … that obviously wouldn’t work. It would be the end of Israel.” But Kushner attacked those who disagree with what he considers his more thoughtful approach to Israel’s conflict.

“[Mamet’s] view really almost goes to neighborhood street gang turf war, the people on the hill and the people in the valley. It’s like that Billy Jack anthem. You can’t talk in those terms.”

“I understand we have a history of horrendous persecution and oppression,” Kushner said. “The Holocaust was only 60 years ago. Anti-semitism is everywhere in the world today. It’s scary to be a Jew. You’d be stupid not to be scared. So I get the fear that’s behind it. But, you know, being a minority is hard, because you’re outnumbered. So you have to start asking yourself really grown-up serious questions about how do minorities survive… and there are lots of interesting answers, and one of them is nationalism, and one of them, the one I prefer, is the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, a pluralist democracy.”

And so, my two favorite playwrights find themselves on opposite sides of a longstanding Jewish divide. “All sound creative art is rooted in a ghetto,” the critic Ludwig Lewisohn once wrote. Once out of that ghetto, the roots bifurcate, and we Jews have fashioned two strategies for survival. For the Mamets, salvation lies in toughness and certainty, the People of the Butch. For Kushner, our promise is in compromise and doubt.

“People say the artist has the ability to see the future,” the writer Eric Hoffer once said. “That’s not true. The artist has the ability to see the present.” But what happens when their prophesies collide? I know my answer: you try to live somewhere in between.

To hear of the Kushner interview, click on these files:

Kushner on Mamet
Kushner on parental influence
Kushner on Jewish identity
Kushner reads ‘Prayer’
Kushner on Israel

UJ’s Levy crafts confab to celebrate authors


Considering that he’s an educator, whose job description is heading up a university adult-ed program, you might not expect Gady Levy to be so … well-connected. Yet here he is in his office at American Jewish University (formerly the University of Judaism), looking more the impresario than the academic.

On one wall hang his diplomas — for master’s and doctorate degrees in education from Pepperdine University; on another are photographs of Levy with President Clinton, Shimon Peres, Madeline Albright and other luminaries from the wildly successful public lecture series he launched for the university five years ago.

A new bookshelf, overflowing with volumes, testifies to Levy’s latest and perhaps most ambitious endeavor: the Celebration of Jewish Books, which begins on Monday and extends through an all-day festival on Sunday. The celebration will offer lectures and signings with 40 authors — including big names, such as Larry King, Michael Chabon, Kirk Douglas and Daniel Handler (Lemony Snicket) — plus music and dance performances, food and a thousand titles for sale, provided by Borders and the Hebrew-language bookseller Steimatzky.

Levy, the 38-year-old dean of AJU’s Whizin Center for Continuing Education, says he enjoyed the annual book fairs he attended as a child in Tel Aviv, so he was intrigued by a 2002 Jewish Journal story about how Los Angeles could not sustain its own festival.

The void certainly wasn’t for a lack of trying, the story noted; the Jewish community centers had hosted a fair, but the budgets were low (generally $3,000 to $10,000), attendance was poor, and the program had died out soon after the turn of the millennium. If Los Angeles was home to 600,000 Jews, why were we fest-less?

Levy didn’t think the reason had to do with Los Angeles’ vast geography: “If you create a good event, people will drive,” he said. “This city provides a lot of opportunities for us to be entertained, to do things by ourselves or with our families, some of them Jewish, some not Jewish, so people really have to pick and choose,” he added. “In order to put a book festival on your radar, it has to be ‘big.’ You need ‘big’ authors to provide name recognition, and to offer people access to the authors of the books they actually read.”

This week, Levy’s theory will be put to the test with evening conversations with Pulizter Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner (“Angels in America” and the screenplay for “Munich”), Sam Harris and Rabbi David Wolpe, Israeli novelist Ram Oren and cookbook authors Judy Zeidler, Judy Bart Kancigor and Joan Nathan. The festival’s budget is $225,000, much of it provided by a two-year grant from the Jewish Community Foundation.

Participants will be able to feast on a three-course meal hosted by the cookbook writers and walk through a life-sized replica of Anne Frank’s attic hiding place; popular writers such as Naomi Ragen (“The Saturday Wife”) and Judith Viorst (“Alexander and the Wonderful, Marvelous, Excellent, Terrific Ninety Days”) will fly in for the festival’s family day on Nov. 11.

“I felt that if I did an event just with local authors, it could be very interesting, but I didn’t think it would be enough to get the several thousand participants we’re hoping for,” Levy said. “When you have a number of best-selling authors in one place at one time, that makes an event.”

Levy knows well how celebrities can create (and sustain) an event. In 2002, he revived the campus’s public lecture series — despite some who protested that the old series had lost money — by hiring the biggest “name” he could think of to launch the program: President Clinton. He got Clinton by assiduously networking, creating relationships with agents — and allotting funding for the president’s five-figure fee. The investment paid off when the just-retired president sold out the Universal Amphitheater, which helped convince other leaders to sign on to the now world-class program (Tony Blair is on the 2008 roster).

The fact that the lecture series has drawn such speakers as Al Gore and Henry Kissinger helped impress the literary agents Levy approached for the celebration. He paid to hire four “celebrity” authors (Kushner, for one, will receive $15,000) and then was able to engage other writers who were eager to appear on the same “ticket” sans fee (but with travel expenses reimbursed). He found them by flying to New York with his festival chair, Emily Corleto, and two staff members to hear 200 authors pitch their work over three days at the annual conference of the Jewish Book Council.

Most authors who declined to attend the celebration did so because of scheduling issues — although “Maus’s” Art Spiegelman had a more unusual reason: “He insisted on smoking on the stage, which is forbidden by the Fire Department, so that was a deal-breaker,” Levy said.

In order to draw as large an audience as possible, Levy planned events to appeal to diverse populations: To reach Israelis, he invited Ram Oren, whom he describes as “the Danielle Steele of Israel” (see sidebar). Authors such as Handler and Viorst, as well as a student essay contest, will appeal to families with young children; Kushner should draw theater enthusiasts as well as those who are curious about the controversy over his “Munich” script (some deemed it anti-Israel).

Levy said he read a number of articles on Kushner before reaching out to him. “I wanted to make sure he wasn’t going to come here with a political agenda,” he said. “As an educator, I think it’s important to bring speakers of many different backgrounds,” he added. “One of my goals is to give people access to figures who might be controversial, or even misunderstood, and allow them to ask their own questions. When you read something in the media, it’s all about the ‘spin,’ but when you can ask someone a question in person, and they’re sitting right there on the stage — you can’t get closer than that.”
For more information, visit http://www.celebrationofjewishbooks.com. The Jewish Journal is a co-sponsor of the event.

‘Big Death’ evokes the muse of playwrights past


Mickey Birnbaum recently spent a year as an Inge Fellow in Independence, Kan., boyhood home of the late playwright William Inge, best known for his 1950s plays, “Picnic” and “Bus Stop.” Birnbaum’s “Big Death & Little Death,” now being staged at the Road Theater Company in North Hollywood, does evoke playwrights of the past, but it is Thornton Wilder, not Inge, whose work has influenced Birnbaum.

From the apocalyptic setting to the tangled relationship between a death-obsessed son and eccentric father to the hilarious pit bull, “Big Death & Little Death” recalls Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Skin of Our Teeth,” which depicts a dysfunctional family of survivors living at a time of an epic flood and pet dinosaurs.

When told of the comparison, Birnbaum hails Wilder as “an absolute genius,” but says that he “didn’t have Wilder in the back of my conscious mind.”

At a more conscious level, Birnbaum, who was named a PEN finalist for “Big Death,” says that he was influenced by Shakespeare. In Gary (played by Sean Wing), a teenage death-metal head who is the lead in “Big Death,” Birnbaum has created a prince of darkness if not the Prince of Denmark. Birnbaum points out that Gary’s decision over whether to go to college or destroy the universe is not unlike Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” dilemma.

Like “Hamlet,” “Big Death & Little Death” deals with existential angst but of a contemporary variety. The play is set in the Valley just after the first Gulf War. Although that war is often remembered for its quick execution and minimal American casualties, “Big Death” pivots on the return home of the father (played with soulfulness and whimsy by Jeff LeBeau), a Gulf veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

“Big Death” was first work-shopped in 2001 and marks Birnbaum’s first full-length play, following numerous short plays for the Virginia Avenue Project, a Santa Monica-based nonprofit dedicated to bringing culture to at-risk children.

Birnbaum may be entering his heyday as a playwright. His second full-length play, “Bleed Rail,” which takes on the subject of slaughterhouses, is being produced in Pasadena at the Boston Court Theater.

Which reminds us that Thornton Wilder did not reach his prime as a playwright for more than a decade. He also initially found success in another medium — novels, not screenplays. Birnbaum appreciates being compared to Wilder. “That makes me very happy,” he says, adding that Wilder was a “radical playwright. We forget that because we’re so used to ‘Our Town’ and ‘The Skin of Our Teeth.'”

Like the avant-garde Wilder, Birnbaum writes of the end of time with humor and originality. Gary concludes the play by saying, “Well, that worked out OK.”

After attending “Big Death,” theatergoers will feel that that is an understatement.

