Theater: Davidson’s retirement leads to ‘Lessons’


Gordon Davidson is back where he belongs, in the director’s chair.

The man whose name is practically synonymous with Los Angeles theater, who raised the city’s reputation from a provincial backwater to the breeding ground for innovative and controversial plays, retired in the summer of 2005 as founding artistic director of the Center Theatre Group.

Now he has resumed his craft, not at the Mark Taper Forum, the site of many of his triumphs and some failures for 38 seasons, but at the more modest venue of the Strasberg Creative Center’s Marilyn Monroe Theatre in West Hollywood.

Davidson has taken an hour off from the final rehearsal of Wendy Graf’s “Lessons” and, sitting in a hastily borrowed office offstage, he appears physically little changed from our last interview seven years ago.

At 73, he remains lean and distinctive, and his signature prominent black eyebrows continue to set off his enviable shock of white hair. Davidson seems weary as our conversation begins, but he becomes more animated as he talks about his new play, the joys and sorrows of retirement, and his ongoing exploration of what it means to be an American Jew in the 21st century.

“Lessons” is a two-character play about Ben, a man in his 70s, played by Hal Linden, and a 40-something rabbi, Ruth, portrayed by Larissa Laskin.

“Ben remembers his Orthodox grandfather, how as a boy he was drawn to and also repelled by his constant davening,” Davidson explains.

“Ben’s father returns from World War II, suffering from post-traumatic stress, and rejects all religion. Ben’s mother is mainly interested in being an American; she’s a ‘watered-down Jew,’ who has both a Christmas tree and a menorah,” he continues.

Ben enjoys dancing and baseball, has no connection to Jewish life, but one day someone convinces him to take a trip to Israel and suggests the name of a teacher for some basic Hebrew lessons.

The teacher is Ruth, a rabbi, who has lost her calling and her faith after her daughter, in Israel to celebrate her bat mitzvah, is killed in a terrorist attack.

Ruth now makes a living teaching Hebrew, but her new elderly pupil soon grows bored with the lessons. One day, Ben announces that he wants to have the bar mitzvah he missed as a boy and asks Ruth to prepare him for the rite of passage.

“It’s a provocative play,” Davidson says. “It’s about the nature of faith and the mystery of religion, the mystery of God and Torah. The play doesn’t preach; it has no easy answers.”

Davidson says that he has discovered some parallels to his own heritage in the play.

“I guess we’re the prototype of the American Jewish family,” he reminisces. “My paternal grandfather, born in a small town near Kiev, was Orthodox, my father was Conservative, and I’m Reform.”

He remembers vividly as a Brooklyn-born youngster visiting his grandfather in Hartford, Conn. One of young Gordon’s tasks was to tear a roll of toilet paper into individual tissues, so that the old man wouldn’t have to desecrate Shabbat by performing menial chores.

There is another family angle to how Davidson came to direct “Lessons.” His son Adam, who won an Oscar with his first short film (“The Lunch Date,” in 1989), had directed an earlier version of the play in 2005 for the West Coast Jewish Theatre, which is co-presenting the current production.

Two years later, the Jewish Theatre and The Group at Strasberg suggested a revival with the same director, but the younger Davidson was tied up with a television series and sent the script to his father for consideration.

The elder Davidson was fascinated by the play’s concept, but both he and playwright Graf felt that the drama needed major surgery, particularly in the character of Ben.

“The result is that we now have an entirely new play,” Graf says.

How does a famous father feel about coming off the bench to pinch-hit for his son?

“I was very proud that he asked me to take over,” the father replies.

When Gordon Davidson retired after 38 years and 300 productions at the Taper, later adding the Ahmanson and Kirk Douglas theaters, he was hailed as much for his personal characteristics as his professional achievements.

“Gordon is just a huge mensch,” playwright Tony Kushner said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. “He’s what the word means. And he’s haimish.”

Kushner’s “Angels in America” was one of the most celebrated works nourished by Davidson at the Taper, but it was only one in a long list of distinguished plays he produced or directed in Los Angeles, as well as on Broadway.

Among them are “The Kentucky Cycle” which, with “Angels in America,” won back-to-back Pulitzer prizes for drama; “In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer,” “The Trial of the Catonsville Nine,” “Zoot Suit,” “Children of a Lesser God,” “I Ought to Be in Pictures” and “QED.”

He also met with less rapturous receptions — well, he bombed — with two Shakespearean plays, as director of “Hamlet” and producer of “Julius Caesar.”

Davidson sees himself as an integrated human being, who does not like to compartmentalize himself as a Jew, an American or an artist.

But given his own heritage, the prominence of Jewish playwrights and his large Jewish core audience, inevitably a considerable number of his productions touched on Jewish themes.

Among them were “The Deputy,” his first play at the UCLA Theatre Group, the Taper’s forerunner; as well as Taper productions, “The Dybbuk,” “I Ought to Be in Pictures,” “Number Our Days,” “Tales From Hollywood,” “The American Clock,” “Green Card,” “The Immigrant” and “Ghetto.”

