From left: Jennifer Taub, Meredith Thomas and Jennifer Lee Laks in “April, May & June.” Photo by Ed Kriege

‘April, May & June’: Siblings and secrets


Three sisters in their 40s spar with one another and discover a long-held secret as they pack up their childhood home after the death of their mother in the new play “April, May & June,” now running at Theatre 40 on the campus of Beverly Hills High School.

Playwright Gary Goldstein described the sisters, whose names make up the title, as a study in contrasts. June (Meredith Thomas), the youngest, is a lesbian who has just broken up with her lover. He characterized her as more free-spirited and brasher than her siblings but said she must learn to better connect with people.

May (Jennifer Taub), the middle sister, is the subject of numerous jokes regarding middle child syndrome.

“She’s kind of the caregiver and the mediator, and wants to take care of everybody and never to be left out,” said Goldstein, who also writes for film and television and is a freelance film critic and feature writer for the Los Angeles Times. “And I think she needs to learn more confidence and to trust herself a little bit more, and I think she does through this experience.

“And then April (Jennifer Lee Laks), who’s the oldest sister, is the one who’s large and in charge and has always been kind of a substitute mother for her sisters in some respects as they were growing up. And she needs to let go and loosen up, and deal with her own life better than she has. So, I think it’s kind of a classic structure for three sisters.”

Goldstein added that, just as the three have very different personalities, they each view their childhood differently.

“April was the most critical of her parents, and particularly of the mother, because she disagreed with the way her mother approached life. She just felt that the mother didn’t have high enough standards, as she called them, and just moved through life without really having goals and having great taste — the things that she, April, the adult April, came to value.

“She tried to do everything to not have the life that the mother lived, as a person and a wife, and found herself, inadvertently, in a bit of the same boat as her mother,” Goldstein said. “When she looks back on it now, there’s this realization.”

On the other hand, the playwright said, May looks back with much more forgiveness and wants for herself what she feels could have been between her parents. “As a result, she somehow knows how to love, how to make it work with her husband, because it was kind of an anti-example that the parents set.”

As for June, Goldstein sees her as falling somewhere between the other two. “She’s very blunt about how the house they lived in was not a great house, and the mother didn’t have great taste in terms of furniture and things like that, and how the father was an alcoholic, among all the things she witnessed,” he said. “And yet, she was not as critical. It was not a matter of being critical of the parents — it was just a matter of being honest about the parents. She saw what she saw, they were what they were, and her takeaway from her childhood was just to go off on her own, create her own life, and be who she was.”

Goldstein has given the sisters a Jewish father and a half-Jewish mother and set the action on Long Island, N.Y. However, he believes the situation could take place anywhere and is universal enough to be about families of any ethnicity. He said he grew up in a mildly observant family, and he writes Jewish characters whenever it makes sense to him to do so.

“I think there’s a unique warmth and connection that Jewish siblings have. I don’t want to be general about it, but I think there’s some very basic emotional things that made sense to me to make them Jewish,” Goldstein said.

He continued, “If I weren’t Jewish, would I have written them Jewish? Probably not. I probably wouldn’t even think about it. If there is anything autobiographical in it, I think some of the emotions and some of the references and things certainly do come from growing up Jewish. It turns the stereotype on its ear because of the kind of person the mother was. She was not what you would think of as the typical Jewish mother.”

In fact, the revelation about the mother that comes at the climax of the play stuns the sisters and brings them closer together as they learn she was not as pedestrian as she seemed. Goldstein hopes the story will inspire audiences to find out as much as they can about their own parents while they still are alive, and also to work on whatever they never reconciled with a parent who is gone.

“When we’re younger, we don’t always think about all the ramifications of the people who’ve always been in our lives,” he said. “But as you get a little older, you really look back and you want to know more about them. There are so many unanswered questions I have about my family members that are no longer alive, but it doesn’t mean that I can’t do the work to try to learn more, even when they’re not here. So, never give up on the memories of people who are gone, because there’s always something to learn about them.”

“Married People ­— A Comedy” stars Andy Lauer, Michelle Bernard, Paul Parducci and Kylie Delre.

It’s a funny thing about ‘Married People’


After nearly 30 years of marriage to their respective wives, comedians Mark Schiff and Steve Shaffer know a few things about the trials and tribulations of relationships and family life. Some of those experiences have been written into their new play, “Married People — A Comedy,” that opens March 3 at the Zephyr Theatre in Los Angeles.

“It’s a play about acceptance and love,” Schiff said. “And, of course, marriage is always funny.”

The play follows two couples — Henry and Cookie, and Aviva and Jake — who are good friends and who both have sons. Henry and Cookie’s son is gay, and they are having trouble coming to terms with it. Aviva and Jake’s son has forsaken his Jewish heritage, which hurts Aviva, whose maternal and paternal grandparents were victims of the Holocaust. 

Marriage jokes sprinkled throughout the play add lightness to the difficult situations both couples experience. In one scene, when describing his sex life, Henry says, “I’ll tell you how the sex changes. It goes from all night to not tonight to, God forbid, out of sight.”

While the plot of the play isn’t autobiographical — neither Schiff nor Shaffer has a son who is gay — some of the dynamics of marriage are taken from their real lives.

“My marriage material and Mark’s are intermittent throughout the play,” Shaffer said. “But it’s not a jokey play. There is real dialogue. We worked really hard on making this sound real.”

Schiff and Shaffer, who have known each other for 35 years, took seven years to write the play in between other gigs. Shaffer lives in New Jersey and Schiff is in Los Angeles, so they spent hours on the phone hashing it out. The script went through 15 rewrites until they were ready to do readings in New York, L.A. and Chicago before staging it at the Zephyr.

The idea for “Married People — A Comedy” came about through a conversation Schiff had with Jerry Seinfeld. “We talked about plays and he said, ‘You know more about marriage than anybody. You should write a play about it,’ ” said Schiff, who opens for Seinfeld on the road.

This is Schiff’s second produced play. His first, “The Comic,” starred Larry Miller and ran for 10 months in L.A. It went to the Aspen Comedy Festival, and HBO optioned it to make a movie. But Schiff has been writing plays nearly his whole life; he wrote his first one at the age of 12.

“I didn’t even know if I’d seen a play, but I understood the medium,” he said. “I had a very up-and-down relationship with my mother, so the play was about a guy dealing with some woman. It was my way of trying
to figure out what was going on in my
relationship.”

In “Married People — A Comedy,” Schiff once again touches upon what it’s like to maintain a Jewish identity. Though he is observant, his characters are not. By the end of the play, though, the characters reconcile some of their problems.

“Essentially, what happens is the parents themselves had very little Judaism in their lives,” he said. “Their son didn’t have any role models to look after. They are getting more involved now. They are starting to light Shabbos candles. It may be a little late for the kid but not too late for them.”

The play stars Michelle Bernard as Aviva, Kylie Delre as Cookie, Andy Lauer as Jake and Paul Parducci as Henry. Rick Shaw, who produced six seasons of “The Nanny,” is the director.

As for the play’s future, Schiff said he hopes he can take it to Broadway or turn it into a half-hour sitcom. “People who have seen it love these characters,” he said. “They want to know more about them, and that’s a good sign.”

Though many of the issues that longtime couples face are highlighted in the play, Schiff and Shaffer stressed that, overall, it takes a positive look at marriage.

“The play is truly an affirmation for marriage,” Schiff said. “One of the things somebody said is everything he’s seen on marriage is negative. These two couples are never getting divorced. They are in it to win it, as they say on ‘American Idol.’ These couples care about and love each other, but they have big issues and they need to work through them.”

Added Shaffer: “People will walk away thinking we’re all going through the same thing. We all suffer the same problems. When people realize we’re all in the same boat, it makes life a little easier.”

“Married People — A Comedy” will be in previews Feb. 23-25 at the Zephyr Theatre, 7456 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles. It opens March 3 and runs through April 2.

The Forbidden Conversation, written and performed by Gili Getz. Photo by Basil Rodericks

‘Forbidden Conversation’ has people talking


In the summer of 2014, Gili Getz flew home to Israel to visit family. But the 43-year-old actor and photojournalist, who has lived in New York for the past 20 years, spent much of that trip going in and out of bomb shelters, heeding the incessant warnings of sirens from the Gaza War.

That bloody summer, which widened the canyon-like ideological divides between many in the pro- and anti-Israel camps, also silenced the spirited political debate Getz had long appreciated with his father.

“It was the first time we ever struggled talking,” Getz said. “We reached some sort of wall that I’d never experienced before. With the war and that volatile atmosphere, conversation became contentious, and our ability to talk openly about choices Israel faced was shrinking.”

Getz’s new one-man show, “The Forbidden Conversation,” is his attempt to scale that wall and expand the discussion. The 35-minute show is an intimate, honest reflection on his experience with his father, the current state of how people with conflicting political views talk about Israel, and why it matters.

He will stage the show at The Pico Union Project, a multifaith cultural arts center, on Feb. 14 and 16. The Feb. 14 show will be a workshop and lunch for mostly clergy, educators and community professionals. The Feb. 16 show will be open to the public and will feature a panel of experts discussing the challenges of dialogue. 

Getz grew up talking politics endlessly with his father, a career politician who spent time as Israeli ambassador to Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Getz was optimistic about achieving a lasting peace with the Palestinians. His father was of another generation — hardened, more conservative. Tense debate wasn’t uncommon. Disagreement abounded. It fueled compelling discussion. It kept Getz engaged and in tune with Israel’s political landscape. It always ended with food.

Getz developed his show as an artist fellow at LABA: A Laboratory for Jewish Culture at the 14th Street Y in New York. He wanted space to understand if others experienced what he had and what they were doing about it in their communities.

He was fascinated with what people felt when talking about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. People young and old, politically left and right, were tired of screaming matches, tired of being demonized. He found rabbis fearful of any conversation about Israel, afraid to alienate congregants. The struggle, and often pain, was ubiquitous.

Getz premiered the piece in the spring of 2015 at the 14th Street Y. A panel discussion ensued from it and Getz decided to have the audience break up into discussion groups afterward to continue the dialogue. It’s a signature of the show that stuck for subsequent performances on college campuses and at Jewish institutions. The show has now become as much of a dialogue with the audience as it is a performance.

Getz said he loves seeing his audiences break up into groups because “that’s where they can really talk.”

“We have had people representing many different political perspectives,” he said. “Some might disagree with me personally, but most have had a positive experience overall. People on my left and right have shared their struggle to engage with others on Israel.”

A high point for Getz was hearing a male audience member loudly boast after a performance that he had managed to talk to people about the Gaza War without yelling or screaming.

“For this guy, it was the fulfillment of his own personal ‘I have a dream,’ ” Getz said.

However, Getz has received one note of criticism: Why even bother talking about Israel? If it’s so strained, why not just disengage?

Getz pushed back on that view:

“The American-Jewish community is deeply connected to Israel. The notion that we can’t develop a culture where we can talk openly about such an important issue in our community, I don’t accept. It’s the one opinion I have a hard time with.”

Getz makes it a point at performances to address individuals who are skeptical about engagement on Israel. For him, that’s where the discussion starts — persuading people that, because Israel is such a near and dear issue in American-Jewish circles, engaging on Israel equates to engaging communally in a strictly Jewish context.

“A kid growing up in the Jewish community today learns that we can’t disagree respectfully while sharing a space grounded in Jewish identity and commitment to the community,” he said. “A space like that doesn’t exist. If they don’t learn there’s a healthy way to disagree while also being committed to the community, they’re likely to leave it altogether. If we have a space that supports engagement with Israel, however it comes — as long as it’s grounded in Jewish identity and genuine concern for the well-being of Israelis and Palestinians — it should be welcomed. That includes supporting the settlement movement, opposing occupation, solidarity with Palestinians and everything in between. Spaces like that have to develop or it will exacerbate the divide.”

Getz also believes that hearing the other side, something his show strongly promotes, can benefit hardliners, regardless of their political leanings. 

“Those spaces and honest dialogue help us better understand our own arguments,” he said. “We don’t always understand our own viewpoints fully until we are confronted by other human beings who voice a counterargument.”

In the play, Getz discusses his own progressive position. He opposes the occupation and is a proponent of a two-state solution. An illuminating moment comes when he refers to Israel’s fallen prime minister, Yitzak Rabin, as his “first political hero.”

During the early 1990s, Getz was a photographer for the Israeli military — his mandatory service. In 1995, on his final assignment, he took photos at the funeral for Rabin, who before his death was on the precipice of peace with Palestinian leadership.

When asked about Rabin, a drawn-out silence passed before Getz answered:

“Doing this play, I went back and thought about those times, and looked at those photos, and relived the trauma of the Rabin assassination and the death of the peace process, essentially — what I feel ended up being the death of the two-state solution,” he said. “This play is definitely a way for me, still, to mourn all that. And it definitely shaped my point of view.”

Female boxer goes toe-to-toe with violence in ‘The Wholehearted’


In 2012, playwright and director Deborah Stein was riveted by a conversation with her artistic partner, Suli Holum, who described a startling newspaper article she had read on a female boxer, Christy Martin. 

Martin, a world champion, had been the first woman in that sport to grace the cover of Sports Illustrated. But outside the ring in 2010, she was brutally stabbed and shot by her husband, who also was her trainer. He left her for dead in their home, but Martin managed to crawl out to the street and get to a hospital. She healed and spoke of her desire to make a boxing comeback in a moving interview on ESPN, but her dream never came true after she lost subsequent fights, including one in which she broke her hand in nine places.

Stein was fascinated by this story of a celebrated fighter who had used her fists to make a living but who nevertheless became the victim of brutal violence. She was captivated, as well, by the saga of a survivor that did not end with the kind of victory widely proffered in popular culture. 

 “Martin’s experience hardly fits the mold of the expected Hollywood redemption saga,” Stein, 39, said during a recent telephone interview. “Those tend to be false narratives. Something horrible happens to a character, and then something strong inside them allows them to triumph somehow. But that’s not actually how traumatic experiences work. If you experience trauma in some form, that trauma will be with you for the rest of your life. It’s like a scar. So Suli and I wanted to move away from the story of a survivor to a story of survival — what really [can] happen to you when you have the rest of your life to live every day with that experience.”

The result is their play “The Wholehearted,” written and co-directed by Stein and co-directed and performed by Holum. It’s not Martin’s story, Stein said, but rather a fiction inspired by a number of female boxers as well as survivors of domestic violence. The play will be performed at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City from Dec. 2-11.

The one-woman show revolves around the character of Dee Crosby, a world champion boxer, whose body and career are shattered after her husband viciously assaults her. The show depicts Crosby’s pain inside and outside of the ring as she relives her past boxing wins, tries to reconnect with her female lover, Carmen, and plots revenge against her husband and trainer, who recently was released from prison. Holum portrays all of the characters as a variety of cameras onstage stream footage of Crosby’s past and present life.