“Big Death & Little Death” plays through July 21 at the Road Theater Company, 5108 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. $25-$17.50. (818) 761-8838.

Composer’s hit musical spells success ‘B-E-E’


William Finn, composer, lyricist and creator of the hit musical, “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” says his own surname is the result of a misspelling. “When my great-uncle came from Russia, he kept saying he was looking for someone named Fein, so the genius at Ellis Island gave him the name Finn,” he breezily explains from his Manhattan apartment.

“The original name was something like, ‘Oren,’ but I prefer Finn, so the error was fortuitous.”

Even more fortuitous, “Bee” has placed Finn back on Broadway’s A-list after a decade of relative obscurity. The new musical, which won two Tonys in 2005, tells of six misfit tweens, played by adult actors, who experience epiphanies while tackling words such as “boanthropy” (the delusion that one has become an ox) and “phylactery” (as in “Billy, put down that ‘phylactery’ — we’re Episcopalian,” the word pronouncer says).

The comedy opens May 27 at the Wadsworth Theatre in Brentwood, starring the original Broadway cast, along with audience members who sign up to participate in the fictional bee (and who are eliminated via elaborate improvisational schemes).

The endearingly geeky main players include the unhappy overachiever Marcy Park (Deborah S. Craig), the Asian American who aces “phylactery”; and sweet-tempered Leaf Coneybear (Jesse Tyler Ferguson), who came in third in his school bee but is competing because “the person who came in first has to go to their bat mitzvah, and the person who came in second has to attend the bat mitzvah,” he says. Then there is Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre (Sarah Saltzberg), a chronic lisper who keeps getting words like “sluice” and “cystitis” — and who is the half-Jewish daughter of yuppie gay dads.

Finn — known for mining his Jewish and gay identities — enjoyed commercial and critical success in the 1980s and ’90s for “Falsettos,” the story of a gay man, his Jewish family and AIDS. (One sprightly number is titled, “Four Jews in a Room Bitching.”) But his more recent fare, such as “Elegies,” a song cycle honoring his late friends, closed after brief runs in New York. It was Finn’s friend, Wendy Wasserstein — the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright who died of leukemia last year — who prompted him to consider a spelling bee musical in 2002.

Although already in poor health, Wasserstein had trekked to a Lower East Side theater, in a rat-infested former chop shop, to see her weekend nanny, Saltzberg, perform in a sketch show about a fictional bee. The production, “C-R-E-P-U-S-C-U-L-E,” was the brainchild of actor-director Rebecca Feldman, who had never lived down misspelling “bruise” as “bruze” in a childhood competition.

The other actors also personalized their characters. Saltzberg, for one, culled material from myriad girlhood diaries to create Logainne, a somber 10-year-old who wears face-contorting braids and always takes precisely the same number of steps to the microphone. (Logainne gave — and still gives — an improvised, politically correct lecture that draws on Saltzberg’s own, oh-so-serious bat mitzvah speech about children in the Holocaust.)

Wasserstein saw something in “C-R-E-P-U-S-C-U-L-E” for Finn, now 55, who did not bother to attend the production but watched a tape of it on his bed, falling asleep in the middle of the show.

His snoozing did not affect his enthusiasm for the premise. Finn says he was drawn to the concept of a spelling bee as a metaphor for human experience.”Sometimes you get the easy word, and sometimes you don’t,” says the composer, who promptly wrote the “Bee” ditty with the refrain, “Life is random and unfair.”

But the show’s theme soon switched to the zeitgeist’s obsession with winners, as evidenced by the success of other bee-themed work (notably the documentary, “Spellbound”) and his own love of reality television.

“They’re my favorite shows,” Finn gushes of the genre. “My very favorite is ‘Project Runway,’ which is all about fashion and design — omigod, it’s the greatest show ever invented. And I love ‘America’s Next Top Model.’ I just find winners fascinating. I enjoy the joy of winning.”

His lust for victory can perhaps be traced to his middle school years in Natick, Mass., when Finn says his reputation as a “smarty pants” rendered him an outcast who spent much of his time “in my room, in the dark, playing the guitar I had received for my bar mitzvah.”

He would have loved to participate in a spelling bee, but he didn’t know of any around town. Rather, the prominent competitions seemed to cater to the jocks, who could butt heads in sports, and to the pretty girls, who could vie for prom queen.

“Even today,” Finn complains, “the ‘smarty pants’ don’t usually get the good competitions. It’s still all models and looks and everything but the ‘smarts.'”To write “Bee’s” book, Finn selected his precocious former musical theater student, Rachel Sheinkin, who eventually won the Tony for her efforts.

“Bill once called my writing ‘sub-English,'” she told The Journal, laughing quietly and sounding as soft-spoken as Finn is bombastic.

But Finn had noticed her flair for writing wickedly witty dialogue.

“Bill calls it ‘perverse,’ meaning he thinks I have an incredibly morbid sense of humor,” she says.

While creating the show, Sheinkin wrote in Finn’s detritus-filled office as he scribbled crossword puzzles, ate, napped — and finally banged out a song in a burst of inspiration. “We agreed that the [device] of adults playing children announces to everyone that, ‘Hey, we’re in this to laugh about our childhoods,'” she says.

“These kids who felt like freaks when they arrive to the bee find others who are just like them, and they realize they’re not going to be alone for the rest of their lives,” Finn says.

Whenever he speaks to teenagers, Finn says, he tells them they will be appreciated as adults for the very qualities that render them nerds in high school.

“Inevitably the cutest girl or the handsomest guy raises their hand and says, ‘But I’m happy here,'” he adds with a hearty laugh. “And I say, ‘Well, I’m not really talking to you. I’m addressing everyone else.'”

“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” runs May 27 through June 17. For tickets and information, call (310) 479-3636.

Sex and The 30-Something Professional


Before David Rouda became a stage director and writer, he was an internationally ranked rower who placed 17th in the 1999 World Rowing Championships. Rouda, who started training as a sculler at 13, won six Gold Medals at the Maccabee Games and just missed qualifying for the 2000 Olympics.

The discipline he brought to rowing informed his years as a lawyer and his current work as a dramatist, whose plays “Pomp & Circumstance” and “Sperm Warfare” are being staged at the Matrix Theater. While these two one-acts do seem to go on a bit long, they both feature a great deal of humor and revolve around the issues of 30-something men as they attempt to make it in the worlds of law and business.

The set of “Pomp & Circumstance” is a courtroom, surrounded by two law offices. Like David E. Kelley and many lawyers before him, Rouda knows his way around a trial scene, but he also knows his way around the Bible and Jewish law. Perhaps the funniest part of “Pomp & Circumstance” is the denouement when an Orthodox Jew who has been victimized by Viagra becomes entranced by the Song of Songs, which he recites for his sex-starved wife.

Rouda says he grew up “Reform, meaning I had a Christmas tree,” but he understands the Talmudic distinctions regarding a Jewish marriage. He also understands what it’s like being a single guy dating older women in San Francisco, where he lives as a fourth-generation San Franciscan.
“Sperm Warfare” focuses on a couple seeking in-vitro fertilization. Like “Pomp & Circumstance,” it deals with phallic concerns. At one point, the lead refers to himself as “an emasculated hermaphro-dad.”

Rouda might overdo it on occasion when his characters complete each others’ sentences with a flourish of alliteration, but he will make you laugh with lines like, “You’re not just a sperm dispenser to me.”

The 40-year-old playwright, who has a degree in rhetoric from UC Berkeley and a law degree from the University of San Francisco, says that one of his frustrations with law was spending “two years of drudgery” and then “right before the premiere” the other side settles out of court and “you don’t get to show” your work to anyone.

Rouda is now based in Los Angeles and the Matrix shows mark his Hollywood premiere. He still has a home in San Francisco but he says that being a writer isn’t so easy in the Bay Area: “In San Francisco, it’s outside the scope of what other people are doing.”

“Pomp & Circumstance” and “Sperm Warfare” play through April 15 at the Matrix Theatre, 7657 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles. For reservations, call (800) 838-3006. For more information, visit the Matrix Theatre
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Hasfari’s ‘House’ Moves to Laguna


As Laguna Playhouse Executive Director Richard Stein walked down Dizengoff Street in Tel Aviv during a trip to Israel last December, he was struck by a Bauhaus-style building famously used in the city decades ago.

“It was a historic landmark, something to do with the Haganna, and I found it so impressive that I took a photo of it,” he said. “Little did I know what significance it really had for me.”

The next day he met for the first time with Israeli playwright Shmuel Hasfari to discuss the adaptation of his play, “Master of the House,” from the Hacameri Theatre in Tel Aviv, where it first premiered, to the Laguna Beach playhouse.

“Shmuel took me on a walking tour of the neighborhood and when he got to that same street corner he pointed at the house, the same house I photographed the day before, he said ‘That’s the house where the events in the play take place.’ I was stunned and I showed Shmuel the picture that I took earlier. What a coincidence,” Stein said.

It was a sign that he was drawn to Hasfari’s play for the right reasons.