Davidson’s own Jewish connection has been strongly reinforced by his wife, Judy, who was raised in an observant and Zionist family and who heads her own arts-oriented public relations company.

The couple lives in Santa Monica, in a house once owned by émigré screenwriter Salka Viertel and the one-time social center for such illustrious exiles as Thomas and Heinrich Mann, Bertolt Brecht, Lion Feuchtwanger, Arnold Schoenberg, Bruno Walter, Franz Werfel and others.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The more laid-back Wolfson has a different concern.

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

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

7 Days In Arts


27/SATURDAY

East-coasters may scoff at our notion of architectural history. But young as our city may be compared to the likes of Boston or New York, its also got a style and a story all its own. Writers Gloria Koenig, Amy Dawes and Sam Hall Kaplan have all contributed to the body of literature on the subject of Los Angeles architecture. The three Angelenos convene today to discuss L.A.’s past, present and future in a panel discussion titled, “Looking at Los Angeles.”

3 p.m. Barnes and Noble, 189 Grove Drive, Los Angeles. For more information, call (323) 525-0270.

28/SUNDAY

Proving the adage that age is only a state of mind is the Long Beach Playhouse Mainstage Theatre’s current production, Andrew Bergman’s “Social Security.” The story centers around two sisters, Trudy and Barbara, who must care for their elderly Jewish mother Sophie; and around Sophie, who breaks all the stereotypes by engaging in a love affair with a 98-year-old artist. Holding the play’s theme (and little else!) close to her bosom is octogenarian Florence R. Ehlers, who, in a move as bold as her character Sophie, partially disrobes on stage.

Runs through Aug. 3. 8 p.m. (Fridays and Saturdays), 2 p.m. (Sundays). $15 (general), $10 (students, Fridays and Saturdays only). 5021 E. Anaheim St., Long Beach. For reservations, call (562) 494-1014.

29/MONDAY

No tortured artist he, Oded Gross struggles with the lot of being lucky in life. While it doesn’t sound like much of a problem, Gross feels he lacks a focal point for his creative energy. He searches for something of interest to discuss in a one-man show. Thus, his play, “The Frank Thomas One-Man Show,” is conceived. And in sharing quirky songs and anecdotes, all under the guise of filling-in for the fictional and tardy-to-his-own-show celebrity Frank Thomas, the self-proclaimed “ordinary man” rises to his own unique challenge.

Runs through Aug. 26. 8 p.m. $10. The Ruby Theater in The Complex, 6476 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. For reservations, call (818) 990-9163.

30/TUESDAY

Celebrating a career unsurpassed by other directors, LACMA gives us “William Wyler and the Tradition of Excellence,” a screening series of some of Wyler’s best films. Wyler is distinguished by having guided more actors to Oscars than any other director before or since. Today’s Tuesday matinee features Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon in “Mrs. Miniver.”

1 p.m. $3 (general), $1.50 (seniors). Leo S. Bing Theater, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. For more information, call (323) 857-6010.

31/WEDNESDAY

Every artist has her tools of expression. For Caitlyn Carradine, it’s a pair of dance shoes and some buckets of paint. Appearing at Temple Beth Torah, Carradine will dance her own choreography to an original music composition. A black canvas will apparently serve as more than a backdrop, as she presents, “Dancing With Paints: A One-Woman Show.”

Shows July 27, 28 and 31, and Aug. 3, 4 and 7. $7 (general), $5 (students and seniors), $3 (children 12 and under). 16651 Rinaldi St., Granada Hills. For reservations, call (310) 589-9453.

1/THURSDAY

Parents, take comfort. In your mid-summer, “the kids have been out of school for over a month now,” distress, the Hollywood Bowl comes to your aid. Today, and every weekday for that matter, the Bowl features a themed activity and performance geared toward kids ages 3-10. This week’s program is called “Expressing!” and focuses on American classical music by Copland, Bernstein and Gershwin, performed by the Lontano Music Group and John Pennington Dance Group .

Time varies depending on age group. $5 (concert), $2 (workshop). 2301 N. Highland Ave., Hollywood. For reservations, call (323) 850-2000.

2/FRIDAY

Imagine a skit about a time-traveling Hitler who gets stuck in a 1950s sitcom-style family. Adolf wants to stay in his room and play with his maps, while the women of the family are bent on getting him to go to a mixer. You’ll get a nibble of this story called “Too Many Hitlers,” as well as nine more by nine other playwrights, tonight. Each piece runs five minutes long and answers Theatre of NOTE’s challenge to playwrights to “slam” for five minutes on the theme: “If You Don’t Know, I’m Not Going To Tell You.”

Runs Fridays and Saturdays through Aug. 17. 11 p.m. $10. 1517 Cahuenga Blvd., Hollywood. For reservations, call (323) 856-8611.

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