 “The play asks questions about who in our culture gets to be violent and in what ways,” Stein said. “There’s culturally acceptable violence and the glorification of violence and how that actually plays out in the human experience. The play also asks questions about who gets to tell our story and if it’s possible to take back control of our own narrative. The sports news footage that we use throughout the [show] is the cable news version of Dee Crosby’s story, but she is trying to tell a different version of her story. I don’t think she entirely succeeds, but she desperately wants to tell her story and not be a victim in that way. 

 “But we don’t answer any of these uncomfortable questions. We want the audience talking about them instead.”

Creating more questions than answers is how Stein views her work as particularly Jewish. She was raised in Queens, N.Y., by a secular mother whose father fled pogroms in Poland and by a father who had grown up in an observant family in the Borough Park neighborhood of Brooklyn.

 “My parents had two polar-opposite relationships to [their heritage], so when they raised me, they tried to find a way of thinking about Judaism that matched their own liberal-humanism approach to the world,” Stein said.

They eventually chose a Reconstructionist synagogue community. For Stein’s bat mitzvah project, the budding writer took photographs of Russian-Jewish immigrants in Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach neighborhood.

Stein’s earlier play “Natasha and the Coat,” was inspired by her own experience of living in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, in her early 20s, where tensions arose between ultra-Orthodox Jews and young hipsters. “There were incidents where women riding their bikes in the summer, wearing short shorts and a halter top, were yelled at by [Chasidim] saying their clothing was inappropriate,” Stein recalled. “Natasha and the Coat” tells of a young, hip, secular Jew who falls in love with an Orthodox dry cleaner who must choose whether to become involved with her or to remain true to his family.

Stein also wrote a 2009 play, “Chaplin: The Son of Isidore and Hanna Thornstein,” about a group of Jewish filmmakers in 1930s Paris inspired by Charlie Chaplin. She now is working on a piece about Jewish women immigrants, in part based on her émigré grandfather’s experience.

Stein has received a grant to research his story in Poland next summer, when she will return to her grandfather’s village as well as attend a Yiddish music festival, along with her husband, Andrew Horwitz, the program director of the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles.

Her collaboration with Holum began when the two women attended Swarthmore College in the early 2000s. They worked together on two plays with the Pig Iron Theatre Company, which Holum co-founded while still an undergraduate, but went their separate ways until they chanced to run into each other at a dinner party in New York around 2009. Their first play — also inspired by a newspaper article — starred Holum as a woman who discovers that her son does not share her DNA. The pair founded their production company, Stein | Holum Projects, in 2010. 

As research for “The Wholehearted,” Holum trained to become a boxer and she and Stein “watched a lot of boxing videos, domestic violence videos and love stories set in rural desert communities in California or the American South,” Stein said.

 “We brought our designers into the process very early on,” she continued. “When they said they wanted to work with live cameras onstage, we realized this could be a play, in part, about self-portraiture. [In her head,] Dee Crosby is the star of a big Hollywood biopic about her life, and the tension comes from the conflict between that desire and her reality.”

The play ends on a relatively downbeat note, which is deliberately different from “the Joseph Campbell-style hero’s journey,” Stein said. “In Campbell’s mythology, the hero gets to slay the dragon. In ‘The Wholehearted,’ Dee Crosby may or she may not.”

“The Wholehearted” will be performed at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City from Dec. 2-11. For tickets and more information, visit the Kirk Douglas Theatre.

Calendar


WED  |  NOV 23

“MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG”

Come experience a rarely seen Stephen Sondheim musical, based on a 1934 play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart. The story focuses on a talented composer of Broadway musicals who turns his back on his songwriting career to become a producer of Hollywood movies. Nov. 23-Dec. 18. Previews $29-$89; then $49-$110. Bram Goldsmith Theater at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, 9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd., Beverly Hills. (310) 746-4000. FRI  |  NOV 25

“ON THE MAP”

“On the Map,” which tells the story of the Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball team’s 1977 European Cup championship, begins its theatrical run. Israeli Academy Award-winning filmmaker Dani Menkin helms the saga of an against-all-odds quest set against the much broader story of Israel and the Jewish people during the Cold War. The film recounts how the underdog Israeli team beat CSKA Moscow, a team that refused to play in Israel. Just after this historic win, Israeli-American basketball player Tal Brody said, “Israel is on the map, not just in sport, but in everything.” Featuring interviews with NBA legend Bill Walton and former NBA Commissioner David Stern, who both played on the team. Laemmle Royal, 11523 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles. Visit laemmle.com for show times and more information. (310) 478-0401. SUN  |  DEC 4

GLORIA STEINEM AND JILL SOLOWAY

Join an intimate conversation between Gloria Steinem and Jill Soloway, two extraordinary women who have devoted themselves to changing despair into hope. Steinem — a writer, lecturer, political activist and feminist organizer — includes among her areas of interest the origins of sex and race caste systems, nonviolent conflict resolution, gender roles and child abuse as roots of violence. Soloway is the creator of the Golden Globe- and Emmy-winning show “Transparent.” She also co-founded the community organization East Side Jews and is the author of the memoir “Tiny Ladies in Shiny Pants.” Presented by CAP UCLA. 7 p.m. Tickets start at $29; $15 for UCLA students; $25 for UCLA faculty and staff. Royce Hall, UCLA, 340 Royce Drive, Los Angeles. MON  |  DEC 5

L.A. JEWISH SYMPHONY EDUCATION OUTREACH CONCERT

The Los Angeles Jewish Symphony Education Outreach Program presents “A Patchwork of Cultures: Exploring the Sephardic-Latino Connection,” a free cultural program geared toward helping third-, fourth- and fifth-graders discover the music and cultures of our Spanish ancestors. There will be an “Instrument Petting Zoo,” where children can explore the instruments that make up an orchestra. The concert will feature Cantor Marcelo Gindlin. 11 a.m. Free. Space is limited; RSVP to (818) 646-2844. Valley Beth Shalom, 15739 Ventura Blvd., Encino. 

 

YULA GIRLS COMEDY NIGHT

Prepare for a night of food, drinks and many laughs. Special guests include Greg Hahn, Jimmy Brogan, Dwight Slade and Cathy Ladman. Cocktails and hors d’oeuvres before the show at 6:30 p.m.; 7:30 p.m. show. $100. Yeshiva High School, 1619 S. Robertson Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 203-0755. TUES  |  DEC 6

CLANCY SIGAL

“Black Sunset: Hollywood Sex, Lies, Glamour, Betrayal, and Raging Egos,” by Clancy Sigal, is the hilarious memoir of the author’s escapades as a young Hollywood agent. Peddling writers and actors in a blacklist-crazed movie industry during the 1950s, two FBI agents pursued him in hopes of being set up with starlets and becoming famous. Once banned from a studio, Sigal used a bolt cutter to break through a chain-link fence in order to make a deal. With clients such as Humphrey Bogart, Donna Reed, Jack Palance, Peter Lorre and Barbara Stanwyck, Sigal is one of the few remaining witnesses and reporters of this time. 7 p.m. Free. Book Soup, 8818 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood. (310) 659-3110. THURS  |  DEC 8

GEORGE GEARY

George Geary’s “L.A.’s Legendary Restaurants: Celebrating the Famous Places Where Hollywood Ate, Drank, and Played” is an illustrated history of landmark eateries throughout Los Angeles. Learn everything about classics such as Musso & Frank and The Brown Derby in the 1920s; Chasen’s, Romanoff’s, and Ciro’s in the mid-20th century; and the birth of California cuisine at Ma Maison and Spago on the Sunset Strip in the 1970s and ’80s. Geary will lead you into the glamorous restaurants through a lively narrative of anecdotes, illustrated with vintage photographs and historic menus. The book contains more than 100 iconic recipes and also showcases the allure of drive-ins, drugstores, nightclubs and hotels. 7 p.m. Free. Book Soup, 8818 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood. (310) 659-3110. SAT  |  DEC. 17

“THE MESHUGA NUTCRACKER”

This full-length musical comedy features the silly sensibilities of the folklore of Chelm (a fictional town of fools) underscored by an invigorated, klezmer-infused orchestration of Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker Suite,” with original lyrics that celebrate Chanukah. The Chelmniks relate eight stories that pay tribute to the holiday, sprinkling in dancing dreidels, singing sufganiyot and surprise guest stars. Dec. 17-Jan. 1. Early offer tickets $45; regular tickets $72; seniors, youth and students with ID $63. Gindi Auditorium, American Jewish University, 15600 Mulholland Drive, Los Angeles. (408) 404-7711. WED  |  DEC 21

CHANUKAH POP-UP EXHIBITIONS

Stop by the “Holidays” gallery to see rarely displayed Chanukah lamps. There will be something for everyone to enjoy — designs ranging from Looney Toons to the Liberty Bell. 2:30 p.m. Free with museum admission. Also 2:30 p.m. Dec. 22. Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 440-4500. SAT  |  DEC 24

MATZOBALL

One of the biggest Jewish singles events in the nation is getting bigger! Kicking off its 30th year, MatzoBall sets the stage for the ultimate party experience. Don’t miss out on what USA Today called “The Number 1 Holiday Party of the Year.” 9 p.m. $30. Tickets available on eventbrite.com. 21 and older. Location TBD, Los Angeles.

‘Blueprint for Paradise’: A Nazi incursion in California


Few people may be aware that, during the weeks just before the United States’ entry into World War II, a Nazi compound intended as a training center and base of operations, under the assumption that Germany would be victorious and Adolf Hitler would come to rule the Western U.S., was under construction in Rustic Canyon. The 50-acre property, known as the Murphy Ranch, was purchased in 1933 by Jessie Murphy and developed by her daughter and son-in-law, Winona and Norman Stephens, who were sympathetic to the fascists.

A new play now at the Hudson Theatre in Hollywood, titled “Blueprint for Paradise” and inspired by actual events surrounding the compound, depicts a wealthy couple originally from Chicago, Clara and Herbert Taylor (Meredith Thomas and David Jahn), who buy the property and take charge of seeing the compound’s construction through to completion in late November and early December 1941. Herbert hopes to get rich by doing business with the Nazis, and the couple plays host to a man named Wolfgang (Peter McGlynn), newly arrived in the United States and ostensibly a German businessman. However, we come to learn that he is actually an SS officer and a spy.

Playwright Laurel Wetzork said in a recent interview that she is very interested in World War II history and learned about the compound while researching other stories about the war. “So few people understand that Los Angeles, up until mid-1941, was pretty divided, and there was a strong German, pro-Hitler group. People don’t know that, and I think they should.”

She added, “My stepfather served in the Navy during World War II, and my husband’s grandfather served in the Army and died in the Bataan death camp and march. I’ve been interested in it for a long time.”

Executive producer Debbie Bolsky, who is Jewish, said members of her family also served during World War II, including her father. “He was actually in China. And my uncle served, and my cousin. None were Holocaust victims, but I had a lot of relatives that were in World War II. 

“You can never forget this stuff. Remember, there are people who still deny that there was a Holocaust. Never forget — because if you forget, you open it up to happening again.”

Bolsky believes the play is essentially Clara’s story, because she is the character who changes the most. When we first meet her, Clara is an enthusiastic member of the antiwar group, Mothers of America.

Wetzork described the organization. “They were about 10 million strong. They started out saying, ‘We don’t want our sons to go to war, like the sons we lost in World War I. We don’t want them to die.’ And then, gradually, the group was taken over by more and more fascists, and more pro-Hitler [members].” 

Clara, who is completely dominated by her emotionally and physically abusive husband, accepts without question his extremely bigoted view of Jews, Blacks, the mentally disabled, etc., and even approves of his membership in the Human Betterment Foundation, which was part of the eugenics movement that aimed to sterilize all those it deemed “contaminated” in some way, such as prostitutes, men of low intelligence, the mentally ill and habitual criminals.

“We did have a sterilization program in California,” Wetzork said. “We were the leading state in sterilizations of the unfit. And they did have a plan to sterilize 10 percent of the U.S. population at one time. It was the science of the time, too, I think. There was a very strong movement to clean up the gene pool.”

In fact, Wetzork stressed, Hitler’s racial policies were influenced by the American eugenics movement.

According to Wetzork, one of the catalysts for Clara’s growth toward independence and a clearer view of reality is the influence of Paul Revere Williams (Regi Davis), an African-American architect, whom she hires before knowing his race. The character is based on the real-life architect, who designed part of the Saks Fifth Avenue building in Los Angeles, as well as the homes of such celebrities as Bert Lahr, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, and Frank Sinatra.

The gate of the abandoned Nazi compound in Pacific Palisades known today as the Murphy Ranch. Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

“He really came up from nowhere, as an orphan, and just overcame amazing obstacles to design and have built over 3,000, close to 4,000 buildings, especially in that time. I mean, he could not walk at night in the neighborhoods where he had homes built, and he learned to draw upside-down so he wouldn’t have to stand next to a white client.” Wetzork said.

Williams, who later wrote that he had no idea his work was intended for the Nazis, treats Clara with respect, praising her intelligence and her artistic sense. She responds by voicing her resentment toward her husband, and she begins to see fascism through clearer eyes.

Murphy Ranch was designed by architect Paul Revere Williams. Photo courtesy Herald Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

The group’s machinations end abruptly on Dec. 7 with the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. It becomes obvious that the United States will declare war on Japan, whose ally, Germany, will then declare war on the U.S. Wolfgang must hurry back to Germany, fleeing the FBI, which has been watching the compound and suddenly descends on the Taylor household. 

Wetzork said she hopes her story will encourage audiences “to learn more about history, and study history, and also to not judge people. I think that you really have to talk to people to see who they are. And don’t repeat the past.”

“Blueprint for Paradise,” Hudson Mainstage Theatre, 6539 Santa Monica Blvd. Through Sept. 4 at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets: (323) 960-4412

Guns, God and politics in “Church and State”


In the new play “Church & State,” onstage at the Skylight Theatre in East Hollywood, a conservative Southern Christian politician running for re-election to the United States Senate has a crisis of faith. After a school shooting in which 39 children are massacred, including two friends of his own children, Sen. Charles Whitmore (Rob Nagle), whose campaign slogan had been “Jesus is my running mate,” suddenly expresses doubts about God’s existence to a blogger, who asks the senator if he prayed after the tragedy. Whitmore’s answer goes viral, to the dismay of his Jewish campaign manager, Alex Klein (Annika Marks), and the outrage of his deeply religious wife, Sara (Tracie Lockwood). Whitmore also begins to question his support for unregulated gun ownership.

Playwright Jason Odell Williams said in a recent interview that the impetus for the story grew out of the recent spate of mass shootings in the United States, beginning with the one at Virginia Tech in 2007, near where the playwright attended college. That incident was followed by the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in suburban Tucson, Ariz., (2011), and then the 2012 shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in which 20 young children were killed, along with six adults. 

“Sandy Hook was the one that really broke me,” Williams said, “and I was just devastated. It’s very close to where we live in New York. I didn’t know it at the time, but I found out later that the close friend of a really good friend of mine lost a son at Sandy Hook.