“It was love at first sight,” Stein admits, talking about his decision to bring the play here and show it to American audiences. “Master of the House,” originally titled, “Woman, Husband, House” in Hebrew, debuted March 31 as the first Israeli play to go on stage in the Laguna Playhouse.
Stein first encountered the play following a trip to Israel in 2005, his first in 30 years. He met with different theater professionals, including Hacameri Theatre head Noam Semel.

“I mentioned to him that agents send us plays from all over the world and asked how come a play from Israel had never come my way before. Subsequently, they sent me about a dozen plays in three batches,” he said.
In the last batch was “Master of the House,” which took the 2003 Israel Theater Academy Award for best play. Stein was immediately taken by its depth and universal themes.

The play tells the story of Nava and Joel Ben-Ephraim, a midlife Tel Aviv couple who argue over remodeling their home. Successful attorney Nava wants to turn it upside down, while newspaper columnist Joel is obsessed with preserving its Bauhaus architectural heritage. But underneath this argument, bottled-up tension burst forth every time the contractor chisels his way through the tiles, releasing a turbulence of resentment and hostility.

Hasfari is one of Israel’s leading playwrights, known for controversial work that presents Israeli society in a harsh light. He says that he drew some of the inspirations for the story from real-life events.

“I discovered how powerful and destructive remodeling can be when we remodeled our own house in Tel Aviv,” he said. “One thing led to another and eventually the remodeling was blown out of proportion and cost about $50,000, a fortune in Israeli terms. But the amazing thing was that it wasn’t even our own apartment — it was a rental. So it was crazy. And one day I remember coming back home, and standing in the living room, amidst a total chaos and I couldn’t recognize a thing. It’s like you’re peeling your life away. That’s when fear takes over.”
Hasfari believes that two things interested the Laguna Playhouse in his play.
“On the one hand there is a plot that deals with couples wherever they are and the erosion of their marriage; this is a universal theme. On the other hand, this is all happening when Israel is being challenged with the most severe terrorist attack, which makes it a very Israeli play,” he said.

From the beginning, Hasfari and Stein agreed it was important to maintain an almost word-for-word translation of the original play.

“We thought that the original conflict is the real deal and there is no reason to change locations, names or contexts within it,” Hasfari said. “My experience in these cases is very clear and it shows that you can’t really write a ‘universal’ play, happening anywhere you want in the world. My belief is that people will adhere to the original storyline.”

Stein agrees, saying that the few changes that were made were slight.
“For example when the city Petah Tikva is mentioned we changed it to Jaffa, which the American crowd is more familiar with, and the same goes with ex-Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, which was switched to the more famous Golda Meir,” he said.

Will the audience have a hard time accepting the straightforward, bad-mouthing, impatient Israeli characters in “Masters of the House”?

Stein thinks that some of them will be taken a bit aback. “Here, in California, people sometimes don’t realize that American Jews and Israelis are not exactly the same thing,” he said.

“In fact they are quite different from each other. I think some of the viewers will be surprised to see that the people in the play don’t talk like Seinfeld or Woody Allen. There is something unpleasant in the demeanor of Shmuel’s character. This is not ‘Fiddler on the Roof.'”

Stein believes that more than others, members of the Jewish community might feel uncomfortable watching the play. “Sometimes Jewish people here are such Zionists that they don’t like to see Israel being criticized and don’t understand why Israelis are so hard on themselves. It’s hard for us to grasp the idea that people in Israel feel that their life is short and can terminate any second, and this constant fear and pressure creates straightforwardness, impatience and even rudeness among the sabras,” he said.

But Stein said he’s glad he’s creating uneasiness among his viewers.
“I think that ultimately, even if they feel somewhat uncomfortable, they will find it a riveting play,” he said.

“Master of the House” plays through April 29 at the Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach. For more information, call (949) 497-2787 or visit

Neil LaBute bears a heavy load


During one of many cringe-worthy moments in Neil LaBute’s play, “Fat Pig,” a cad chastises a co-worker for dating a plus-sized woman named Helen.

“I don’t understand you taking God’s good gifts and pissing on ’em,” the cad, Carter, warns his colleague, Tom.

Tom is handsome and successful, and Helen is simply considered too fat to grace the arm of a corporate player. It doesn’t matter that she is smart and funny — she is a “cow,” a “sow” or “off-the-charts gross,” according to office personnel.

“I’m not saying … that she shouldn’t meet somebody,” Carter adds, “but it should be a fat somebody, or a bald one. Whatever. Like her.”

The scene sports the kind of nasty, brutally honest dialogue audiences have come to expect from LaBute, a playwright and filmmaker who has been both lauded and reviled for his warped morality (some would say, amorality) tales. The auteur — who will turn 44 on March 19 — has been called a misogynist and a feminist, a moralist and a misanthrope, for cruelty fests that dissect gender politics and the slimier aspects of human nature. “I do like to poke my finger in a mess and see what happens,” he says, chuckling, in his West Hollywood office one recent morning.

“Neil is a button pusher, but he does explore the underbelly of us all,” says Jo Bonney, who directed “Fat Pig’s” successful off-Broadway run in 2004 and 2005 and will direct its West Coast premiere at the Geffen Playhouse May 11-June 17.

“You emerge from his plays praising him for the metaphoric slap in the face or simply wishing you knew where he lived, so you can hunt down the bastard and deliver a literal slap of your own,” New York magazine noted in 2004.

In person, the writer is a study in contrasts and contradictions. He is alternately mischievous and irreverent, imploring and earnest — but so charming, even endearing, that he seems likelier to elicit a smile than a slap.

Heavyset and bearded, wearing a red-checked shirt and a mop of black curls, he has the kind of friendly, rumpled appearance that would no doubt raise eyebrows among the image-obsessed characters of “Fat Pig.” Until recently he was a practicing Mormon, but he left the faith after years of conflict with fellow Latter-day Saints.

“My kids were raised in the church, and they hate almost everything I write,” he says, with regret.

Yet a sign in his office unapologetically proclaims the name of his company, Contemptible Entertainment, and the writer-director looks like a proud parent as he surveys the posters from “LaButeville” that cover the walls of the room. With relish, he notes that the largest image — the one closest to his desk — depicts the nastiest character he has ever created: Chad Piercewell from LaBute’s 1997 debut feature film, “In the Company of Men.” In that movie, the fictional Piercewell convinces a colleague to seduce and dump a deaf secretary as a symbolic act of revenge on all women — and for sport.

Other posters advertise LaButian fare such as the sexual musical chairs saga, “Your Friends and Neighbors,” in which a brute excoriates a lover for bleeding on his 300-count cotton sheets, among other not-so-friendly exchanges. “bash: latterday plays,” spotlights murderous Mormons; “Some Girl(s)” follows a soon-to-be-wed commitmentphobe who visits ex-girlfriends to “apologize” (and to seek material for his new book); and “The Mercy Seat” revolves around a man who would have died in the World Trade Center attacks had he not skipped work for adulterous sex.

“I wouldn’t necessarily want all these guys as friends,” LaBute admits. “They’re extremes; I often write in extremes.”

But then again, he hopes he’s not just a “purveyor of [grotesquerie] — that it’s not just, ‘I really like to see people suffer,'” he says.

LaBute prefers to view himself as a chronicler of transgression, and of how ordinary people can tumble into ethically questionable territory. He believes in what the late Holocaust scholar Hannah Arendt called “the banality of evil” and says he “ascribes to the effect that banality can have on an audience — that cool, calculated moving forward, one step at a time, until you cross the line. It’s the insidiousness of it, you know; it doesn’t take much to go there.”

As John Lahr once wrote in The New Yorker: LaBute “brings to his observations about human nature something that other contemporary American writers have not articulated with such single-minded authority: a sense of sin.”

To understand LaBute’s preoccupation with sin — and casual brutality — one has only to ask him about his childhood in a town outside Spokane, Wash. The model for many of his male “beasts,” he says, was in part his father, Richard, a volatile truck driver who infused the house with a sense of menace. The elder LaBute was also handsome, charming and seductive. But when LaBute’s father returned home, the writer recalls, “You never knew what would set him off, and it was that unpredictability that created fear.”

Occasionally the trucker’s tantrums escalated into punching or slapping LaBute and his mother.

“My father may well have been bipolar, and helped by medication, but he wasn’t someone who would have ever sought that kind of help,” LaBute says. “He was always a person who blamed the other party…. I know my father had a rough upbringing, but there’s always an excuse, unfortunately.”

Because LaBute’s home was “a tough house and a small house to grow up in,” he sought safe havens outside the family circle. He escaped into his school’s theater department — and into services and Bible study classes he attended, alone, at a nondenominational church walking distance from his house. “[The atmosphere] gave me a sense of quiet, of peace and especially of community — everything I had been missing growing up,” he says.

LaBute chose to attend the Mormon Brigham Young University, in Provo, Utah, because, “It seemed as far away as I could get from my father, not just geographically, but spiritually — a place he wouldn’t follow.”

Playwright’s 2nd look at 1st draft brings ‘Atonement’


If it’s axiomatic that art often imitates life and that writers write what they know, then what does “Atonement” say about playwright Richard Martin Hirsch?

The 2006 play’s protagonist, Elijah Stone, is a Montreal-born secular Jew who has moved to New York City and become a famed novelist after his journalistic sniping at the Quebecois and Zionism provoked outrage among his readers in Canada.