“I didn’t know it, and the play was already mostly finished, but it just proved to me again that this can happen anywhere, anytime, to anyone.” 

Williams went on to describe his play’s three main characters, who could easily have become stereotypes, but whom he has carefully fashioned as fully believable, three-dimensional human beings. Whitmore, the junior senator from North Carolina, comes from a political background. “His father was in politics. His brothers are in politics. And he’s sort of going into the family business. He never really did it because of his passion. He just kind of did it because he could. 

“He’s a Republican who isn’t necessarily married to the core values of the GOP,” Williams said. “He’s a man of faith, a family man. He’s very devoted to his wife and kids, and he’s just slapped in the face with this event.”

Meanwhile, Whitmore’s wife, Sara, is drawn as a lovable, deeply God-fearing Southern Christian who can be overbearing but is also very funny. While her husband’s career made it necessary for her to come across as a supportive housewife who stays in the background, there is really more to her than meets the eye. Williams considers this character to be, at her core, a serious woman of depth and complexity. “I think she’s a very smart person, and I think she was a very successful real estate agent in her day, while they were both working,” he said. “And then once they had kids, things changed. I love all my characters, but she’s one that is particularly fun to write, because she just has a vernacular and a cadence and a way of talking that I love.”

Although Sara often clashes with Alex, the liberal Jewish campaign maven from New York, the two women are allied in their insistence that Whitmore remain true to his original belief system and not risk alienating his constituents. The playwright describes Klein, who puts her own progressive views aside in order to manage the senator’s re-election bid, as a political player whose star is on the rise and who sees Whitmore as a horse that she can ride to the White House.

“I think being Jewish is just one of her many layers, [including] the fact that she is more liberal than Charlie and Sara are, the fact that she is from New York, and she is fast-talking, fast-paced, with three BlackBerries in her pocket.”

Although Williams said he grew up as what he called a “Christmas and Easter Christian,” he is very familiar with Judaism. His wife, actress-singer-producer Charlotte Cohn, is Israeli and was raised in an Orthodox home. “Then she came to America,” he explained, “was very secular and embraced American, Western ‘who cares about religion’ kind of culture. And as our relationship progressed and we got married, and we had a daughter, she has kind of found her way back to it, slowly. We’ll go to synagogue once in a while.”

He continued, “I love going to those places with her. I just don’t like it when it gets fanatical and becomes an obsession.”

With respect to his current play, Williams acknowledges that his own views are echoed in the definitive speech Whitmore gives near the end, in which he pleads passionately for responsible, moderate gun control.

“I know that, for the most part, we’re preaching to the choir right now,” Williams said.  “We’re doing it in New York, New Jersey and California, but the goal with the play is to get it in as many venues as possible across the country, and that means Florida, Texas, Oklahoma, any red state you can think of. So, hopefully, at some point, he [Whitmore] will be making that speech to audiences whose minds we can actually change.”

For show times and ticket information,

What we learn from ‘Oslo’


If you want to see the Middle East that could have been — and, with any hope, could still be — you will have to wait for another production of  “Oslo.”

J.T. Rogers’ drama of diplomacy just closed its brief, sold-out and critically acclaimed run at the Lincoln Center Theater in New York, which is too bad — unless it is on its way to Los Angeles. 

The play focuses on the secretive 1993 talks that Norwegian officials conducted between Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s cabinet and Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). Those chaotic meetings, which led to the 1995 Oslo Accords, provide a portrait of deceit, frustration, recklessness and, ultimately, hope. 

Jefferson Mays leads the cast of talented performers. Playing the Norwegian academic Terje Roed-Larsen, he introduces the audience to his new diplomatic model, which promises to upend foreign policymaking forever. The old method, he says, involved two sides laying out their grievances through entrenched modes of protocol and careful bureaucracy. But the innovation stems from seeing governments as made up of people, not systems. This new theory demands radical transparency from both parties, that both sides present and negotiate their points in a loose and unstructured way, without mediation.

The clever irony is that transparency is nowhere to be found — at least for the public. The first act begins in fog. Director Bartlett Sher (who also directs this year’s Broadway revival of “Fiddler on the Roof”) coats his stage with the stuff; actors enter even before the house lights go down. A cloak of secrecy swallows these players, and we, the audience, must focus to discover their motivations. For the Norwegians, the talks offer a chance to prove their merit on the world stage. For the Israelis, they are an opportunity to obtain security in an increasingly tense region. And for the Palestinians, they bring a chance to return to their homeland — or what’s left of it, as they point out on occasion. 

Married to Terje is Mona Juul, an official in Norway’s Foreign Ministry. She falls for the Middle East and its complexity, just as she falls for Terje’s diplomatic concepts. After wrangling her bosses in the ministry to their side, Mona proceeds to arrange these diplomatic talks to take place in a remote castle — far away from the prying eyes of the media and, God forbid, the Americans. Jennifer Ehle instills Mona with wit and verve, the only female lead in a cast of rowdy men with important things to say. Mona acts as a narrator, lifting her voice to the audience to detail global events that shaped the negotiations. Very often, she is accompanied by projections and superimposed text, allowing the audience to keep track of the complicated timeline. As she notes with weary gravitas, “Keep in mind: What you are about to see took place in only nine months.”

The Israeli side features Michael Aronov as Uri Savir, a swaggering official in the Foreign Ministry who reports to Deputy Foreign Minister Yossi Beilin (a cautious Adam Dannheisser), who himself reports to Shimon Peres (Daniel Oreskes). Uri can sense Terje has more than just his academic bona fides on the line — his ego is wrapped up in these talks, as well. But hesitations aside, Uri realizes he must argue with and cajole the enemy, face to face — the first time he has done so in his career. Two professors from Haifa University — Yair Hirschfeld (Oreskes again) and Ron Pundak (Daniel Jenkins) bring a touch of Borscht Belt humor to the proceedings. As the Palestinian envoy suggests, “These two are the Israeli Laurel and Hardy.”

From the Palestinians, Ahmed Qurie (Abu Ala to his friends) decides he can no longer stand idly by and watch his people suffer in refugee camps. As finance minister for the PLO, he risks his life by negotiating on Arafat’s behalf. Anthony Azizi injects the role with great dignity and courage; he recognizes the momentous changes these accords could bring for his people but maintains a distrust of the government that represents them. An undeveloped conflict within the second act suggests that Qurie may have kept Arafat in the dark through much of these talks.

Alongside Qurie is Hassan Asfour, a Russian-educated Palestinian with a weakness for Norwegian waffles and Marxism. Played by Dariush Kashani, Asfour retains a dry distance from the proceedings, only opening his mouth to share clear-eyed truth, or to eat more Norwegian waffles. Despite his revulsion toward Israel and all it represents, he can’t help saying to an Israeli negotiator, “You are my first Jew.”

To which the Israeli says, “I hope I’m not too stringy.”

What animates their dialogue —  indeed, the whole play — is the idea of seeing one’s opponent for the first time. This is the kind of revolution Terje sought to bring into foreign diplomacy talks. Time and again, animosity crumbles once these men talk of their daughters, their fathers, their dreams, their land. They joke with one another, too, and Rogers instills the drama with bright flashes of humor to humanize these officials. 

By the play’s end, although Terje and Mona debate the effectiveness of the accords and wonder aloud how long-lasting its effects will be, the historic roles that these inexperienced men and women played are plain to see. Whatever the future may hold, Rogers’ must-see play affirms the bravery of men who fought to see their enemies as partners. 

ADI ESHMAN is a playwright in Brooklyn.

Jewish actor Mark Nelson relishes chance to be part of ‘Cabaret’


When a brick is thrown through his shop window at the start of the second act of the musical “Cabaret,” the character Herr Schultz, a Jewish widower and fruit vendor, tries to convince his non-Jewish fiancée that prankster schoolchildren, not Nazis, are responsible.

But she is not fooled — and neither is the audience of this Tony Award-winning musical, whose themes prominently include anti-Semitism in 1930s Berlin. 

Actor Mark Nelson, who stars as Schultz in the production now in the midst of a three-week run at the Pantages Theatre, said the character represents how the social, economic and political upheaval sweeping over Germany at that time affected German Jews. 

“Schultz himself sort of represents the Jewish experience, the German-Jewish experience of the rise of Hitler, in the course of his journey through the play,” Nelson said in a phone interview one day before the July 20 opening of the show at the Pantages. 

Nelson, who is Jewish, has appeared in “Cabaret” more than 170 times while touring with the Roundabout Theatre Company production of the show, which is currently on a national tour. But Schultz is not Nelson’s first Jewish role — far from it. 

The 60-year-old New York-based theater and television actor won praise in The Washington Post for his Shylock in Shakespeare Theatre Company’s “The Merchant of Venice,” and he starred in a 2012 off-Broadway adaptation of Chaim Potok’s “My Name is Asher Lev.” He also performed in several Neil Simon plays, including “Biloxi Blues,” during which he introduced his then-rabbi to Simon backstage after a show.

“I am very drawn to [Jewish characters],” Nelson said. “It hasn’t been a conscious choice to play mostly Jews — just the way it happened — but very often when I encounter a Jewish character, something lights up in me and there’s an extra connection.”

“Cabaret” has been capturing the attention of audiences everywhere for 50 years. Nelson said he saw “Cabaret” for the first time in 1967, when he was 12 years old, one year after the musical debuted on Broadway.

“Oh, I just remember marching up and down the stairs in the living room, singing ‘Wilkommen,’ ” he said, referring to the opening song. “And I thought there was something edgy and daring [about the show].”

In the Pantages production, Randy Harrison (“Queer as Folk”) portrays the Master of Ceremonies at the Kit Kat Klub, a cabaret where people of Berlin come to forget about their troubles. Harrison draws on the sexualized manner of Alan Cumming, who won a Tony for his 1998 performance in the Broadway revival of “Cabaret.” 

The role of the Emcee was made famous in the original stage production by Jewish actor Joel Grey, who also won a Tony for the role. He starred alongside Liza Minnelli in the 1972 film adaptation, for which he added an Oscar. The show features the music by John Kander and lyrics by Fred Ebb.

Nelson said Harrison lives up to the work of his acclaimed predecessors. “Really, you’ve got something amazing coming in Randy Harrison,” he said.

B.T. McNicholl directs the touring show, which will run at the Pantages until Aug. 7 and at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa from Aug. 9-21.

Its intimate cast includes Andrea Goss as English cabaret singer Sally Bowles and Lee Aaron Rosen as her lover, Clifford Bradshaw, an American writer. Shannon Cochran plays Frau Schneider, Schultz’s fiancée, who runs a boarding house where much of the action of the play unfolds. Alison Ewing plays Fraulein Kost, a prostitute who accommodates sailors in Schneider’s boarding house, and Ned Noyes plays Ernst Ludwig, a member of the Nazi party who removes his coat to reveal a swastika-adorned armband in a climax of the song-filled production.

Sam Mendes’ technical reinventions to the show were many upon the show’s 1998 revival — Mendes is an original co-director of the production, along with Rob Marshall — and they are also apart of the touring production. Many of the show’s actors double as the musicians in the Kit Kat Klub orchestra, and the ending of the show, also Mendes’ own, is a direct nod to the horrors of the Holocaust faced by Jews. 

“Sometimes there’s a gorgeous silence in the house before the applause begins,” Nelson said.

So is “Cabaret” a Holocaust play? Many people have come up to Nelson at the conclusion and told him that Schultz’s story was their grandparents’ story.

“I’ve met people at the stage door who said, ‘My grandparents or my uncle stayed behind in Berlin because they believed the threat would pass,” he said, “ ‘And you brought them [their memories] back.’ ” 

Click here for additional information or to purchase tickets for “Cabaret” at the Pantages or Segerstrom.

From screen to stage: Blog posts come to life


Entertainment runs in the Newman family’s blood. 

Tracy Newman was the co-creator and executive producer of the TV sitcom “According to Jim,” a writer on Ellen DeGeneres’ ’90s sitcom “Ellen” and a founding member of The Groundlings improv group. Her sister, Laraine Newman, was an original cast member on “Saturday Night Live.” Now, Tracy’s daughter Charlotte Dean is making her first appearance at the Hollywood Fringe Festival.

Dean, 33, wrote “Charlotte’s Shorts,” a show running through June 26 that features fictional humorous tales, some of which are based on her life. There are 25 stories in the show, and they will be read by Laraine, Lynne Marie Stewart of “Pee-wee’s Playhouse,” Tim Bagley of “Grace and Frankie,” and Mindy Sterling, who played Frau Farbissina in the “Austin Powers” franchise. 

Though the stories were funny in their original form on Dean’s blog (” target=”_blank”>Hollywood Fringe Festival through June 26. 

‘Camp David’ recalls historic pact


Is peace possible? This question, simultaneously simplistic and complex, is not one normally asked of an actor. Yet for the past six weeks, veteran stage and film actor Ned Eisenberg has been living inside the skin of former Israeli Prime Minister and Nobel Peace Prize-winner Menachem Begin in a new play about the Camp David Accords. So he attempts a reply to the peace question, recognizing that any answer he might offer will be somewhat “Begin-esque.”

“What do you mean by ‘peace’?” asked Eisenberg, who re-creates Begin for eight performances a week in the West Coast run of “Camp David” at San Diego’s Old Globe. “When this play begins, Egypt and Israel are not at active war. Bullets are not flying. People are not in the field killing each other. There is a peace of sorts, but there is a cold war or a wariness, a distance, and I don’t know if that wariness, that distance and that preparation to mix it up will ever leave in this vicinity. I would hope it would, but I don’t know about that.”

“The writer of this play [Lawrence Wright] and our director, Molly Smith, say that there has not been a war between Egypt and Israel since they made this agreement, and that’s good,” Eisenberg continued. “But clearly there has not been peace in that entire region, and there has not been any lack of bloodletting and murder and mayhem there as a result of this real estate dispute.”

Wright’s play chronicles the unprecedented 1978 Camp David summit, during which Begin, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and U.S. President Jimmy Carter spent 13 days at the Maryland presidential compound and emerged with a peace treaty between the two longtime enemy nations. Although more than 100 delegates were present at the actual events, Begin, Carter, Sadat and First Lady Rosalynn Carter are the play’s only characters.

Washington, D.C.’s Arena Stage commissioned Wright, an award-winning journalist and author, to create a play out of the Camp David summit. For it, the author interviewed both of the Carters and conducted extensive research in the Middle East, as well. In Israel, he toured the Irgun Museum and interviewed Begin’s longtime chief of staff, Yechiel Kadishai, as well as future Israeli Supreme Court Justice Aharon Barak, both of whom were part of the Camp David delegation. Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter attended the opening night of the show’s 2014 world premiere, as did Sadat’s widow, Jehan. 

Distilling the events of two weeks into a series of intimate encounters, Wright is looking to capture the historic nature of the summit and the personal conflicts surrounding the three protagonists. Carter was nearing the end of his first and only term in office and was looking for something to help preserve his legacy. Begin’s history included imprisonment for terrorist activities, and Sadat had been an assassin and a Nazi collaborator. These normally would not be the ideal people to resolve centuries of conflict, Wright said. And, indeed, after the first couple of days together, the tension between the two men was so great that Carter kept them apart as the negotiations progressed, and Sadat and Begin rarely met face to face.

“What these three men had in common was political courage, which unfortunately is a quality that’s hard to find, especially right now in that region,” said Wright, who followed up the play “Camp David” with
the nonfiction account, “Thirteen Days in September.” “The idea that peace is possible sometimes gets lost in all the cynicism
and despair.”

The Old Globe staging, which runs through June 19, bring backs most of the original cast under the direction again of  Smith, the Arena Stage artistic director. Returning are Richard Thomas (Jimmy Carter), Hallie Foote (Rosalynn Carter) and Egyptian film star Khaled Nabawy (Sadat). Wright has done some rewrites, and Smith said she welcomed the opportunity to revisit “Camp David.”

“I think the story of peace in the Middle East is even more powerful today than it was two years ago,” Smith said. “I’ve asked the actors to go deeper and darker and richer this time, and boy, have they.”

Eisenberg, the cast’s sole newcomer, won the role when original star Ron Rifkin was not available. Before accepting the role, however, Eisenberg sought assurances from Smith that Begin’s depiction in the play would be sympathetic, or at least not the villain of the peace. Given Carter’s camaraderie with Sadat before the Camp David summit, it would be too easy to skew the play to make Begin the obstructionist.

“Sometimes the way this issue presents itself, both in the world and in this play, is, ‘My goodness, wouldn’t things just be so much easier if this obdurate, obstinate Jew would just acquiesce and make peace with these people who seem so nice? Why doesn’t he just give in a little bit?’ ” Eisenberg said. “And that’s ridiculous in terms of the
history and the reality of what the situation was and is.”

“I told them, ‘I’m sure Menachem was used to being the other. It’s perfectly fine if I’m the other in this show,’ ” he added with a laugh. “They’re a lovely bunch of people, and they welcomed me in.” 

Wright is now working on a screenplay of “Camp David” for HBO and said he hopes to see the play produced in New York. Further down the line, he envisions a run of “Camp David” in the Middle East. Wright, who is not Jewish, performed the one-man show he wrote, “The Human Scale,” about the Gaza conflict, in Tel Aviv, and he believes audiences would embrace “Camp David” as well.

“My hope is that we can take it to Israel, and perhaps the UAE, and as well as New York and wherever else we can wander with that production,” Wright said. “I want to put an idea into the conversation that peace is not impossible.”

“Camp David” runs through June 19 at the Old Globe in San Diego. Visit

Latina Jews put stories onstage


During a recent Jewish Women’s Theatre (JWT) rehearsal, a young actress reads a solo scene from a show that’s about to open. She plays the role of a woman who steps into an old-fashioned New York hardware store and is suddenly flooded with warm memories of a similar store run by her late grandfather when she was a child. 

It’s a powerful moment for the storyteller, transporting her back to a time when she was part of a Jewish community, in a foreign land, that had, to a large degree, integrated into the life of the country while retaining its separate identity — its shuls, its social clubs and its own way of life. 

The country and the Jewish life that the storyteller remembers with such visceral clarity is not Poland or Russia of a century ago, and it’s not Iran or Syria in modern times. 

It’s Venezuela.

In the hands of actress Marnina Wirtschafter, the scene evokes laughter and tears. But for the piece’s writer, Deborah Benaim, the look and smells of the hardware store do more than evoke the nostalgia felt by many uprooted immigrants; in her case, the longing is not only for her abuelo’s hardware store, but also for the Latin American life she’s left behind.

The Ferreteria [hardware store] in Caracas” is one of a dozen pieces that comprise “Chutzpah & Salsa,” a JWT production opening on May 15 and running through May 24 at various locations in Los Angeles. 

Like most JWT presentations, “Chutzpah & Salsa” is composed of stand-alone stories centered around a central theme. Most of the pieces in this show are slice-of-life vignettes written by Jewish women whose families — after leaving (or escaping from) Europe or the Middle East — emigrated to Latin America and, after several generations, found their way to the United States.

Ronda Spinak, JWT’s co-founder and artistic director, said what’s attractive to her about “Chutzpah & Salsa” is that it brings the Latina Jewish immigrant story to life and helps the audience “see the universality of it.” 

Susan Morgenstern, the production’s director, pointed out that for most people, if you say “Jewish immigrant,” it conjures up images of Tevye leaving a Russian or Polish shtetl and arriving, finally, at Ellis Island. But many Jews who migrated from Europe and the Middle East in the late 19th and early 20th centuries went to Latin America instead, and this is “equally the Jewish immigrant story,” she said.

Suzanna Kaplan, who is producing “Chutzpah & Salsa” with Spinak, is from Mexico City and has been JWT’s literary manager since the company’s second year. “Ronda asked me if I thought I could put it together, and I dove right in and found people to help and guide me, people in the Latin American-Jewish community who are doing amazing things,” Kaplan said.

The writers include Sonia Nazario, who won a Pulitzer Prize when she worked for the Los Angeles Times; Cuban-born poet Ruth Behar; novelist and academic Barbara Mujica; and Fulbright scholar and author Ivonne Saed. 

“The writing is by people, mostly women, who have a background in different parts of Latin America, from Argentina to Mexico,” Spinak said. 

Other pieces are by writers who were born and grew up in Cuba, Venezuela and Chile; the stories cover a wide range of ages.

“We wanted to make sure that we’re balancing the stories so that they’re all fresh,” Morgenstern said. “We want humor, of course, and some romance, but mostly we want the dramatic, profound, heartfelt stories that have as one of the underlying themes: escape and finding your new home.”

“In one piece, Barbara’s piece, you find out the uncle and the brother left Germany right before the war because of an incident that happened, an incident that people will understand and recognize,” Spinak said. “What they will be surprised by is that a similar incident happens again in Chile. … And that’s laid into the larger story being told, which is whether the second generation feels accepted in Chile.” 

Another story, “Can’t Take the Mexi Out of the Jew,” performed by the woman who wrote it, Erika Sabel Flores, is about her physical and spiritual journey after leaving her home in Mexico. The story describes her time with New York Jews — who, it seems, weren’t observant enough for her — to a spiritual awakening in Israel, to living with Chabadniks in Florida, to eventually finding a Mexican area near Miami where she felt comfortable.

Machatunim” (“in-laws” in English), written by Maureen Rubin from a story by JoLynn Pineda, is different from the other tales in “Chutzpah & Salsa.” It’s about an American non-Jewish woman — her father is Latino, her mother a fair-skinned Midwesterner — who had always been unclear about her ethnic and racial self-identity. As an adult working in finance, she falls in love with a Jewish man and decides to convert to Judaism. Her struggle in the piece is how to inform her parents, especially her Latino father, about her conversion. 

“What drew me to JWT in the first place,” Morgenstern said, “is that on our stage, there’s always a mixture of Jews and non-Jews, young and old. … It’s all about the embrace, the welcoming, and the audiences range from the secular to the Orthodox. And I love that the community is not a club that’s keeping people out, but in both our art and in our way of life [we’re] embracing in, and that’s very much represented in this particular show.”

At The Braid in Santa Monica, JWT’s home, “Chutzpah & Salsa” will have a companion art show opening on May 22. 

“What we always do, every time we have a new theme in the salon, we have a new art show, so that people who come to The Braid have this combination of art and dramatic performance that mesh,” Spinak said. “So it will be a very, very full experience of fine art and performance art. The idea is to be immersed in the art.”

“Chutzpah & Salsa” runs from May 15 through May 24 at various venues in Los Angeles, including Jewish Women’s Theatre’s home, The Braid, 2912 Colorado St., Santa Monica, No. 103. For information and tickets, call (800) 838-3006 or go to

The David and Goliath story of a Holocaust survivor


The amazing life history of a 90-year-old antique/junk-shop owner in midtown Manhattan who challenges a big development company unfolds in the solo show “Altman’s Last Stand,” now onstage at the Zephyr Theatre in Hollywood.

In the play, Franz Altman (Michael Laskin), a Holocaust survivor, refuses to sell his store, King Solomon’s Treasure, to the Empire State Development and Progress Corp., headed by Mr. Lester. But Altman is at a disadvantage because he doesn’t have the $10,000 needed to fix the wiring, which puts him in violation of the building code, even though he tells Mr. Lester that he has taken care of the problem.

The action begins as Altman is being interviewed by an unseen reporter from People magazine, after his appearance with Morley Safer on “60 Minutes,” where he became the epitome of a small merchant being forced out by big business. Since that “60 Minutes” segment, Altman has been deluged with calls from the media, old acquaintances and past loves.

Playwright Charles Dennis said he was inspired to create the character of Altman after an episode in London when he was in therapy. “The doctor told me one day about a man who had been in earlier that day, an elderly man who had survived Auschwitz and had an amazing life and felt he was a failure, and he attempted suicide. The family sent him to the psychiatrist, and he said to him, ‘All my life, I’ve been a failure. Even as a suicide, I’m a failure.’

“I just thought, ‘What a great line! Even as a suicide, I’m a failure.’ It’s a line that only a Jew would say. I don’t think an Episcopalian would say it. It carries with it the whole essence of Jewish life and Jewish humor. Everything is on the brink. We’re always living on the brink. We’re living on the brink of extinction.”

Dennis said that out of this little piece of information he created the character of Franz Altman, a survivor of concentration camps and attempted suicide. After trying unsuccessfully to work the character into a couple of novels, Dennis wrote a one-man play for an actor friend, which was produced successfully in Ottawa and Toronto from 1982 to 1983.

Fast forward more than 30 years, when Dennis was doing a different play with Laskin and asked if the actor would like to play Altman. At first, Laskin was hesitant, but after a few more years, he decided he was ready.

As the character of Altman waxes eloquent about his life to the unseen reporter, we learn that he was born at the turn of the century to a prominent Viennese doctor and his much younger, very beautiful and free-spirited wife, who encouraged her son’s drawing — even though the youngster was drawing on the walls and driving his father crazy. Believing the 7-year-old boy to be disturbed, his father had him analyzed by a colleague at the university, Sigmund Freud.

Altman talks of his internment in the concentration camps Theresienstadt and Auschwitz; his numerous travels around the world, including his recruitment into a guerrilla group during Israel’s War of Independence; and the many women he has known and loved.

Although in the play Altman is usually triumphant, he has low points, and, after one failed relationship with a woman, he tries unsuccessfully to kill himself. When a psychiatrist employs the ruse of telling him he’s a failure, even at suicide, Altman explodes, pointing out all the battles he has won — thereby countering his depression.

Altman reveals his shrewdness as he recounts how he got rid of a harsh and hated governess, Fräulein Kurtz, when he was 9. Impersonating a secret admirer, the young boy wrote love letters to Kurtz, luring the woman to a Ferris wheel, and insisting that she wear a blindfold when settled on the ride. He then emerged from hiding and entered the carriage beside her, remaining silent. Once the wheel reached the top and she, terrified of heights, removed the blindfold, he told her that he had found the letters and had killed her secret admirer, that he was the Angel of Death and would push her off the Ferris wheel unless she promised to leave his house. She promised, crossed herself and soon left the family. 

His resolve in the situation with Kurtz is the same resolve that helps him confront Mr. Lester, according to Dennis. “When the chips are down, don’t mess with the man. This guy was with Yitzhak Shamir in the Irgun [a Zionist paramilitary group], for heaven’s sake. He’s not such an innocent.”

While the resolution to Altman’s quandary with Mr. Lester does not play out onstage, he will triumph, Dennis said, by putting together little pieces of a kind of jigsaw puzzle. One piece involves a William Morris agent named Lasky, who offers him a TV deal for a talk show with a promise from the network to pay to fix the wiring. Another involves a man called Marmelstein, who wants to use the shop for a minyan to daven. A third piece concerns a clever scheme to offer a special enticement for the major media to cover the minyan and further publicize his cause. 

“As he says in the first act, ‘I’m no one to mess around with.’ The kid that was able to get rid of Ms. Kurtz is the same 90-year-old man who gets rid of Mr. Lester and solves his problem,” the playwright concluded. “So, don’t give up on yourself. Whatever your strongest moment was in your lifetime, draw upon that as you get older.”

“Altman’s Last Stand” is playing at the Zephyr Theatre, 7456 Melrose Ave., through March 13. For tickets or more information, click here.

Michael Greif takes on ‘If/Then’


Some choices are no-brainers.

If the musical team of Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey were in need of a director to pilot their musical follow-up to the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Next to Normal,” then the director and guiding force behind that production, Michael Greif, was going to get a phone call.

And if Greif were called for this project, then he would be inclined to clear his busy creative schedule to rejoin the team.

But if producer David Stone also found a way to get Tony Award-winning actress Idina Menzel to star in this musical — marking Menzel’s first return to Broadway since creating the role of Elphaba in “Wicked” in 2003 — that would be even more reason for Greif to jump onboard, having worked with the actress nearly 20 years ago on the groundbreaking rock musical “Rent.”

“It’s not like I needed any further incentive to want to work with Tom and Brian again,” said Greif, 56, a three-time Tony Award-nominated director. “But it was wonderful to imagine a reunion with Idina, particularly in a musical written by Tom and Brian.”

The result, “If/Then,” is currently playing at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre through Jan. 3 as part of a national tour. The musical was developed through a series of workshops and played an out-of-town tryout in Washington, D.C., en route to Broadway, where it ran for just under a year, closing in March 2015. 

In the musical, city planner Elizabeth (Menzel) moves back to New York from Phoenix after a failed marriage. A single, seemingly innocent choice she makes in Madison Square Park sets Elizabeth down two paths with radically different outcomes, both of which are played out on stage through the characters Liz and Beth. The musical follows what happens to Beth, who takes a high-powered job with the city of New York, and to Liz, who misses out on that job but finds love with an Army doctor.

“For me, the story was always about how a woman might fulfill her potential in a variety of ways,” Greif said. “I think that’s a generous and optimistic notion about the world — that we do have the opportunity to frame and perceive things. How we choose to think of something affects what it is. How we rise to certain challenges, how we confront terrible adversity all shape us, and the way in which we cope with those things makes us who we are.” 

Menzel has returned to the role of Elizabeth for the first leg of the tour — which includes the Los Angeles run — along with original Broadway stars Anthony Rapp, LaChanze and James Snyder. The involvement of the four principal cast members made rebuilding the show for the road that much easier, Greif said.

“When you’re making a new musical — and it’s probably been true of every new musical I’ve done — a lot of the development process involves some big changes and being able to withstand those changes,” Greif said. “Like how you cope with adversity when a song gets pulled or a song gets changed or a relationship changes. Often when you’re working on a new play, you’ve got your seat belt on, ready to experience any of those things and then to be able to investigate freshly what you actually are certain is there.