In his search for artistic immortality, the edgy, narcissistic author has turned his back on his faith and a loving wife, yet now finds his grip on reality ever more tenuous as he gropes for a spiritual foothold in his life.

The play, which enjoyed its world premiere at Theatre 40 in a four-week run that began this week, deals with issues of faith, conscience, the creative process and the power of love to either heal or cause hurt.

A mystery-style approach to character study, the entire play unfolds within Elijah’s mind, shifting backward and forward in time as he thinks about and remembers his relationships with the three key women in his life — but how much is reality and how much invention is revealed only gradually. As the first time he has written “anything with such an intended nonlinear structure,” Hirsch said, “Atonement” is “definitely a stretch” for him.

Much of the character, Hirsch said, “is my impression of an uncle of mine,” a Canadian who was “a prolific TV and radio play writer in the ’50s and ’60s in Montreal. I just had his voice in my head,” Hirsch said, while morphing the original character, “more of a generic playwright,” into Elijah.

Most of the character’s egotism, cynicism and inability to handle fame comes from Hirsch’s uncle, he said, as well as from other individuals, many in show business, whom Hirsch has met throughout his career. Likewise, the happily married Hirsch created Elijah’s infidelity from a variety of sources.

Hirsch also drew upon his own identity as a Jewish writer to help inform the character — who changed his name from Steinberg to Stone — introducing more pronounced Jewish themes when giving his original draft a major overhaul.

Hirsch said that “although at least half, if not more,” of his roughly 30 plays “have strong Jewish characters” and include various aspects of religion, the religious focal points of “Atonement” are new for him.

“I was brought up Jewish, but I’m not religious in the least now, and I’m sort of the typical secular Jew,” Hirsch said. Current world events, “coupled with getting older, being in my 50s,” have forced him to re-examine his own spiritual values. “This character in the play is doing that, as well as I’m doing it now.”

Born and raised in West Los Angeles, Hirsch studied economics at UCLA as an undergraduate, minoring in literature — but writing came later, when he “felt the impulse” to write and enrolled in a short story workshop through a UCLA Extension course. The instructor gave Hirsch permission to write a one-act play. “After that,” he said, “I was hooked.”

Soon in the late 1970s, he was studying writing at a workshop at Los Angeles Actors Theater, penning new plays and having them read aloud and produced at small venues locally. He has since seen many of his plays performed or read at theaters throughout Los Angeles, as well as in New York, Boston and other major U.S. cities.

He shelved the original version of “Atonement” after a Los Angeles Actors Theater staged reading in the late ’70s, but in mid-2004 he reconnected, via cyberspace, with a fellow playwright who had attended the reading and had since moved to New York. The strong impression of that single reading upon this colleague 25 years later prompted Hirsch to give his first draft a second look.

Hirsch brought the script to Howard Teichman and Hindi Brooks’ Theatre 40 Professional Theatre Company’s Writers Workshop, of which he’s a member, to begin developing and reworking it into its present form.

Teichman, the production’s director, said what drew him to “Atonement” was “the whole notion of ‘How does one cope with loss?’ and ‘How does one deal with God and faith when one is a cultural Jew?'” as well as the mechanisms novelist Elijah Stone creates in his efforts “to try to find salvation and redemption.”

“Without a strong faith-based support,” Hirsch said, Elijah is “left in this void. The seeds of what he needs” exist in his mind, “but his grief has put him in such a distracted place that he doesn’t know which way is up.”

As for the play’s title, Hirsch said his protagonist “needs to atone for his self-possessive, narcissistic existence and acknowledge the existence of there being something greater than himself. To admit that, you have to admit that you’re less than that,” where Elijah “thought he was above that and just needed himself. The play is the journey to get him to that point.”

Elijah, he said, is “absolutely” fooling himself with his repeated claims that “guilt is a useless emotion.”

“He knows it’s there,” Hirsch said. “It’s in his mind, but he has created a structure for himself in his life in order to reach what he perceives to be success.” The character harbors guilt for certain aspects of his life best left unrevealed, “but he doesn’t get to that point until near the end” of the journey called “Atonement.”


“Atonement” runs March 5-29, Mondays-Wednesdays 8 p.m.; March 11 and 18, 2 p.m.; March 29, 8 p.m. at Theatre 40 at the Reuben Cordova Theatre, 241 Moreno Drive, Beverly Hills. $20 (weekdays), $22 (Sundays). For more information, call (310) 364-0535 or visit MUSIC VIDEO: Teapacks — ‘Push the Button’ (Eurovision entry)

Theater: Troy vs. ‘Tsuris’


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sherwood Schwartz — creator of hit TV shows ‘Gilligans Island’ and ‘The Brady Bunch’ — trades sitc


Sherwood Schwartz is not one to complain. Which isn’t to say he has nothing to complain about.

“Right now I have a torn rotator cuff,” he said during an interview at his home in Beverly Hills. “So I guess I could complain about my arm all day. But what the hell?” The three old ladies at center stage in Schwartz’s play “Off Their Rockers,” which will premiere at Theatre West on Nov. 10, are not purveyors of equanimity. Each character, in her own way, makes an art form of complaint.

“I was inspired by a Sholom Aleichem story about how God hears our complaints,” Schwartz said. “God gets pretty tired of it. I can appreciate that.”

Schwartz, who turns 90 this month, has arrived at his career as a playwright comparatively late in life. In earlier decades he made a name for himself by creating “Gilligan’s Island” and “The Brady Bunch.” And in decades even earlier than that, there were gigs as a comedy writer for Red Skelton and Bob Hope.

“I actually started off in pre-med,” he said about his youthful ambitions. “In the 1930s the AMA decided there were too many Jewish doctors, so medical school admissions became tougher for applicants with Jewish-sounding last names. I decided to get a master’s degree in biology from USC to make myself more competitive.”

When he started graduate school, Schwartz moved in with his brother, Al, who was writing for Bob Hope’s radio show.

“It didn’t seem that hard to write a joke,” Schwartz said. “So Al would tell me the topic of the show, and I’d write a couple of pages of jokes.”

The money was good, and Bob Hope wasn’t imposing quotas to keep out talented writers. So in 1939, Schwartz dropped out of USC to start penning comedy.

Schwartz said he has just solved a staging problem that had stymied his idea for a new play based in his experience on “The Red Skelton Show.” The play will tell the story of the three writers — Schwartz, Jesse Goldstein and Dave O’Brien — who wrote most of the material for the show. More specifically, it will deal with the human drama that unfolded around the writers during the six months preceding Goldstein’s death from inoperable cancer in 1959.

“Jesse’s doctor didn’t want to tell Jesse he was going to die, so he told Jesse’s wife instead,” Schwartz said. “Everyone played along, including Jesse. When his pain became acute, his doctor told him he had arthritis in his breastbone, or that one of his lungs had dissociated from his diaphragm.”
Near the end, Goldstein had become so frail that O’Brien had to drive him to work at CBS each day. The three men would talk through the script as a secretary typed, then Goldstein would collapse on a couch in exhaustion. At the end of the day, Dave would take him back home.

“Red Skelton’s show was this hokey-pokey broad comedy,” Schwartz said. “But the drama of life and death was going on in the background. Tragedy occupied the same room as the three of us who were cranking out jokes for one of the most popular programs on TV.”

Schwartz said he realized that he was the solution to his staging problem. As in “Our Town,” a narrator playing Schwartz will occupy a small spotlighted area of the stage, then get off a chair or stool and step into the action.

“It should take me two years to write,” Schwartz said. “Assuming I’ve got two years to write it.”
In the meantime, reading mail from fans watching syndicated reruns of “The Brady Bunch” and “Gilligan’s Island” keeps Schwartz busy. He said that on one recent day he received letters from Chile, Sweden and three other countries where the primary language is something other than English. Like many of the fans he hears from, several of the letter writers remarked that the shows were key features of the cultural landscape of their teen years.

“CBS loved the script for ‘ Gilligan’s Island,'” Schwartz said. “Then they tried to unravel it. I had to make a deal with the devil — specifically Jim Aubrey [then the network president of CBS] — to keep my original idea. After they tested the pilot, Aubrey said, ‘I still hate your [expletive] show, but the audiences love it.'”

What does Schwartz make of the enduring popularity of his “tale of a fateful trip”?

“There’s something timeless about a show that follows the story of people who are basically strangers to one another learning how to get along on a desert island,” he said. “The Muslims and the Jews should be so lucky as to figure that out.”

“Gilligan’s Island” as the solution to conflict in the Middle East? Scoff if you will. Richard Taflinger, who teaches mass media criticism and script-writing at Washington State University, is the author of “Sitcom: What It Is, How It Works,” which he describes as a “neo-Artistotelian analysis of television comedy since 1947.”

“‘Gilligan’s Island’ may seem inane or shallow, but the comedy is very human,” he said. “Most sitcoms rely on pop-culture references or send-ups of social norms to get laughs. ‘ Gilligan’s Island’ is different — its humor isn’t dependent on any particular era or culture. Aristophanes would’ve laughed at ‘ Gilligan’s Island.'”

Even if he were so inclined, Schwartz would have a hard time complaining about that.