“So coming back together after they ran the show for over a year, knowing that they knew the next couple of weeks of rehearsals wouldn’t involve changes — that, I think, really allows us all to work at a level of great comfort.”

The Brooklyn-born Greif grew up in a working-class home in Brighton Beach. His maternal grandparents were observant Jews, and Greif attended Hebrew school and had a bar mitzvah at an Orthodox temple.

“I grew up in a not very observant home close to an observant grandmother,” Greif said. 

As an adult, when he encountered the works of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Donald Margulies (“Dinner With Friends,” “Brooklyn Boy,”), Greif discovered that Margulies was writing about familiar territory.

“I recognized that he and I went to the same Hebrew school, in fact, because of the way in which he depicted certain characters,” Greif said. “I recognized the teachers and the rabbis he was writing about. It was a great discovery for me to get in touch with Donald and find out that we grew up in very close proximity to one another.”

Greif studied at Northwestern University and earned his graduate degree from UC San Diego. He had several New York and regional credits when he returned to San Diego to become the artistic director of the La Jolla Playhouse from 1995 to 1999. After the enormous success of “Rent,” which he directed for Broadway and on its national tours, Greif left the Playhouse and returned to New York. He subsequently earned Tony Award nominations for “Grey Gardens” and for “Next to Normal,” the tale of a woman struggling with manic depression.

Although he alternates freely between directing musicals and straight plays, Greif’s upcoming dance card will involve a lot of singing. For New York’s Second Stage, Greif will stage “Dear Evan Hanson,” about a young man trying to fulfill his dreams. In June, he reunites with his “Grey Gardens” creative team on the world premiere of “War Paint,” a musical that details the rivalry between beauty entrepreneurs Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden, and their respective imprints on the industry. Featuring Tony Award winners Christine Ebersole and Patti LuPone, “War Paint” will premiere at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago in June.

And though he won’t be part of either experience, “If/Then’s” Rapp knows that the “Dear Evan Hanson” and “War Paint” companies will be in the surest of hands. Like Menzel, Rapp was part of the original company of “Rent” and worked as Greif’s assistant on an early incarnation of “Next to Normal.” 

“He’s a real collaborator,” Rapp said of Greif. “Michael has always had a strong aesthetic and strong vision in bringing material to life. Every moment you’re in that room, there’s a possibility of doing really intentional, deep, rigorous work with the material. There’s not a moment wasted.

‘Smoke and Mirrors’ creator has magic touch


The day may arrive when writer-actor Albie Selznick declares his magic-infused theatrical performance “Smoke and Mirrors” a finished product, but audiences probably shouldn’t hold their breath. Given that Selznick is a self-described perfectionist and workaholic — and because there are always new illusions to learn — “Smoke and Mirrors” could continue to evolve as long as its creator is willing to tinker. 

“It has been a constant rewriting, working, rewriting, working,” he said. “It’s just never good enough. I keep seeing ways it could be better. But I feel like this is the closest it has ever been to being as good as it can be.” 

Imperfect or otherwise, the autobiographical show has been embraced by audiences and critics alike, earning Critic’s Choice laurels from the Los Angeles Times and L.A. Weekly. The current version, directed by David Schweizer, is back at the Odyssey Theatre through Dec. 20 after playing there earlier this year from January through March.

The seed of “Smoke and Mirrors” was developed in an acting class with coach-to-the-stars Larry Moss approximately 15 years ago. In 2010, Selznick took an early version to the Hollywood Fringe Festival and subsequently produced it at Theatre Unlimited in North Hollywood. Engagements followed at the Santa Monica Playhouse, the Promenade Playhouse and a yearlong run at the Road Theatre, where Selznick has been a member and frequent performer. 

Concurrent with the Odyssey engagement, Selznick has instigated Magic Mondays. For five Monday nights during the run, some of his celebrated illusionist friends from the Magic Castle — where Selznick is a lifetime member — will take the stage to perform their own feats. Selznick said that several of these performers are, like him, Jewish. 

“I’m generalizing here, but magicians tend to be nerdy kids and introverts. They’re usually not athletic,” Selznick said. “On the outside, they’re scary and powerful, like the Wizard of Oz. On the inside, they’re these nerdy little kids trying to cover up the fact that they can’t get the girl. I think Jewish people like that either become comedians, Hollywood producers or magicians.”

As he relates in “Smoke and Mirrors,” Selznick was a frightened, introverted little boy who turned to magic after the death of his father, Sheldon Selesnick, when he was 9. The older Selesnick gave Albie a magic kit. Feats of wonder became not simply an escape, but possibly a way to help keep his father alive or maybe even bring him back. 

“I’ve never been good at relaxing,” Selznick said. “When I was a kid, if I wasn’t doing four magic shows a week at birthday parties, I didn’t think I was doing enough. It could be a possibility that I was trying in some ways to make up for the fact that I didn’t have a dad, or to get him, subconsciously, to come back if I was a good magician.” 

“Smoke and Mirrors” contains plenty of illusions, sleight of hand, escapes, live birds and “how did he do that?” kinds of tricks. But the show also has an undercurrent of darkness as well. In addition to assistance from a giant rabbit; Harry Houdini’s widow, Bess; and a spooky oracle who guesses the secrets of audience members, “Smoke and Mirrors” offers Selznick ruminating on themes of life, loss, fear, mystery and death. 

A magic show that is just tricks and no story is far less effective, according to Selznick, as the audience will spend all its time trying to figure out how the tricks work. 

“I love magic with a purpose,” he said. “When you see a really good magic show that has some kind of hook to it, I think you can sort of suspend your disbelief and be in that place when you were a kid, when everything was possible.”

Trained across an array of disciplines, Selznick co-founded the juggling circus trio The Mums, which opened for a number of bands in the 1980s and 1990s. He was a tightrope walker in the Olivia Newton-John movie-musical “Xanadu” and took to the wire again as a daredevil Mercutio in Deaf West Theatre’s production of “Romeo and Juliet.”

He has worked steadily as an actor in commercials, film and TV since the mid-1980s. He played a detective turned villain on “The Young and the Restless” and had a recurring role as Rabbi Ben opposite Brooke Shields for two seasons on the sitcom “Suddenly Susan.” 

When Selznick enrolled in Moss’ acting class in the mid-1990s, Moss was not aware of any of Selznick’s other skills — until he assigned the students the task of taking a profound incident from their life, relating it and then putting it on stage. Selznick recounted the story of a poignant encounter he had with a little boy named Nigel while performing in New Zealand. In telling the story, Selznick includes magic, and lo these many years later, Nigel is the climax of “Smoke and Mirrors.”

“I think everybody in the class was very excited by his abilities as a magician and by the story that came out of him,” said Moss, who saw the completed “Smoke and Mirrors” many years later. 

“It was a beautiful juxtaposition between humanity and vulnerability with an expertise of his technique. It was a wonderful balance. You feel a thrill when you watch your students succeed with something that is really valuable artistically.”

“Smoke and Mirrors” continues 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays through Dec. 20 at the Odyssey Theatre.  smokeandmirrorsmagic.com.

Chat rooms, seniors and modern love in ‘Romance.com’


Senior dating in the digital age is the comically rendered theme of “Romance.com,” a production of the West Coast Jewish Theatre at the Pico Playhouse in West Los Angeles. 

As the play opens, Nora (Marcia Rodd) has spent four years mourning the death of her husband and living with her granddaughter, Terry (Olivia Henry), who brings her a computer, hoping it will help Nora get more in touch with the world.  

The play, by the late Hindi Brooks, was first performed at Theatre 40 in 2002 and is now being revived by director Howard Teichman, artistic director of West Coast Jewish Theatre, who was drawn to the story by its relevance to how relationships develop today. 

“What attracted me was the way that Hindi created this, and the way the technology has developed. Back in the day, you might meet somebody at a social, or you might get invited to meet somebody through a friend. Now it’s through the computer, and so we have J-dating, we have chat rooms — people have these ways of communicating with one another, and she had the idea that even older people can do that.

“Nora’s a grandmother who loves her granddaughter, and the granddaughter is engaged to a man that Nora does not particularly like,” Teichman said. “So, she basically tries to undermine the relationship.”

From left: Olivia Henry, Michael J. Silver, Marcia Rodd, Joseph Michael Harris and Bart Braverman in “Romance.com.” Photo by Michael Lamont

Teichman described the granddaughter’s fiancé, Ira (Joseph Michael Harris), as extremely egotistical. “He’s a big body builder. He owns a gym, and he really is very self-centered, and he’s not very interested in her, other than being in love with love.  

“Eventually, she realizes that maybe she should find somebody who’s more interested in her.”

Nora’s journey begins when she decides to give the computer a try, despite her immediate disdain for it. After she comes upon a romance site, she starts an online conversation with someone who calls himself Romeo, so she starts calling herself Juliet. Under the misapprehension that she’s conversing with a young man, she pretends to be her granddaughter.

In reality, the man Nora has contacted is Benny (Bart Braverman), a former mattress salesman who is about her age and who was fired for lying down too much on the job. He connects with women on the Internet from a nearby deli and takes on the persona of a young waiter, Don (Michael J. Silver), who is an aspiring actor.

Benny’s goal, Teichman said, is to find love in a chat room, and, lacking confidence in himself, he keeps lying to women. “He says to them, ‘I like to play sports. I like to tango.’ He’s 70 years old. He can’t do any of these things, but he lies to the women to get them interested in him. And the grandmother gets online, and she starts lying, too.”

Teichman remarked that, underneath the gentle comedy, the play examines some universal issues. “I think the serious themes of the play have to do with growing old, and having to be strapped with the label that we put on older people today that they are not to be included … that they’re no longer an effective person in our society. And I also think that it talks about the sadness that people have about the loss of a loved one, and how do we re-create ourselves so we can be whole again.” 

Although the characters are written as Jewish, Teichman views their identities as more cultural than religious. The Theatre’s mission, he said, is to find plays by Jewish writers, but the plays don’t have to have specifically Jewish themes.  In fact, Teichman said he believes this show, which is currently being produced in Poland and has been playing in Germany for the past 11 years, has broad appeal.

“My goal,” he said, “will always be to bring an entertainment, an educational outlook and a view of the Jewish experience that can bridge other cultures. I think that, looking at the anti-Semitism that is going on in the world today — and it has really sprung up terribly in Europe and here in the United States — that the only way people will not have that feeling of anti-Semitism is if they understand that we are no different from anybody else. We as a people have the same wants and desires as everyone else does, and I think the more that is put out there — and I do it through the medium of theater — hopefully, people will not look at Jews and say they’re different, because we’re not.”

Romance.com” is at Pico Playhouse through Nov. 29. 

Al Pacino reopens debate over pro-Nazi celebs


The decision by actor Al Pacino to withdraw from a Danish play because its author supported the Nazis during World War II has reopened a long-simmering debate over cultural contributions by individuals whose racial or political views are anathema.

Pacino, the Academy Award winning star of such films as The Godfather and Scent of a Woman, pulled out of the Copenhagen production of a play adapted from novel “Hunger,” after learning that its author, the late Knut Hamsun, backed the Nazis.

Hamsun, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1920, welcomed the Nazi occupation of Norway, met with both Adolf Hitler and Joseph Goebbels, and in 1943 sent his Nobel Prize to Goebbels as a gift. After the war, Hamsun was arrested for treason but escaped trial only because he was found to suffer from “weakened mental capacities.” He was, however, found guilty, and fined, for having joined the Norwegian fascist party Nasjonal Samling, which was led by the infamous Vidkun Quisling. 

Knut Hamsun. Photo from Wikipedia.

Hamsun was not the first cultural icon with a Nazi past to later receive accolades from his colleagues.

Recall, for example, that at the 2004 Oscar Awards ceremony, Nazi filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl was included in a tribute to recently-deceased movie industry figures. Riefenstahl was personally chosen by Hitler to direct films glorifying the Nazi regime, such as the infamous Triumph of the Will (1935). She even used Gypsy prisoners from a Nazi concentration camp as extras in one of her movies. Although Riefenstahl later claimed she had not been pro-Nazi, the fact is that when Hitler conquered Paris in 1940, she sent him an effusive telegram: “Your deeds exceed the power of human imagination. They are without equal in the history of mankind. How can we ever thank you?”

The poet Ezra Pound was in 1999 nominated by some of America's most famous writers and poets to be added to the prestigious Poets Corner of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, even though Pound was virulently antisemitic and made pro-Axis radio broadcasts from Fascist Italy during World War II. “I know the horrendous things that Pound did, and I also know that he was a great American poet,” the poet Donald Hall asserted, explaining the nomination.

Germany's most acclaimed novelist, Gunter Grass, admitted in 2006 that he had served in Hitler's Waffen-SS, the most notorious perpetrators of torture and mass murder. Yet some prominent writers stood by him. Novelist John Irving denounced what he called “the “predictably sanctimonious dismantling” of Grass’s reputation “from the cowardly standpoint of hindsight.” Irving assured Grass: “You remain a hero to me, both as a writer and a moral compass.”

Perhaps Al Pacino's principled stand will influence Norwegians to start facing up to Hamsun's past, something many of them have been reluctant to do. In 2009, the government of Norway commemorated Hamsun's 150th birthday with an entire year of public events, exhibits, commemorative coins, a new 27-volume collection of his writings and the opening of a $20-million, six-story Hamsun Center in his home town of Hamaroy, complete with a huge bronze statue of the honoree. Queen Sonja personally kicked off the festivities–evidently forgetting for the moment that the Royal Family was forced to flee Norway when the Nazis, whom Hamsun so admired, invaded and occupied their country.

Perhaps, too, Norwegians will finally honor their only other winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature–Sigrid Undset, who also happened to have been an activist for the rescue of Jews from the Holocaust. Undset, who won the Nobel Prize in 1928, fled to the United States in 1940 to escape the Nazis. She became a co-chair of  the Emergency Committee to Save the Jewish People of Europe (better known as the Bergson Group), which sponsored rallies and newspaper ads urging the Roosevelt administration to rescue Jews from the Nazis. Hamsun deserves Norway's scorn; Undset deserves Norway's official praise and recognition.

In the 1940s, Knut Hamsun sided with evil, while Sigrid Undset sided with good. In 2015, Al Pacino has taken a moral stand; when will the Norwegian authorities do likewise?

(Dr. Rafael Medoff is founding director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, in Washington, D.C. and coeditor of the Online Encyclopedia of America's Response to the Holocaust.)

Shifting sands of truth unravel in ‘The English Bride’


As the play “The English Bride” begins, the audience is immediately thrust into a near cataclysm with a burst of police sirens and an announcement over a loudspeaker: “Attention! Attention! All passengers on El Al flight 1540 to Dusseldorf and Tel Aviv. The flight is canceled.”  