Play Reading’s the Thing for Director


Sitting in her living room and poring through an enormous photo album, Alexandra More acts like the proud parent of successful offspring.

“Will you just look at them?” she gushes, pointing at one photograph after another of famous actors participating in her play readings. “Such energy! Such enthusiasm!”

For the past five years, More’s “baby” has been the “Celebrity Staged Play Readings,” which she conducts every fall and spring at the Westside and Valley Cities JCCs. The series consistently attracts audiences ranging from 100 to 300 people, while its participating performers — Edward Asner, Doris Roberts, Theodore Bikel, Estelle Harris, to name a few — read like a who’s who list of Jewish American character actors. The plays have run the gamut from classic comedies, like “Crossing Delancy” and anything Neil Simon, to more serious fare, like David Gow’s “The Friedman Family Fortune,” which will receive its L.A. premiere this weekend as the last play of the series’ spring season.

“The quality of these productions is outstanding,” says Brian Greene, Westside JCC executive director. “It attracts great talent and large audiences, and all of us at the Westside Jewish Community Center are proud to be the home of this community treasure.”

More will read any play sent to her for consideration, but she never wavers from her initial instincts. “I can read six pages of a play and know if it’s good,” she says. “Also, the plays that I stage must entertain, yet avoid taking potshots and making caricatures of Jews. The plays can be very funny, but always there’s something in them that dignifies and honors the Jewish experience.”

Having staged more than 100 Jewish-themed plays by both established and emerging playwrights, More has “been an outstanding contributor to Jewish theater in Los Angeles,” says Herb Isaacs, artistic director of the West Coast Jewish Theatre. “Not only does she do very good work, she also is a great supporter of everyone working in Jewish theater.”

As a director, More loves nothing more than “showing the playwright what he’s really written. With play readings, the actor doesn’t really have time to act,” she says. “It’s more about the playwright hearing the words.”

And as to the question of how she attracts celebrities to appear in her readings year after year, More enigmatically pleads the Fifth.

“Let’s just say I know how to network,” she says.

“Alexandra helps keep my acting soul alive,” says Asner, best known as Lou Grant on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and a regular at More’s readings. “It’s always a good play, a good cast, a good audience and good food.”

“People have this great loyalty to Alexandra; she has this passion that makes others want to be around her,” says Robyn Cohen, an up-and-coming film actress, who recently starred in the “Celestine Prophecy” and “The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou.”

Cohen, who will star this fall in More’s staging of Daniel Goldfarb’s “Modern Orthodox,” observes that the reading series “is a magnet for exceptional actors. They see who Alexandra is working with, and they want to be part of that.”

More’s foray into directing began over a decade ago, when the West Coast Jewish Theatre started a Sunday morning “Bagel Theatre Series.” At first, More directed readings only of new plays and used relatively unknown actors. But then she met Asner at a party and asked if he would do a reading of a play called “The Gathering.”

Then, “I started to do plays all over, and we started to get larger audiences,” she recalls. “The word of mouth just spread.”

Only once did More, who’s also an actress and declines to reveal her age for professional reasons, cast herself. The play was called “Ella’s Secret,” and “it was about a Jewish woman who didn’t look Jewish,” she says. “I really related to that, because as an actress, I was never cast as a Jewish woman.”

Reared in New York City, More always loved theater and film and moved to Los Angeles “early on in life” to pursue an acting career. Before she started directing, she describes a “varied background,” which included acting in independent films, modeling and owning several restaurants.

A lifelong spiritual seeker, “I found that Judaism centered me,” she says of joining the Leo Baeck Temple in the early 1980s and rediscovering her Jewish roots. “But as a Jew, I feel on the fence, because while I love the beauty of religion, I also love being secular.”

In Jewish theater, More finds a synthesis of all her skills and beliefs.

“I love thinking about how many playwrights I’ve helped, how many people I’ve brought together and just the process of delving into the work itself,” she says. “I feel it can’t get much better than that.”

“The Friedman Family Fortune” starring Edward Asner will be performed May 20, 8 p.m. at the Valley Cities JCC and May 21, 2 p.m. at the Westside JCC. For directions and ticket prices, call (818) 786-6310 or (323) 938-2531, Ext. 2225.

 

Sobol’s ‘iWitness’: Principled or Treasonous?


At the height of the intifada, in 2002, more than 600 Israeli pilots and soldiers, many in elite units, refused to serve in what they considered the occupied Palestinian territories.

These were not pacifists or conscientious objectors to war in any form. Many had fought in Israel’s past wars for survival, but they refused to bear arms in what they saw as an oppressive campaign.

In Israel, where service in the armed forces was long held sacrosanct, the stand of the new breed of “refuseniks” became a deeply divisive issue, triggering protests, counter-protests and threatening riots.

To Joshua Sobol, Israel’s foremost playwright and a former paratrooper, the situation was agonizing. But rather than write about it directly, Sobol began to think about a case he had read about a decade earlier and then put aside.

The central figure in the incident was Franz Jaegerstaetter, an Austrian farmer who, in 1943, at the height of World War II, refused to serve in the German army. He was tried by a court martial and executed at the age of 36.

In the play “iWitness,” opening April 19 at the Mark Taper Forum, in which all the characters are referred to by their first names, Franz is visited in his prison cell by family and friends the day before his execution.

His wife, boyhood pals, a former mistress, the jailer, a doctor, the prison chaplain, even one of the judges who sentenced him try to change Franz’s decision. He is promised assignment to a hospital unit where he won’t have to shoot at anybody, but he remains adamant. He will not wear a German uniform.

The heart of the play lies in Franz’s patient attempts to explain the underlying reasons for his stand to puzzled friends — jailers and judges alike — especially since he had already served an earlier term in the German army before the war.

When the play was first performed in Tel Aviv in 2002, it was met by near riots, according to press reports. A few critics tried to “manipulate” the theme, said Sobol, by charging him with writing a defense brief, by analogy, for the Israeli refuseniks.

Sobol denies the allegation.

“What I hoped to do was start a discussion about basic questions of principle,” he said in a phone call from Israel.

But principles are not absolute, neither in Germany nor in Israel. Just as one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter, so one man’s principle is another man’s treason.

So we asked Sobol, one of Israel’s most eloquent liberals, how he felt about the Israeli soldiers who refused to evacuate settlers from their Gaza Strip homes during the recent disengagement. The playwright evaded an answer, even as he acknowledged that there were no easy answers.

“A man, whether on the left or right, should not carry out an order against his conscience,” he said. “But there is a difference between legal and illegal orders, and it may be difficult to determine which is which. It depends on the specific situation.”

The play’s Franz, a small-town farmer, is an impressively eloquent exponent of his principles, frequently putting the judges and chaplain on the defensive. In one scene, he justifies his resistance by arguing that Hitler “has broken all the rules of humanity established over thousands of years … that whoever starts a war, breaks the rules. And when a leader allows himself to break the rules, it is the duty of every citizen to break the leader’s rules.”

In another scene, Franz turns on the prison chaplain, who argues for every German bystander who pretended not to know what was happening.

“You hear those trains passing by every night?” Franz asks. “You hear the human voices coming from the cattle cars? … Listen to the voices bursting out of the sealed boxcars. God is talking to you in those voices. He’s telling you, Father Tochmann, what you should do.”

Sobol declines a suggestion that he painted an intellectual patina on a simple man. Although no transcript of Franz’s trial has been found, Sobol has read his letters to his wife and was moved and impressed.

“Jaegerstaetter was a real roughneck in his youth, but when he married his wife, he became a deeply religious Catholic. During their honeymoon, they made a pilgrimage to Rome, and over time he became a self-taught philosopher.”

During the past 35 years, Sobol has written 50 plays and two novels; he teaches at two Israeli universities, and at age 66 he appears more productive than ever.

“I am a compulsive writer and always have two or three themes in my head which I want to develop,” he said.

Sobol frequently writes 10 hours at a stretch, fortified only by a cup of tea for breakfast. Last year, he completed two new plays, “Kol Nidrei” and “A Working Class Hero.” He is obsessed by the “existential dilemma” of “What is a Jew?” noting that “this question has influenced the whole body of my work, directly or indirectly.”

He has explored that theme most famously in two plays, “Ghetto,” which has been translated into 20 languages, and “The Soul of a Jew,” both of which were performed at the Mark Taper Forum in the 1980s.

Sobol is also an unsparing social critic of his country and his people, and to label him “controversial” is a gross understatement. Viewing his country at the present time, he is concerned less about threats from without than social dysfunction within, a subject at the center of “A Working Class Hero.”

“Our middle class has been degraded and is declining toward poverty,” he said. “More than 1.2 million people are living below the poverty line, including 700,000 children. We are creating a class of frustrated Israelis, and I am convinced that to reach a peaceful solution with the Palestinians, we must change the social and political situation inside Israel.”

The director and co-translator of “iWitness” is Barry Edelstein, tackling his first major West Coast production. A New Jersey native and former Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, Edelstein, 40, won honors and critical acclaim as the artistic director of the off-Broadway Classical Stage Company from 1998 to 2003.

Recognized particularly for his fresh staging of Shakespearean plays, he moved to Los Angeles two years ago, teaches Shakespearean acting at USC, and is finishing his first movie, “My Lunch with Larry.”

“I first read about ‘iWitness’ in an Israeli newspaper, was intrigued, and asked Sobol if he could send me his own English translation of the play,” Edelstein said.

The two men got together and collaborated on a more colloquial translation from Sobol’s original draft.

Still, we suggested to Edelstein, on a first, cold reading of the play’s script, some of the characters tend to sound more like talking ideological viewpoints than three-dimensional humans.

Edelstein responded that “good actors bring life and humanity to the written word, and we have very good actors. Franz is a fully realized character, though some of the other roles are not quite so nuanced. That’s by design, because they are viewed through Franz’s eyes.”

He made the further point that the Israeli theater in general, and Sobol in particular, are more in the European than the American mold, with the latter more likely to emphasize psychological complexities. Edelstein cited especially the influence of German playwright Bertoldt Brecht, “who was more interested in how something happens than why. He wanted the audience to take a step back, to view a play objectively rather than emotionally.”

Like Sobol, Edelstein was deeply impressed on reading Franz’s letters from the prison.

“The writing wasn’t great prose, but it was remarkably sophisticated and showed a real depth of thinking,” he said.

Anyhow, Edelstein asked, why shouldn’t a farmer be able to write with great conviction and clarity?

After all, “Shakespeare had little education, he was the son of a glovemaker, and he did some pretty good writing.”

The Mark Taper Forum will present “iWitness” from April 9 to May 21, with previews starting March 30. For ticket information, call (213) 628-2772 or visit www.CenterTheatreGroup.org.

 

Wasserstein Chronicled Modern Women


Playwright Wendy Wasserstein, known for wry portrayals of strong, conflicted, contemporary women in prizewinning works such as “The Heidi Chronicles,” died this week in New York.

While not always overtly Jewish, her characters still bore the mark of the playwright’s traditional Jewish upbringing in New York.

Later in her life, the feminist writer became a Jewish mother, although perhaps not in the way her own Jewish mother pictured.

Wasserstein, 55, died Monday of lymphoma.

Wasserstein wrote “in ways that are profoundly Jewish,” said Joyce Antler, professor of American Jewish history and women’s studies at Brandeis University.

Her “ideas of show business came from the synagogue — for her that sense of theater as a space for expressing these views was influenced by her Jewishness,” Antler said.

Although her focus was on the American woman, not just the Jewish American woman, she expressed “the modern dilemma of American women with a Jewish accent, a Jewish sensibility,” Antler said.

Susan Weidman Schneider, the editor in chief of Lilith Magazine, said, “She may be the only playwright of national stature to capture, moment by moment, the changing lives of women in the last part of the 20th century.”

Her best-known work, “The Heidi Chronicles,” won a Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award in 1989. The play narrates the life of Heidi, a feminist art historian, over the span of a few decades, from a dance school in 1965 to her decision to adopt a child and become a single mother in 1989 — a mirror to Wasserstein’s own decision to have a baby by herself in 1999. Another work, “The Sisters Rosensweig,” featured three middle-aged Jewish siblings who come together in London for a birthday party.

In that play, “she was able to have anger at aspects of Jewish family life and yet be appreciative,” said Schneider, of both “the discomfort and warm pleasures of family life.”

“Sisters” deals with “developing new identities out of Jewish expectations,” Antler said.

One sister, who is secular, comes home, discusses with her siblings what it means to be Jewish and discovers her Jewish identity.

“And issues are raised and discussed in a Jewish communal way,” Antler said.

Even in plays with less overtly Jewish themes, Wasserstein’s work reflects the perspective of “a woman who bears demographic accents of a Jewish woman,” Antler added.

The lead protagonist in her first play, “Uncommon Women and Others” in 1977, is Holly, a Jewish woman in the last year of an elite women’s college similar to Mount Holyoke, Wasserstein’s alma mater.

The play continues six years later when Holly and her friends reunite over lunch to compare life paths. Each one is simultaneously successful and lacking in her life — the professionals are still seeking fulfilling relationships; one is happily married and pregnant but unemployed and unsure of whether she should have pursued a career.

The member of the group that has both a fulfilling marriage and career is unable to attend the gathering, having moved to Iraq — the implication being that in order to achieve both these things, she had to make an extreme sacrifice.

Wasserstein’s characters mostly aged with her, continuing to be strong, interesting and passionate, if conflicted, and generally “uncommon.”

The playwright, who attended a yeshiva in Brooklyn as a child, “was extraordinary in her ability to be deeply honest in a kind of sidelong and ironic way in writing about her experience as a Jewish woman,” Schneider said.

Wasserstein, who once said that her traditional parents allowed her to study at Yale’s School of Drama in the hope that she’d find a doctor or lawyer to marry, celebrated “educated women dealing with professional ambition and societal expectations in terms of marriage and/or procreation,” Schneider said.

In addition to about a dozen plays, Wasserstein’s oeuvre included two collections of essays, “Bachelor Girls” and “Shiksa Goddess: or, How I Spent My Forties”; the non-fiction work “Sloth,” a parody of a self-help book; and a forthcoming novel.

Her plays might have been loosely autobiographical, but her essays were frank discussions of events in her life, such as her decision to have a child on her own.

“She followed a path from career woman to being a Jewish mother,” Antler said. And though she didn’t follow the traditional route, “she is the voice of her generation as a proud Jewish mother.”

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Navel Gazing With Eve Ensler


Some years ago, playwright-performer Eve Ensler became mortified by her not-so-flat, post-40s belly. She starved herself, hired a trainer and watched late-night Ab-Roller infomercials. She compulsively worked the treadmill and even fantasized about contracting a parasite.

No matter that Ensler had authored the taboo-busting feminist global hit, “The Vagina Monologues.” Her preoccupation with her midriff eroded her confidence and her ability to work.

“I couldn’t understand how I, a radical activist, could spend this much time thinking about my stomach,” she says.

Hungry for answers, she created a new solo show, “The Good Body,” which dissects her angst and that of similarly obsessed women.

In the funny and brash play, Ensler recounts her dismay upon viewing svelte magazine cover girls, whom she describes as “the American dream, my personal nightmare.”

She adopts the role of 11 other women, including a model made over by her plastic surgeon husband, a Puerto Rican who dreads “the spread” and a Jew who cries upon realizing she’s got her mother’s tuchis. Then there’s legendary Cosmo editor Helen Gurley Brown — purveyor of the thin-is-sexy ideal — whose own mother said she was plain.

“I’m down to 90 pounds,” the 80-year-old character says in the play, while completing 100 sit-ups. “Another 10 years, I’ll be down to nothing. But even then, I won’t feel beautiful. I accept this terrible condition.”

Brown’s self-loathing was typical of the myriad women Ensler met while researching the play on her “Monologues” tour.

“It’s given that a woman will despise at least part of her body, and increasingly deemed advisable for her to go to any lengths to correct it,” she says.

Ensler blames the negative conditioning on continuing pressure from popular culture in patriarchal societies.

“What a great way to keep women out of power,” she adds, sounding cheeky and earthy during a phone interview sandwiched between Miami performances. “As long as we keep focusing on fixing ourselves, we aren’t going to rise up and fix the world, are we? We spend an unprecedented $40 billion a year on beauty products. But what if we used that time and money to improve life on this planet?”

Ensler, 52, certainly practices what she preaches. She has parlayed benefit performances of “Monologues” into a worldwide V-Day movement that has raised millions to end violence against women.

Critics mostly honor her intentions and her status as a feminist icon, and a number have lauded “The Good Body.” But some considered its theme old news when the play debuted on Broadway last year.

“Self-help books and cultural manifestos have been decrying the country’s emphasis on irrationally idealized body image and its pernicious influence on feminine self-esteem for decades,” the New York Times said.

Indeed, Susan Orbach published “Fat Is a Feminist Issue” in 1978, and Naomi Wolf wrote “The Beauty Myth” in 1991.

“The show often serves as therapy rather than crusading ideology,” the Philadelphia Inquirer said.

Ensler scoffs at the suggestion that “The Good Body” is lightweight or irrelevant.

“We’ve been talking about issues such as body image and domestic violence for as long as we can remember, and it’s not like we get done,” she says, annoyed. “And in an era when we have more anorexic girls than ever, and when extreme-makeover shows proliferate on TV, we clearly have far to go.”

Carole Black, a V-Day activist and former CEO of Lifetime Entertainment, agrees. “I have so many friends who are heads of networks who always worry about something, [such as] flabby arms or thighs,” she says. “It’s amazing that we still agonize about this, because the men I know don’t care.”

Perhaps Ensler’s approach works because it is more visceral than academic.

“The power of Eve’s words turns something very personal into something very universal,” said Pat Mitchell, V-Day Council chair and the president and CEO of PBS.

After listening to Ensler, even an initially skeptical Guardian reporter came around. “I felt something happen inside — intellectual anger about beauty tyranny changed into physical rejection of it, a less sophisticated but more formidable force,” she wrote. “[Ensler’s] plays are transforming armchair post-feminists into activists, and radicalizing women more effectively than a whole generation of feminist theory.”

Ensler traces her fixation on disenfranchised women (and her stomach) to her abuse-ridden childhood in Scarsdale, N.Y. She says her late Jewish father raped her from the ages of 5 to 10; thereafter he beat her and tormented her with food.