The play, now being presented at the Road Theatre in North Hollywood, is based on a foiled 1986 plot to bomb an El Al Airlines plane flying some 375 passengers from London to Tel Aviv. The original incident involved Jordanian Nezar Hindawi, who, unbeknownst to his pregnant fiancee, hotel chambermaid Anne-Marie Murphy, had planted a bomb inside the suitcase she was carrying on the flight to Israel, believing she was going to meet his family before their wedding. Hindawi had apparently told her to travel ahead of him, claiming that he, as an Arab, would need some time to get a visa. After he left her at Heathrow, he learned Israeli security personnel had discovered the explosive in her luggage, so he went to the Syrian embassy for help, then inexplicably turned himself in to the police soon afterward.

Playwright Lucile Lichtblau, who won the Susan Glaspell Prize and the Israel Baran Award for “The English Bride,” said she has long been haunted by the Hindawi affair. “I kept thinking about it over the years and finally realized that I had to write about it. What kept me going back and back to it was the idea of betrayal. I wanted to be able to understand, or at least conceptualize, how a man could make love to a woman, impregnate her with his child and then plot to kill her in cold blood.”

Lichtblau’s play follows many of the facts surrounding the 1986 case. There is a would- be Arab terrorist, Ali Said (Steven Schub), who has planted a bomb in the suitcase of his unsuspecting pregnant lover, Eileen Finney (Elizabeth Knowelden), before she is scheduled to board an Israeli airliner bound for Tel Aviv. Much of the story is told in flashback through scenes between the lovers, in monologues addressed to the audience and in sequences where the lovers are interrogated separately by a Mossad agent known as Dov (Allan Wasserman), the one character who, according to the playwright, is entirely fictionalized.

“There may have been an Israeli agent involved in the original (event), probably there was, but I never read about one,” Lichtblau said. “My Dov is a complicated person. He really wants to know, much as I wanted to know, how such a thing as this betrayal could happen. Of course, he also has an official job to do. He wants straightforward, factual information, and he has a political job to do, because he wants to pin this incident on Syria. He is caught between wanting to understand, wanting to know and wanting to manipulate.

“Eileen became more and more complicated as I wrestled with writing her. She was pathetic at first, then garrulous, needy, funny, charming and, finally, a survivor.”

Lichtblau continued: “Ali is the hard one to pin down. He is secretive, a liar without question —  so are they all — but even he changes as the play develops. He may even fall in love with Eileen, it’s hard to say for sure, but he is trapped in his own plot and is unable to stop it from happening.”

While the bare facts of the scheme are clear, the motivations are constantly in question, and many statements by all three characters are later contradicted. For example, Finney claims in a speech to the audience that she was a virgin prior to her affair with Said. Later, she tells Dov that she got the money to move to London before meeting Said, after sleeping with a man she met in the pub where she worked and then taking his wallet.

Lichtblau explained that the sands in her story are constantly shifting. “I look on this play as a kaleidoscope in which you see the characters one way, and then as you turn the scope you see them another way. Your point of view changes as the scenes change and as the play progresses,” she said. 

She added that, though her play deals with a very specific incident, she is also examining universal issues.

“First of all,” she said, “I think we all lie to some extent, not only to other people, but also to ourselves. This makes getting at the truth of any situation extremely difficult.  

“Betrayal is also universal. At a talkback in Philadelphia, the director of the play asked how many women in the audience had been the victim of a betrayal by a lover. Virtually every woman’s hand shot up — including the director’s.”

Lichtblau described herself as a practicing Jew who goes to synagogue every Saturday morning with her husband. “The two of us are part of a group that leads the Torah service, a job I love,” she said. “My family was not very involved in Judaism as I was growing up. I did go to Sunday school, however, and my identity as a Jew was forged in my grandmother’s kitchen where my relatives gathered on a nightly basis to drink coffee and discuss Hitler and the growing menace in Europe. We had relatives in Poland that they were worried about. I never knew who these relatives were, but I do remember when my uncle got a letter saying that they had made it successfully to England with the money our family had sent.” 

Lichtblau concluded by saying that she hopes audiences leave her play “with an understanding of the complexity of human relationships, and an understanding that each of us is the sum of our contradictions, our needs and our desires.”

The English Bride,” The Road Theatre on Magnolia, NoHo Senior Arts Colony, 10747 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood. Performances through April 26. Thursdays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 3p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m.

Tickets: https://roadtheatre.secure.force.com/ticket/#details_a0OG000000FYxa6MAD

We’re all ‘Old Jews’ at heart


An old Jewish man walks into a restaurant, walks up to the maitre d’ and says: “Pardon me, how do you prepare your chicken?” The maitre d’ says, “We tell ’em right up front they ain’t gonna make it.”

That’s just one of the many jokes that exemplify Jewish humor in the comedy revue “Old Jews Telling Jokes,” which debuted off-Broadway in 2012 and ran for 16 months. It has since continued to play in cities around the country and is being presented at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza through March 15.

Audiences have been of varying ethnicities and ages, proving, according to co-creator Peter Gethers, “Everybody’s an old Jew if they have a sense of humor.” (Because of the risque nature of some jokes in the show, however, it may not be appropriate for very young Jews.)

Gethers collaborated on the show with his friend of some 35 years, Daniel Okrent. They were inspired by the website oldjewstellingjokes.com, a collection of vignettes containing old and new Jewish jokes told mostly by amateurs. Okrent said they conducted research, gathered jokes from friends and took their show beyond what is offered on the site by turning it into a production with a beginning, middle and end.  

“And by using actors — not comedians, not stand-up comics, but actors who could turn these jokes, many of which, of course, are going to be very familiar to many people, or at least some of which will be familiar to many people, turn them into little human plays — and adding music, adding songs, kind of building characters out of the material that is really sort of public-domain material,” Okrent added. “These jokes belong to all of us.”

The writers created five original monologues for the five actors in the cast, and Okrent explained how the script follows the life cycle. 

“It begins with childbirth, and it ends with shivah. Actually it ends a little bit after shivah — and [covers] the various stages of life both in terms of age and the various things we go through — school, business, marriage, religion, retirement, hitting all these other buttons as well.”

Okrent said his first exposure to Jewish humor came from his Polish-born grandfather.  

“I remember very vividly, when I was a little pisher growing up in Detroit,” he said, “my grandfather loved to tell jokes — not that they were particularly good.  The one joke that I remember most vividly isn’t good enough to be in our show, but it touches my heart.”  

In a monologue, one of the characters talks of learning about Jewish humor by watching it unfold on television.  

“In the early days of television,” Okrent said, “it was all set in New York. They needed to fill up time, and around New York we had all these Borscht Belt comics. Many of the most familiar names in American humor were at hand, and then suddenly these jokes were in dining rooms in Atlanta, Ga., and in dens in St. Louis, and they were on farms. This is how Jewish culture really entered American life, I think.”

Gethers found Jewish humor and funny Jews to be commonplace as he was growing up because his father was a sitcom writer. “As a result, even [when I was] really young, I became what I would call a ‘shticktologist.’ I was obsessed with jokes and really studied them.” 

He characterized Jewish humor as something that emanates from pain. “I think Jewish humor is all about not so much making fun of other people, but making fun of ourselves and using that humor to deal with very specific bad things that have happened.”  

And, Okrent observed, “There’s an important historical root to this. It’s not this way by accident. If you’re suffering, if you’re going through hard times, the best way to deal with it is humor. And this has been the case with Jewish humor going back — we found antecedents of some of these jokes that are 400 years old and that arise from the misfortunes of life.”

Both men describe themselves as secular Jews. Gethers said he had a bar mitzvah, and his family owned a famous dairy restaurant in New York called Ratner’s. “So, I was very influenced by Jewish food, Jewish humor, Jewish culture, and less so by actual Jewish religion,” he said.

Okrent went to Sunday school and was confirmed but did not have a bar mitzvah. He recalls having Shabbat dinners every Friday night at his grandparents’ house in Detroit.  

“I’m observant every weekend when I eat lox and cream cheese, so I’m observant in that sense,” he said. 

The two are highly respected writers and editors in areas other than the stage.  Gethers has written fiction and nonfiction books as well as comedy scripts for films and television. In addition, he has edited such luminaries as Caroline Kennedy, Barbara Walters, Jimmy Carter, Stephen Sondheim, Roman Polanski and William Goldman. Okrent is also a well-known editor and is celebrated as the first public editor of The New York Times. He is an award-winning author and was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for his work about Rockefeller Center.

However, when they got together to write “Old Jews Telling Jokes,” they were breaking new ground professionally, as neither had ever written for the stage. Okrent has found the process thrilling. 

“I would sit in the back of the theater,” he said, “and hear 300 people roaring with laughter and leaving the theater with grins on their faces, and that was an experience I’d never, ever had before.”

And it’s important to Gethers that audiences leave the theater with a sense of how crucial humor is in life. 

“That’s what I really hope the audience takes away from the show — that they laugh hysterically and realize that there’s nothing in life that is not appropriate for a joke.”

“Old Jews Telling Jokes” runs through March 15 at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza, 2100 E. Thousand Oaks Blvd., Thousand Oaks. Tickets are available at the box office and via Ticketmaster: 800-745-3000 or ticketmaster.com/old-jews-telling-jokes-thousand-oaks-california-03-05-2015/event/0B004CD4D24191B5?artistid=1828104&majorcatid=10002&minorcatid=32&bba=0

Jewish slave owners and a seder for the ages


The son of a Jewish, slave-owning family from the South confronts two of his former slaves just as the Civil War ends in the play “The Whipping Man,” which played at the West Coast Jewish Theatre in Los Angeles, has been produced by theater companies around the country and is now being presented by the Pasadena Playhouse.  

Playwright Matthew Lopez said he has always been fascinated by the human drama of the Civil War and wanted to write a play about it, but couldn’t come up with an original approach. He remembered how one day, when he was visiting with his dad, he told his father that he didn’t want to regurgitate what had already been done about that time in history.

“He brought me into his office,” Lopez said, “and plucked down a book off of his shelf, one of his many, many, many dozens of books on the Civil War.  It was called ‘The Jewish Confederates,’ and he said, ‘This is a fascinating subject. No one really thinks about Jews in the South, particularly during the Civil War. And no one’s ever really written about it, except in this book.  And no one’s certainly ever dramatized it. Maybe there’s a story in that.’ ”

The story Lopez eventually created begins in the city of Richmond, Va., in April of 1865. Robert E. Lee has just surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox, and the slaves are free but the South is in ruins. Caleb (Adam Haas Hunter), a Jewish Confederate soldier, returns to his family’s decaying estate. He is badly wounded with a bullet still lodged in his leg, which threatens to become gangrenous. Everyone has fled and the house is empty, except for Simon (Charlie Robinson), an older man who was one of the Jewish family’s slaves.  They are soon joined by John (Jarrod M. Smith), another former family slave who is closer in age to Caleb, seemingly more opportunistic than Simon, and who has been looting deserted properties to obtain food and supplies.

Diagnosing the gravity of Caleb’s wound, Simon performs an amputation with John’s help, and remains to care for his former owner as the three men struggle to survive under extremely harsh conditions. 

The core of the play is leavened by a little-known piece of history that Lopez uncovered while reading his father’s book.

“I stumbled across what was barely a footnote in the book,” he said, “which was basically the very buried little fact that Passover in 1865, which was the last year of the war, began the day after Lee surrendered at Appomattox. Lee surrendered on April 9, and (on) April 10, Passover began.” 

As the play indicates, it was commonplace for slaves to take on the religion of their owners, so Simon and John have been schooled in Judaism. And, in the second act, Simon, who instinctively understands the meaning underlying the ritual, organizes a makeshift seder.

Lopez recalled one of his favorite moments from an early production when the seder began onstage. “Some man leans over to his wife and says, ‘They’re not going to do the whole thing, are they?’ which I thought was wonderful. ‘We’re going to be here for hours. I hope they feed us when it’s over.’ ” 

The playwright explained that he wanted to express the similarity between the freeing of the slaves and the meaning of Passover, which celebrates the freedom of the Jews from bondage in Egypt. “I just saw this beautiful, sort of historical parallel, the ability to tell the Exodus story again, the ability to put into counterpoint millennia-old stories that, for these characters, are very vitally immediate.”  

He added, “There was a very, very specifically, commonly shared experience of slavery, of bondage, and of freedom that came at great cost. It was not given, it was taken, which, of course, is the only way freedom can really be obtained.  The Hebrew slaves had God on their side — the American slaves had Ulysses S. Grant, the Union Army and Abraham Lincoln.”

Lopez is of Puerto Rican and European heritage and is not Jewish, but some of his relatives have married Jews, and he is familiar with the culture. He views the seder as a powerful metaphorical exercise. “Speaking as a dramatist looking at religious liturgy, it’s great theater,” Lopez said. “It’s a powerful use of words. The fact that it’s survived as a practice for all of these millennia proves that it works, and it’s just a wonderfully effective tool of remembrance.”  

He continued, “What I’ve always found just beautiful about the words in the haggadah and the practice of a seder is that it causes people to think about their own lives and to reflect on freedom, because, essentially, what it comes down to really is freedom of the soul.”  

As the action flows toward its conclusion, secret upon secret is revealed, and emotions are laid bare. Simon has to deal with the fiction that his family treated their slaves well and to face the apparent immorality of the legacy of slavery.  

Lopez maintained that there is no neat and tidy ending to his play because the fallout from slavery is a story we are still living. “If I’m ever asked, ‘Why [is] a Puerto Rican gay man telling this story about Jewish slaves and Jewish slave owners and African-Americans?’ my answer is always that we’ve got to tell each other’s story. We have to collectively own it. We can’t just simply claim our little section of history. We must tell the American story, and the American story is a very broad and very multifaceted story. We have to tell the whole story, not just our own.”

“The Whipping Man” will be performed at the Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena, Feb. 3 – March 1

Tickets: 626-356-7529 or pasadenaplayhouse.com

Two literary giants, a lawsuit and Dick Cavett


It was the talk of the literary and legal worlds in the early 1980s. Noted playwright Lillian Hellman (“The Little Foxes,” “Another Part of the Forest” and numerous others), sued literary critic and author Mary McCarthy (her novel “The Group” had a long run on the New York Times best-seller list and was adapted for a film in 1966) over remarks McCarthy made during a PBS TV show hosted by Dick Cavett, widely considered at the time to be the most serious and erudite figure on the talk-show circuit. When Cavett asked McCarthy if she felt there were any overrated writers, she cited Pearl Buck, John Steinbeck and Hellman, saying of the latter, “Every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the.’ ”

Thinking back to the immediate fallout from McCarthy’s incendiary remarks, Cavett said in a recent interview, “I can still hear the voice in my right ear on the telephone the next morning saying, ‘Why the hell didn’t you defend me?’ That was darling Lillian.

“She had a couple of defenders, but not very many back then, particularly over the fact that she always held herself as such a great advocate of free speech — no censorship — and the First Amendment.  And yet she sued another writer.”