“He considered showing hunger to be gauche, revealing your lack of class and manners,” Ensler recalls. “He said, ‘Only pigs eat bread.’ Our dining room table was all about not eating too much, sitting up straight, which utensils you were supposed to use.

“I spent years liberating myself from the terror of that table. In fact, I didn’t have a dining room table until this year, because it was the set piece for so much anxiety.”

Young Eve found respite in a “nurturing, big-busted, luscious Jewish aunt” who stuffed her with brisket, taught her to love food and “to associate all things emotional and real with being Jewish.”

Meanwhile, Eve’s own blond, non-Jewish mother seemed dismayed by her theatricality and her resemblance to Anne Frank, Ensler says in “The Good Body.” Eve was hardly the paradigm of the “good” (i.e., blonde and perky) 1950s girl.

Enemas, perms and dancing lessons were prescribed to “clean me up, shut me up, make me good,” she says. When the budding performer spoke out, she felt like the 19th century actress Sarah Bernhardt, who was “Jewish and in deep s—.”

By the time Ensler was in high school, she was drinking heavily to numb her childhood pain. After college, she wandered the country in an alcohol-induced haze, living naked in communes, subsisting for months on booze and marinated mushrooms.

Playwriting and activism provided a crucial part of her recovery in her 20s and 30s.

By 1996, Ensler had interviewed hundreds of subjects to write “The Vagina Monologues,” which celebrates female sexuality, decries domestic violence and the shame women associate with their most private of parts. After performing the show for years, she says she “finally felt comfortable with my vagina after talking about it so much.”

When her shame moved up to her stomach, Ensler again grabbed her notebook and consulted women around the world. She met Asians who poisoned themselves with skin-lightening creams, mothers who removed their daughters’ ribs so they would not have to worry about dieting, Texas matrons who had their feet surgically narrowed to fit into Manolo Blahniks.

She also met Indian and African women who celebrated their roundness and helped Ensler to embrace her body.

So after performing “The Good Body” for more than a year, is the artist finally over her stomach? She says she is — mostly. She no longer meticulously diets and exercises, although she does feel the occasional twinge when she sees waifs with flat, pierced bellies. But she appreciates how generous her body is.

“It performs eight shows a week for me. It travels the world. It doesn’t often get sick,” she says.

Ensler was pleased when several older Jewish viewers in Miami “got” her message after viewing her show recently.

“They said they were donating the money they had saved for plastic surgery to charity,” she says.

“My prayer for all women is that they stop seeking to look good and to be ‘good’ but to do good.”

“The Good Body” runs Jan. 31-Feb. 12 at the Wadsworth Theatre, 11301 Wilshire Blvd., Building 226, Brentwood. For tickets, call (213) 365-3500. For information, visit www.thegoodbody.com.

 

Stages of Faith: Light, Dark, Absurd


“Jerusalem”

The intelligent design vs. Darwinism debate presumes that one or the other theory provides the answer to life and all its mysteries. Playwright Seth Greenland explores the falsity of this dichotomy in “Jerusalem,” his play opening Friday at the NoHo Arts Center. Greenland’s five principal characters — a Jewish psychiatrist, his Protestant wife and his in-laws — have varying degrees of religious faith, as well as varying degrees of conviction about psychoanalysis. In the end, Greenland seems to say, the wise man understands the merits of both religion and science. Even the wise man, though, knows the limits of his knowledge.

“It’s ultimately unknowable,” Greenland says in an interview, seated in a swivel chair in his high-ceilinged Santa Monica loft. “The problems I have are with people who think they have answers. The trick is to continue in the not knowing.”

Greenland, 50, makes his living as a screenwriter and says he writes plays as a “hobby.” He has also penned a novel, “Bones,” which is being adapted into a film. He points out that neuroscientists have determined that there is a special part of the cortex that is “wired to believe in that stuff,” which he believes is a grand irony considering that such a belief is, he says, “ineffable.”

Yet for much of “Jerusalem” — a dark comedy that begins with the suicide in New York of a Jewish psychiatric patient who believes that Martha Stewart is the Messiah, transitions to Wisconsin for Christmas, and then concludes in the Holy Land — each character is convinced of the correctness of his or her beliefs until a series of unexpected traumatic events occur in Israel. Will, the psychiatrist, has a vision of the patient who took his life; brother-in-law Bing, visiting the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, donates his clothing to a Muslim then impales himself in the desert; sisters Meg and Glory grapple on the Via Dolorosa over how to dispose of their brother’s ashes, and Mary, the matriarch, witnesses a suicide bombing.

The seeming seriousness of these acts is leavened by a great deal of humor in the play. Greenland, who got his start writing gags for Joan Rivers and other comics before becoming a successful screenwriter, “knows his way around a joke,” he says. He has his characters speak on different planes much of the time, a hallmark of good dialogue. Where one talks about the offensiveness of blaming Jews for the death of Jesus, another asks if anyone wants a pastry.

He also shows the repressed violence that can occur in marriages when Bing, who decides to become one of God’s servants in the desert, jokes that he often thinks about killing his wife with an ax, chopping her into melon slices. Greenland quips that “for many, like our president, religion is a 12-step program to keep you from behaving like a lunatic.”

Greenland says that “Jerusalem,” which has had productions in Chicago and Boston over the past five years, is “meant to resonate like a Bible story.” He mentions Woody Allen and Philip Roth as two artists he admires; their best work commingles comedy and drama, “capturing the frothiness and the heartache.”

“Comedy,” says Greenland, “is the Trojan Horse of the tragedian.”

“Jerusalem” opens Friday, Dec. 2, at the NoHo Arts Center, 11136 Magnolia Blvd.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; thru Jan. 8. $15-$25. For tickets, call (818) 508-7101, ext 5.

“Better Angels” and “Liberation Day”

If Greenland primarily uses humor to spotlight conundrums in the Jewish experience, Carol Barbee and Ron Kohn, the two playwrights whose work City Stage is featuring at the Hayworth Theater Complex, use a darker approach.

“Better Angels,” Barbee’s 20-minute scene between a rabbi who has lost his faith and a young psychiatrist who has married outside of his delves into the kind of intergenerational conflicts so present in Arthur Miller’s work. But where Miller only hints at Jewishness, Barbee brings it to the fore. The most compelling part of this scene is the shifting power dynamic between the two men, played by Kip Gilman and Andrew Kottler. Like Greenland, Barbee invokes the debate of evolution vs. intelligent design, as the two actors in “Better Angels” change seating arrangements and roles until both leave more illuminated about God, science and their angst.

City Stage’s second one-act is “Liberation Day,” a one-man show by Ron Kohn, a former TV actor, who plays both his late father, a concentration camp survivor, and himself, during his first years in Los Angeles when he was trying to make it as a movie star. Kohn, who with his salt and pepper goatee and receding hairline looks a bit like Dennis Hopper, has a soft, melodious voice when playing himself and a convincing Czech Jewish accent when playing his father. He puts on a pair of glasses and hunches over as the lighting changes whenever he switches into the latter role.

While some may question the tastefulness of Kohn’s pitting his own Hollywood struggles against those of his father in Nazi Europe, Kohn shows humility throughout the one-hour performance. His battles with alcoholism reflect a deeper fear that he is killing his parents by failing in Hollywood. He demonstrates that even the children of survivors have their own survivor’s guilt.

“Better Angels” and “Liberation Day” play at the Hayworth Theater Complex, 643 Carondelet St.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; thru Dec. 4. $20. For tickets, call (213) 389-9860.

“States of Mind”

In order to survive over the millennia of living in foreign lands, Jews have had to deal with a timeless ontological dilemma cutting to their core — whether they can truly be Jewish outside of Israel. Jews have been accused of split allegiance, going back to the days of Joseph in Egypt. Yale Udoff taps into a more recent variant, as epitomized by the Jonathan Pollard affair, in “Nebraska,” a hilarious send-up of government intrigue, produced by the Laurelgrove Theater Company.

The first of two one-acts staged at the Hollywood Court Theater under the title “States of Mind,” “Nebraska” fashions a conceit, a U.S. policy to move Israel from the Middle East into a Red State sanctuary in the geographic center of America, that sounds ridiculous but is not so far-fetched when one remembers that FDR contemplated a homeland for Jews in Alaska.

Udoff, a former U.S. infantry officer and student at Georgetown, clearly understands the military and Beltway politics. His play can be viewed as a parable on the present political scene as he features representatives not only of the military-industrial complex but also the religious right, all of whom influence the president. With the exception of Marcus Taylor, a Jewish assistant to the commander-in-chief, all of the characters are caricatures — a hypocritical reverend named Oral, a general who resembles George C. Scott’s “nuke ’em” officer in “Dr. Strangelove,” and a clownish anti-Semitic operative named Pat, who might be the playwright’s sly slap at commentator and former Nixon speechwriter Pat Buchanan.

The question for this gallery of buffoons is whether or not Marcus Taylor (Abbott Alexander) is really Taylor Marcus, a Jew and thus in their minds not a real American. Pat and the reverend, the latter a semanticist, are particularly interested in Marcus’ real name and ethnicity, but Marcus negotiates the tricky terrain of being a Jew and an American without disclosing his identity.

When a Native American chief enters, he speaks of the long-awaited reunion between Jews and the lost tribes of Israel, another notion that may seem farcical but in fact hints at a greater truth — that the Indians and the Jews share a history of oppression and homelessness.

Udoff’s second one-act, “The Little Gentleman,” is less successful. While the stock characters in “Nebraska” pointed to the absurdity of political, military and religious figures, the stock characters in “The Little Gentleman” are all Jewish women, each one unflattering and overbearing. There is some comedy in seeing them vie for the attention of a fully grown, year-and-a-half-old Jewish baby, who speaks with a British accent. But this child (played with great mirth by Tom O’Keefe) does not want to be big, like Tom Hanks in the movie of that name, rather he wants to know his mother’s real or, as he says, “Christian” name.

Again, Udoff’s theme, whether or not Jews should preserve their own heritage or assimilate and strive for aristocratic breeding, resonates, but before the hour is through the theatergoer, surrounded by irritable Jewish women onstage, may wish to replicate the baby’s self-destructive actions.

“States of Mind” plays at the Hollywood Court Theater, inside the Hollywood United Methodist Church, 6717 Franklin Ave; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; thru Dec. 18. For tickets, call (323) 692-8200.

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Perils of the ‘Perfect’ Student


In New York, parents tell horror stories about the pressure to get their 5-year-old kids into the right kindergartens, the kind attended by Woody Allen’s kids. In Los Angeles, the social cachet may be even more skewed.

“So and so from the Lakers’ kid goes to some school,” says playwright David Levinson, whose play, “Early Decision,” at the Edgemar Center for the Arts in Santa Monica, has tapped into the Zeitgeist about the mania surrounding college admissions.

“I never really think of the Lakers as being emblematic of the world’s greatest scholars,” says Levinson, yet to some going to school with the child of a Laker or a big-time Hollywood director seems to suggest a bizarre status.

In “Early Decision,” Levinson shows the pathetic lengths to which parents will go to ensure that their child attends an Ivy League school — paying $4,000 for an SAT prep class, sending junior off on some resume-padding do-gooder mission, even writing junior’s college application essay.

The crazed quotidian lifestyle of these kids — rushing off to see their tutors, prepping for a starring role in the high school play, reading to a blind Holocaust survivor, as well as taking AP classes — leads one high school senior in “Early Decision” to have a nervous breakdown, while Claire, the central figure in the play, decides to forgo college.

Levinson, who has three children, says of the college and even middle-school application process that “it’s a nutty system,” pointing out that the parents are so much more involved in the lives of the kids than they used to be when he was a student at Milton Academy, a Boston-area prep school, in the 1970s.

While the characters in the play are primarily Westside Jews, Levinson contends that the phenomenon is not unique to any one race, ethnicity or religion. He notes that many Asian and South Asian parents and children go through a similar ritual of torment when the children are as young as 11.

“It’s a universal thing,” he said. “There’s tons of pressure to get into these schools. It’s corrupting; makes kids cynical. The burnout factor must be enormous.”

“Early Decision” plays at the Edgemar Center for the Arts, 2437 Main St., Santa Monica; Fri.-Sat., 7:30 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; thru Dec. 4; (310) 392-7327.

 

Pinter’s Plays Give Voice to the Victims


Provocative, ambiguous, biting, subtle, Harold Pinter, who has just been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, is one of the major playwrights of the English language and the author of 29 plays and two dozen film scripts. He is also one of the most political of writers, with an overriding concern for social justice and an abhorrence of fascism, authoritarianism and brutality. His plays deal with power and powerlessness, dominance and subservience, resistance to authority, doublethink, hypocrisy and the perversion of language.

Pinter is a strong opponent of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. He is critical of the Israeli government’s attitude toward Palestinian refugees and has protested outside the Israeli Embassy against the solitary confinement of Mordechai Vanunu for revealing Israel’s nuclear capability. In earlier times, he spoke out on U.S. policy in Central America and against NATO’s bombing of Yugoslavia.

His politics come out of the searing experiences of being a Jew in the period of World War II. Pinter was born in 1930 in Jewish East London, the son of a tailor, Jack Pinter, and Frances Moskowitz, whose parents immigrated to England from Poland and Odessa (Ukraine) at the turn of the century. Both grandfathers were in the garment trade; his father’s side was Orthodox, his mother’s secular. He celebrated his bar mitzvah, but then ended all connections with religion. He told biographer Michael Billington, “I felt both Jewish and not Jewish, which in a way remains the case.” (Except where noted, the quotes in this article are from Billington’s biography, “The Life and Work of Harold Pinter,” [Faber and Faber, 1996].)

He has a curiously conflictive attitude toward his Jewishness. In an e-mail exchange, Pinter declined to be interviewed. I had sent him, by way of introducing my own political concerns, an article about former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s support for the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. He replied:

“Dear Ms. Komisar,

Thank you very much indeed for sending me your article about Kissinger. I thought it terrific. As you know we’re very much on the same side.

I don’t really want to discuss the Jewish influences on my work so I’ll have to say no to that, but I send you my very best wishes and hope we’ll meet some day.

Yours sincerely, Harold Pinter.”

In fact, it appears that a Jewish consciousness forged in his youth was tied to a sense of outrage at injustice, which expanded to concerns about universal repression. Anti-Semitism was as rife in postwar London as before, and Pinter and his friends had confrontations with fascist gangs (once they were threatened by thugs with bike chains and broken milk bottles, but they escaped). He would say later, “We’d just fought for six bloody years to defeat, at the cost of millions of people, the Nazis, and yet the government allowed these groups of fascists to congregate in the East End of London and beat people up.”

The experience led to a cynicism about politicians and the hypocrisy of government and deepened his abiding hatred of fascism.

He was quick to challenge anti-Semites. In the 1950s, he heard a man at a London bar declare, “Hitler didn’t go far enough. That’s the big problem.” After a verbal altercation, Pinter hit him, and they ended up in a police station. Pinter later explained that he’d hit the man “because he wasn’t just insulting me, he was insulting lots of other people. He was insulting people who were dead, people who had suffered…. My fury with him came from some part of my being which I didn’t consciously analyze or think about.”

In “The Room” (1956), there’s an odd line when the landlord, Mr. Kidd, says, “I think my mum was a Jewess. Yes, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that she was a Jewess. She didn’t have many babies.”

Asked by this writer in an e-mail what that meant, Pinter declined to say. When pressed on the point, he turned our correspondence over to his assistant.

In the play, the elderly Rose and her husband, Bert, live in solitary fashion in one room, which is visited by a young couple who lay claim to it. A mysterious blind, black occupant of the basement, who has been waiting to speak to Rose, arrives and tells her, “Your father wants you to come home.”

Pinter says he is a messenger, a savior trying to release Rose from her imprisonment in the room and the restriction of life with Bert, inviting her to come back to her spiritual home. Is that Jewish?

Among his most prominent works, “The Homecoming” (1965) raises sensitive issues for Pinter, who decries reviewers’ attempts to give it a Jewish interpretation, although it was inspired by the story of his boyhood friend, Morris Wernick, who secretly married a non-Jew in 1956 and immigrated to Canada without telling his father. As in the play, he returned with his family years later to tell his father the truth.

His frequent mix of the personal and political is evident in “Ashes to Ashes” (1996), a searing play wherein a faculty wife mixes personal and race memories. A lover who asserted power over her and the workers in his factory reminds her of the Nazis’ brutalization of their captives. Pinter was inspired to write the play, which probes both political and personal fascism, by a biography of Albert Speer, who built and ran the Nazi slave labor system.

Rebecca and Devlin live in a comfortable country house in a university town outside London. Haunted by barbaric acts, she identifies with the victims of mistreatment and violence. She tells Devlin of an abusive lover who ordered her to kiss his fist and then choked her, and goes on to describe a surreal memory:

“An old man and a little boy were walking down the street with a suitcase, the woman was following with a baby in arms, the street was icy. When I got to the railroad station, other people were there, the man I’d given my heart to… I watched him walk down the platform and tear all the babies from the arms of their screaming mothers.”

But is it a real experience or a historical memory? The play is an enigmatic cry of rage against the brutality of Nazism, a vision of personal distress wherein one is never sure where fantasy stops and reality begins.

The importance of Pinter recognized by the Nobel Committee has been to speak for the victims of repression of any era who could not speak for themselves.

Lucy Komisar, a New York-based journalist whose articles on international affairs have appeared in The Progressive, The Village Voice and The Toronto Star, is writing a book about offshore banks and corporate secrecy.

 

7 Days in The Arts


Saturday, October 8

In playwright Hindy Brooks’ new play, “Turn a Blind Eye,” researching Holocaust survivors’ stories leads a young woman to discover things about her own family she might rather have never known. Questions are raised about heroism, and about the awful things people must do — and later live with — to survive horrific situations.

Runs through Nov. 13. $18-$20. Theatre 40 at the Reuben Cordova Theatre, 241 Moreno Drive, Beverly Hills High Campus. R.S.V.P., (310) 364-0535.

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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.

‘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.

 

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

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.

 

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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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.

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 .

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