The events surrounding the lawsuit are dramatized in Brian Richard Mori’s play “Hellman v. McCarthy,” which had its premiere off-Broadway last year, was broadcast on PBS and is now being staged in Beverly Hills by Theatre 40, with Cavett appearing as himself to re-create some of the seminal scenes and also to serve as narrator. He is joined by Marcia Rodd as McCarthy and Flora Plumb as Hellman.

McCarthy was not the only person to call Hellman’s veracity into question. Several writers and biographers said she lied in her memoirs, which included the books “An Unfinished Woman,” “Scoundrel Time” and “Pentimento,” one chapter of which was about a woman named Julia, supposedly Hellman’s lifelong friend, who was working underground in Europe against the Nazis. In the story, Hellman claimed she had smuggled money through Nazi Germany for Julia. That segment formed the basis for the film “Julia,” which stars Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave. Psychiatrist Muriel Gardiner charged that the Julia story was stolen from her own life and that she never knew Hellman, although they had the same lawyer.

“So much of Hellman’s writing was bogus,” Cavett maintained, “and she lied in her teeth about it, assuming they were her teeth, and pretended things that were not true throughout her life. She was, however, a very, very wonderful storyteller. I loved reading her book. I didn’t know that there was no Julia, and that she invented the thing out of whole or partial cloth.  And so, I liked her skills as a storyteller and as a playwright. I had dinner at her apartment a few times. She was very entertaining to be around, and witty.”

Hellman was born into a Jewish family in New Orleans but had little connection to her Jewish heritage. In her book “Lillian Hellman: A Life With Foxes and Scoundrels,” Deborah Martinson writes, “In New York [Lillian] found an atmosphere where Jewish culture resonated, although she was not a practicing Jew.  Judaic ribbons of connection lay slack on both sides of the family. Too Jewish in New Orleans … and not Jewish enough in New York … She fit, uneasily, the most ‘un-Jewish of Jews,’ a ‘breed apart’ from New York’s distinct and active Jewish communities. Hellman never understood what being a Jew actually meant exactly. But she always insisted vaguely, ‘I know I would rather be a Jew than not be.’ ”

Of McCarthy, Martinson writes, “Her grandmother was one-quarter Jewish, but [McCarthy was] raised Catholic.  It was years before she acknowledged her Jewish ties — something she later regretted.”

Playwright Mori said Hellman’s being Jewish didn’t really inform the character as he has drawn her. Mori remembered that he had moved from Southern California to New York right around the time the whole story broke and read every New York Times article on the controversy.

“It was absorbing,” Mori said. “I didn’t really consider doing anything with it dramatically until four or five years ago, and then I just read everything I could find about the women, their books and their interviews. I was able to get a lot of material from their archives, and I was able to review the court documents as well.

“I admired both women. I love writers, and they’re both extraordinary. And there’s the built-in conflict, even though one would think, as I mention in the play, that they would be allies rather than the reverse.”

But they were adversaries on many levels, especially with respect to politics. Although both leaned to the left, Hellman was a staunch Stalinist, to the point of refusing to repudiate Stalin’s purges, while McCarthy was a Trotskyite.

Cavett characterized the feeling between the two as “intense hatred, which did not contain itself.”

He continued: “Hellman was — and this is ironic — better-known, you might say. In the weakest, weakest part of her defense of herself, she claimed she wasn’t a public figure.” There is a higher burden of proof required in libel suits filed by public figures.  

“Shockingly, she won that argument,” Mori said. “Mary’s side, of course, thought it was going to be a slam dunk [against] that argument. And the judge sided with Lillian Hellman, saying that what Mary said isn’t protected opinions of free speech, which was very strange.”

Mori’s play doesn’t take either woman’s side, and he was unwilling to give his personal opinion as to which of the two was the more sympathetic.

The lawsuit, which dragged on for four years, evaporated with Hellman’s death in 1984. McCarthy died five years later.

“Hellman v. McCarthy” runs from Feb. 6 to Feb. 28 at Theatre 40.

 For tickets to “Hellman v. McCarthy” call (310)-364-0535 or visit theatre40.laughstub.com.

London theater will host Jewish film fest after all


A London theater that refused to host a Jewish film festival because of the event’s Israeli government funding has reversed course.

The Tricycle Theatre decided to continue serving as a venue for the UK Jewish Film Festival after the theater’s initial refusal earlier this month sparked criticism, The Telegraph reported.

The Tricycle earlier said it would not host the UK Jewish Film Festival, which it has hosted for eight years, unless the annual festival eschewed funding from the Israeli embassy, which the theater described as “party to the current conflict” in Gaza.

Festival organizers said the demands were “entirely unacceptable.”

On Friday, the festival and theater issued a joint statement saying that the Tricycle’s initial decision “provoked considerable public upset” and that the theater has “invited back the UK Jewish Film Festival on the same terms as in previous years with no restrictions on funding from the Embassy of Israel in London.”

The ban had divided the artistic community, with opponents branding the theater “anti-Semitic,” according to The Telegraph.

Jason Alexander brings Neil Simon’s ‘Broadway Bound’ to L.A.


It has been nearly 30 years since actor/director Jason Alexander, perhaps best known for his role as George Costanza on the TV series “Seinfeld,” appeared in the original New York production of Neil Simon’s “Broadway Bound,” the third play in a trilogy that included “Brighton Beach Memoirs” and “Biloxi Blues.” Alexander played 28-year-old Stanley Jerome, the older of two brothers who still live with their middle-class Jewish family in Brooklyn and are bent on becoming a successful comedy-writing team. The action takes place in 1949, and the Jerome household also includes the boys’ parents, embroiled in a domestic war as their marriage is deteriorating, and the boys’ Socialist grandfather.

Alexander is now directing a production of the play at the Odyssey Theatre in West Los Angeles (through Sept. 21) and, thinking back to the original Broadway run, recalled that Simon, who had by then achieved phenomenal success with such comedies as “The Odd Couple,” “Plaza Suite,” “The Last of the Red Hot Lovers,” “The Sunshine Boys” and numerous others, was continually making revisions to the script during rehearsals but couldn’t bring himself to stay for the out-of-town tryouts.

“The play was so deeply personal for Neil,” Alexander explained, “and he was so agitated, nervous, about what he was revealing about his family that, within one or two performances out of town, he got so stressed out, he did not remain with us, and we really didn’t see him again until we got to New York.

“In this particular play, the disintegration of their marriage was revealed pretty much as it happened, or at least as it happened that he could understand. And he was always concerned that he had somehow betrayed a confidence, or betrayed their privacy or painted them in a light that was not positive.”

But Alexander disagrees with Simon’s assessment. “I actually think he did a wonderful job of portraying them realistically and having them do the distasteful and occasionally cruel things that they do, but still giving them enough character and enough material to be able to express themselves as imperfect people trying to find answers. I actually think it’s a very sympathetic portrayal of his parents.”

In fact, Alexander considers this to be Simon’s best play, though the author won the 1991 Pulitzer Prize for another show, “Lost in Yonkers.” And even though he spent some two years performing in the Broadway production, Alexander said he has been able to approach the work with a fresh eye. 

“The beautiful thing about theater,” he observed, “is that it is a living, breathing, organic thing. And every time you start a new project, it is entirely unique to itself, even if the material that you’re working from has been done before. So, the trick for me was to be able to see who the actors were that were in front of me, what their innate gifts are.”

He continued, “The really unique difference in this production from any that I’ve ever seen is the fact that we’re in a very small theater. So, when the audience walks through the door, they are walking into the living room of the Jerome house. And the experience of this play is very intimate.”

Alexander was 27 when the play was first performed, and he remembers that, at the time, he felt the show was mainly about the two brothers beginning their lives and coming into their talent, while the adult portions of the story were just filler.   

Now that he’s almost 55, Alexander sees the conflict between the adults as the meat and potatoes of the play. “Nowadays, therapy — marriage therapy or couple therapy or just therapy — is a pretty common thing for people. But back then, they had no tools with which to examine what was happening to them. And to see them desperately and painfully lashing out at each other, grabbing for each other, trying to hold on to each other, trying to make things better, with the amount of grace and forgiveness and decency that all these characters have — it just moves me incredibly.”

Alexander, who is Jewish, as is Simon, also pointed out that there are almost no Jewish references in the play, even though all the characters are Jewish. 

“One of the critiques of Neil is that he writes Jewish characters and never cops to their Jewishness. And there is only one reference in this whole play to something about a synagogue. Other than that, there is nothing on the set that would indicate a Jewish house. What you’re hearing are the rhythms and the flavors and the music of Jewish-Italian neighborhoods at this time period in New York.

“It’s absolutely universal. If you brought people from countries where they’ve never seen New York, they’ve never seen a Jew or an Italian, or whatever, they would still understand this play, and they would still find themselves moved and charmed by it.”

He added that his underlying goal in reviving the play is to celebrate Simon, who he feels has gone somewhat out of vogue.

“It bothers me that Neil’s importance to the American theater is not celebrated. He is truly one of our greats. 

“We seem to denigrate Neil Simon, and I think it’s a tragedy. So, I would love people to come in and look at this thing and go, ‘Oh, my God. I can’t believe the Neil Simon I think of wrote this. I didn’t know he had such ability to write characters of this depth and this complexity and this maturity.’ I want them to be surprised by how deeply engaged they become with Neil Simon’s writing, and to have them go out with a different respect for the man.”

 

“Broadway Bound,” Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. Performances are Wednesday through Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m., through Sept. 21. (310) 477-2055, Ext. 2 or odysseytheatre.com

Theater as addiction therapy in ‘Bliss Point’


The healing power of theater underlies the collaboration between the Cornerstone Theater Company and rehabilitation centers around the city, which resulted in the company’s production of “Bliss Point,” a play about addiction and recovery, through June 22 at the Odyssey Theatre in Los Angeles.

Playwright Shishir Kurup’s research included conducting interviews with residents of various recovery facilities, including Beit T’Shuvah (“House of Return”). 

Tricia Nykin, who had organized several acting workshops while a resident at Beit T’Shuvah, was heavily involved in the play’s development process, working with the playwright and Cornerstone, and she ultimately arranged for a reading for the Beit T’Shuvah residents.

“I wanted to get feedback as to the legitimacy of the script,” Nykin said.

The play focuses on two divergent scenarios that merge unexpectedly at the end. One concerns an addict whose friends come to get high with him in celebration of his birthday. Eventually, a particularly devastating event causes him to crash. The other scenario follows an East Indian journalist who is caring for his sick mother and also interviewing addicts at a treatment center for an article in a major magazine. 

One of the addicts telling her story to the journalist is played by Nykin, who is one of five cast members from Beit T’Shuvah, most of them with little acting experience. In fact, Nykin, who has been a professional actor since childhood and has a bachelor’s degree in theater, is one of only a few professionals in the 15-character play. 

She is also a heroin addict who came to Beit T’Shuvah almost a year ago as a “court commit.”  

“I eventually started selling heroin, and I got caught a lot,” Nykin said. “I got raided three times, and I went to jail, in and out, in and out, about seven times over the course of a year and a half. And then, on March 11, 2013, I went to jail for the last time.  

“The court and my probation [officer] decided they were not going to let me out. So, I was stuck, and I was really forced to look at myself, and it was miserable, it was difficult. And thank God for that, because it gave me the gift of desperation and enabled me to see that I felt freer in those four tiny walls in a cell than I did in the real world. That’s what made me want to change.”

Her grandmother read about Beit T’Shuvah, and her mother eventually got her alternatively sentenced to the center. She was immediately cast in a play the facility produces periodically, and she slowly began establishing a theater program.  

Now sober, Nykin moved out of the treatment residence about five weeks ago into a house where many Beit T’Shuvah staff members reside. She is employed as the managing director of the facility’s theater department.

Jared Ross, another resident who is part of the “Bliss Point” cast, said his own recovery, as well as the play itself, has helped him find a passion for learning and growing again. He said that, as an artist himself who draws, paints and sculpts, he particularly relates to the character he plays, whose artwork is exhibited in the Whitney Museum.

“But, also, [there’s] the dark side of this character — he’s been an IV drug user, which is something that I’ve battled since I was 16. 

“But he does come to a place of revelation, of wanting to survive, to really get his name out there and make it as an artist. And, just like with myself, for that to even have a shot at happening, I have to put the drugs down.”

In order to “put the drugs down,” Beit T’Shuvah residents are required to go to therapy and meet with their counselor every week, as well as a spiritual adviser every week, and go to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting every night.  In addition, both Jewish and non-Jewish residents must attend Torah study every morning and services every Friday night and Saturday morning.

There are also adjunct, voluntary programs, such as music, yoga, mindfulness meditation, creative writing, surf therapy and, of course, theater, which the center’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Mark Borovitz, believes is therapeutic in that it allows addicts to tell their story and the stories of other people.

“They can see themselves in other characters,” he said, “so it helps them get out of their own self-obsession. It helps them have empathy with other characters, other people. It also creates a community within the community. They know that their success, and the success of the project, is dependent upon everyone working together, so it gets them to be part of something instead of separate from everyone. Plus, they have a great deal of fun and camaraderie.”

The rabbi would like audiences who see “Bliss Point” to come away with an appreciation for the power of recovery and of redemption, “and to see themselves in the cast members,” he said, “so they start to realize that it’s not ‘those people,’ but it’s us.”

 

“Bliss Point” is at the Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles, June 5-22. Performances are 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday. For tickets, call (310) 477-2055, Ext. 2. For group tickets, email aescalante@cornerstonetheater.org. Pay-what-you-can: Suggested donation is $20.

Awarding a Broadway ‘Wonder’


Few figures of popular culture are quite so beloved or beguiling as the character of Tevye, the pious but philosophical dairyman who reached his most celebrated incarnation in the Broadway hit musical “Fiddler on the Roof.” Yet Tevye himself and the musical in which he is showcased can be provocative, too, if only because the character has traveled so far from his authentic Yiddish roots in the writings of his creator, Sholem Aleichem, to reach the stage and the screen.

That’s exactly why “Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of ‘Fiddler on the Roof’” by Alisa Solomon (Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt & Co.) is a delight to read and, at the same time, distinguishes itself as an illuminating work of criticism and scholarship. And that’s why we are presenting its author with the Jewish Journal Book Award in recognition of a book of exceptional interest, achievement and significance.  The award, which carries a $500 honorarium, is presented each year to a book published during the previous calendar year.

Solomon, a journalism professor at Columbia University, earned her street cred in New York’s theater district as a longtime critic for the Village Voice. She also displays a newspaper reporter’s gift for cutting through fluff and myth in order to find the hard facts. Her previous books include “Wrestling With Zion: Progressive Jewish-American Responses to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict” (co-edited with Tony Kushner)  and “The Queerest Art: Essays on Lesbian and Gay Theater” (co-edited with Framji Minwalla). She once performed in a JCC summer camp production of “Fiddler,” and she undertook the study of Yiddish in order to write “Wonder of Wonders.”

All of this is brought to bear in “Wonder of Wonders.” The book is informed by Solomon’s insight into what does or doesn’t work on the live stage, and it is ornamented with her tales of the gifted women and men who struggled — sometimes against one another — to bring up the curtain on what was destined to become a record-breaking Broadway phenomenon. She expertly decodes and explains the politics of the theater business and the psychology of American popular culture, and she shows how “Fiddler” was successful not only in making money for its backers, but also in changing the way America saw the Jewish saga and the way Jews saw themselves.

And she has accomplished something else in the pages of “Wonder of Wonders.”  Solomon has a sure sense of the tensions and conflicts that have attached themselves to Jewish identity in America, and she shows how they were played out in the American musical theater, a place where Jewish artists have been especially welcome and especially successful. In that sense, her book achieves the stature of social and cultural history while, at the same time, her scholarship is enlivened by her taste for the backstage story.

“She points out how ‘Fiddler,’ like the earlier incarnations of Tevye on the Yiddish stage, has come to serve as a ‘Jewish signifier’ for both Jews and non-Jews,” I wrote in my review of “Wonder of Wonders” last October. “But she also shows how ‘Fiddler’ came to be embraced and celebrated far beyond the Jewish world, which is yet another wonder of wonders.
‘[Tevye] belongs nowhere,’ Alisa Solomon concludes. ‘Which is to say, everywhere.’ ”

I concluded my review with the observation that “Wonder of Wonders” offers “a rich and lively slice of theater history.” The pastry metaphor also occurred to Marjorie Ingalls, who later wrote in The New York Times that the book is “as rich and dense as a chocolate babka.” Because I love a slice of babka, I suppose I shouldn’t quibble with the comparison. To be sure, “Wonder of Wonders” is a pure pleasure — not only filling, but also nourishing and even fortifying.  

Holiday preview calendar


MON | DEC 2

HA HA Hanukkah

If you like to laugh and hear happy Chanukah songs, then this is the show for you. It will be a special night of funny people, including Stephanie Blum, Jimmy Brogan and Mark Schiff. Hosted by Kenny Ellis, who has long made it a mission to marry the cantor and the comic within, there will be nods to his top-rated CD, “Hanukkah Swings!” Make the sixth night of Chanukah the best night. Mon. 8 p.m. $17-$30. The Laugh Factory, 8001 Sunset Blvd., Hollywood. (323) 656-1336. TUE | DEC 3

“I’LL EAT YOU LAST: A CHAT WITH SUE MENGERS”

Bette Midler stars in the fresh-from-Broadway one-woman show that celebrates Tinseltown’s hottest talent agent. With clients like Barbra Streisand and Marlon Brando, and immigration to the United States from Germany when she was 5, Mengers’ story is a version of the American dream. The Divine Miss M, performing John Logan’s words and directed by Joe Mantello, captivates, entertains and charms. Tue. 8 p.m. Through Dec. 22. $87-$397. Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Los Angeles. (310) 208-5454. WED | DEC 4

ARI SHAVIT

The leading Israeli journalist and writer makes a rare Los Angeles appearance to discuss his new book, “My Promised Land.” By combining interviews, personal experiences, historical documents, private diaries and letters, Shavit captures all the elements that contribute to the relationship we each individually have with Israel. How does Israel’s past inform her present? What does origin have to do with future? A Q-and-A and book signing follow the program. Reservations recommended. Wed. 8 p.m. Free. Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 440-4500. FRI | DEC 6

“INTO THE NIGHT: PROGRESSION”

Nothing says early December like multimedia Jewish indie artists. With acts by rock band Avi Buffalo, the Los Angeles debut of Brooklyn-based performance group People Get Ready and a site-specific dance show by Jmy James Kidd and the Sunland Dancers, the evening will be a salute to some of the eager underground artists of our time. Come for the music, come for the movement, and come see the first-ever performance in the Skirball’s new Guerin Pavilion. Fri. 8:30 p.m. $15 (general), $20 (at the door). Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 440-4500. SAT | DEC 7

THE KLEZMATICS

The old country just got a little newer. Taking traditional sounds and themes and infusing them with some modern funk and interpretations, the Grammy-winning band brings rhythm and timeless spirit to its audiences. With 25 years of experience and a growing fan base with each performance, the Klezmatics have changed the face of the Yiddish imprint on popular culture. They are making history, performing history and you get to dance all the while. Sat. 7:30 p.m. $69-$108. The Broad Stage, 1310 11th St., Santa Monica. (310) 434-3200. SUN | DEC 8

“AMERIKANER SHADKHN” (AMERICAN MATCHMAKER)

Nat Silver is desperate to rid himself of his unlucky-in-love motif as his eighth engagement goes awry. Our urbane and neurotic hero sets up a matchmaking business to learn what it takes to find a match for himself in this 1940 romantic comedy by Edgar Ulmer. Part of Sholem Presents: Yiddish on the Silver Screen series. Other films coming up include “The Light Ahead” (Jan. 26) and “The Dybbuk” (Feb. 9). Sun. 10:15 a.m. $15 (general), $5 (members). Westside Neighborhood School, 5401 Beethoven St., Los Angeles. (818) 760-6625.” target=”_blank”>aju.edu.


THUR | DEC 12

SHELLEY BERMAN

The comedian, actor and writer has a new book of poetry out! “To Laughter With Questions” is a collection of serious and not-so-serious verse, limericks, rhymes and an attempt at iambic pentameter. While you might know him best from his many film and TV appearances, here is an opportunity to get to know the man more intimately. His collection is full of personal experiences, and with Berman having taught in USC’s Master of Professional Writing program, you know it’s well written. Thu. 7 p.m. Free. Book Soup, 8818 W. Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood. (310) 659-3110. MON | DEC 23

WOODY ALLEN AND HIS NEW ORLEANS JAZZ BAND

Forget the movies — the man is making music. With more than 35 years of bringing New Orleans-inspired music to audiences all over the world, the band has mastered creating the sounds Allen has loved since childhood, including nods to George Lewis, Jimmie Noone and Louis Armstrong. Come because you liked “Manhattan,” and stick around because you’ll love New Orleans. Mon. 8 p.m. $52-$112. Royce Hall at UCLA, 340 Royce Drive, Los Angeles. (310) 825-2101. FRI | DEC 27

“MARVIN HAMLISCH: WHAT HE DID FOR LOVE”

It makes more sense to tell you what Hamlisch was not responsible for when it comes to defining music — but sense is no fun. A musical prodigy at the age of 6, the conductor and composer was the brain behind “A Chorus Line,” and wrote the scores for “Sophie’s Choice,” “Ordinary People” and, more recently, “Behind the Candelabra.” In this first film biography, we get an inside portrait of one of the most respected artists of both the 20th and 21st centuries. Fri. 9 p.m. on PBS. Check local listings. SUN | JAN 12

A SALUTE TO ISRAEL

Join the Israel Defense Forces’ (IDF) Chief Cantor Shai Abramson, the IDF Vocal Ensemble and conductor Ofir Sobol for a community concert featuring classical, opera and Israeli music. Presented by Friends of the Israel Defense Forces and Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy, this benefit concert features a special guest appearance by IDF Chief Rabbi Rafi Peretz. Sun. $29-$180. 6:30 p.m Saban Theatre, 8440 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills. (323) 843-2690. FRI | JAN 17

JOAN RIVERS

The new year means we are all ripe for self-deprecation, and there is no one better to serve as our shepherd than Rivers. For more than 50 years she has been making us laugh, think, squirm, agree and disagree. Whether you saw her on “The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson,” spent revealing time with her in the documentary “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work” or currently watch her during awards season, you know exactly who Joan is and what you have to look forward to. Fri. 9 p.m. $77-$225. Saban Theatre, 8440 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills. (323) 655-0111. SAT | JAN 18

PINCHAS ZUKERMAN

The principal guest conductor leads one of the United Kingdom’s most prestigious orchestras through some Bach, Schoenberg and Brahms. Born in Tel Aviv, Zukerman trained at Juilliard before playing the violin with the London Symphony Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic. After a successful career in recording, he began conducting in 1970. Since then, he has been a global musical leader, player and teacher. Forget the sounds of silence — bring on Zukerman. Sat. 8 p.m. $40-$65. Valley Performing Arts Center, 18111 Nordhoff St., Northridge. (818) 677-3000. TUE | JAN 21

“THE BOOK OF MORMON”

It’s a religious satire musical from the guys who brought you “South Park” and “Avenue Q.” That means you’re gonna laugh. Tag along with a couple of Mormon missionaries as they try to spread the word to a remote village in Northern Uganda. It won nine Tony Awards in 2011, including best musical, so if you feel better about going to critically acclaimed things, you can feel good about this. Tue. 8 p.m. Through March 16. $43-$103. Pantages Theatre, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 468-1770. THUR | FEB 13

“LOVE, MATHEMATICS, AND THE X-FILES”

“X-Files” co-creator Chris Carter is in conversation with Edward Frenkel — one of the 21st century’s leading mathematicians. Working on one of the biggest math ideas in 50 years — the Langlands Program — Frenkel, in his autobiography, reveals a side of math filled with all the metaphysical beauty, elegance and spirit of a work of art. Discover how the things you just thought were numbers might carry a charge of love. Thur. 7:15 p.m. Free (reservation required). Mark Taper Auditorium, Central Library, 630 W. Fifth St., downtown. (213) 228-7500. SAT | FEB 15

“SANDRA BERNHARD: I LOVE BEING ME, DON’T YOU?”

If you were a respected and talented comedian, singer, author, actor and monologist, you’d love being me, too! From a big break in Martin Scorsese’s “The King of Comedy,” to a recurring role on TV’s “Roseanne,” to off-Broadway successes, Bernhard understands entertaining. She will sing, she will muse about her teenage daughter, and she will love being her. And we love that. Sat. 8 p.m. $25-$60 (general), $15 (UCLA Students). Royce Hall at UCLA, 340 Royce Drive, Los Angeles. (310) 825-2101.

Observant life in progress


Barbara Heller likes to refer to herself as a “growing Jew.” 

The actress/singer has created a biographical show, “Finding Barb,” that traces her life from her dysfunctional family in Boca Raton, Fla., through her disappointing pursuit of an acting career in New York, to her indoctrination into Orthodox Judaism and, finally, to her present state of trying to balance her commitment to an observant life with her professional ambitions.

The play is running currently at Working Stage in West Hollywood, with performances continuing through Jan. 10.

The seeds of Heller’s quest seem to be rooted in the upheaval of her early home life. While her parents are caricatured in her play, she said the conflict between them was real.

“There was a lot of fighting in the house, not between me and my sister, but between my parents. 

“They both had their issues, and they both were really honest about it. Unfortunately, they shared everything with us, like their problems. But, on the other hand, nothing was hidden. I don’t know. I guess I got to see too much.”

Complicating matters, Heller remarked, was the feeling that she never fit any of the “boxes” into which she wanted to fit — she was never part of the “cool” group in elementary school, for example. She said it got better in high school, where she loved the extracurricular acting, singing and dancing activities and appeared in school productions.

Heller recalled that she was 13 when she decided she wanted acting to be her life’s work. She was in New York visiting her aunt, who was a lawyer.

“I looked at all the books in her office, and I thought, ‘Oh, this is so boring.’ And I looked at the cover of Time magazine. Jim Henson had just passed away, and I sat in her law library … and I just sobbed. I said, ‘I feel so much more connected to Jim Henson than to any of these books and being a lawyer.’ I remember that moment. I made a decision.  I said, ‘I have to be an actor.’ And that was it.” 

Heller attended Tisch School of the Arts at New York University but couldn’t finish because her parents were going through a messy divorce and didn’t have the money for her to continue there. Instead, she graduated from the University of Florida, in Gainesville, with a major in theater and returned to New York to try for acting roles. 

Although she did cabaret work, toured in an off-Broadway production, auditioned for numerous Broadway shows and got called back many times, she never actually landed a role on Broadway. She started to think about quitting. 

Then she was invited to a Shabbat dinner at the Upper West Side apartment of a friend she had met a few years earlier, when they visited eight concentration camps and Israel under the sponsorship of the World Zionist Organization.

That night, there was a security she had never previously enjoyed, certainly not when she was living with her parents. 

“I had no structure growing up,” she said. “So, to have even one dinner a week where everyone was loving and happy and there together, and there was good food on the table and we could have guests over — just the idea of having a wholesome, intimate Shabbat dinner that was loving was precious to me. I’d never had that before.

“I bought a dream that night.” 

She also met a couple there who suggested she attend a retreat in Orlando, which was being run by Isralight, an organization dedicated to “Inspiring a Renaissance in Jewish Living” through educational programs.

“I decided that weekend that I should go to Israel and study the Torah in the original text instead of the critical texts I had studied in college,” Heller said. “I stayed there for almost two years [off and on] learning in yeshivot.” 

She then steeped herself in Orthodoxy and endured years of match-made dating that is portrayed in her show as hilariously disastrous. 

But, for her, the woman’s role in Judaism does have a certain beauty. 

“I started to get really curious about what it means to be a Jewish woman,” she said. “What are the laws that I can embrace? I love the idea of niddah; I love the idea of a woman going to mikveh and praying, and being immersed in that water,” she said. 

During the period of her extreme Orthodox life, Heller spent some 10 years singing and performing exclusively for female audiences. She explained that it’s a very strict halachah for an observant woman to perform only for other women. But, ultimately, that limitation wasn’t fulfilling, and her current show is a way of reintroducing herself to more mainstream, integrated audiences.

As for dating, Heller said, as an observant woman, she didn’t touch men for six years. Still, she didn’t get married in the time frame that the rabbi said she would find a husband.

“I only dated observant men for nine, 10 years, and then I realized I’m not finding the right person for me. Maybe that’s because I’m not supposed to be fully observant in this very strict way. So, I started dating people who are not as religious, and I’m much happier, because I don’t really fit in the box of an Orthodox Jew.” 

At this point in her life, Heller said she considers herself “a growing Jew,” or “limmudnik.”

Limmud actually means ‘to learn’ or ‘learning,’ and I’m a learning Jew; I’m a growing Jew. I also teach Judaism. That’s part of what I do as a job. I teach Jewish students on the weekends at different synagogues and in their homes,” she said. “I teach Judaism, and I also run a theater camp for Jewish kids where there’s, partially, Jewish learning and theater studies as well.”

Heller concluded that her play is about finding a box that works for her, or taking pieces of different boxes and putting them together in a creative way.

“Finding Barb”

The Working Stage
1516 N. Gardner, Los Angeles 90046 (five blocks east of Fairfax)
(323) 521-8600
Thursdays through Jan. 10, 2013, 8 p.m.
No performance the weeks of Thanksgiving, Christmas, or New Year’s Eve
Tickets $25.00
Reservations: FindingBarbShow.Eventbrite.com/

Surviving a Survivor


It’s an age-old, common dilemma faced by adult children of aging parents: What is the right thing to do when those parents begin to lose their faculties? That theme is at the heart of “Surviving Mama,” by playwright Sonia Levitin, which opens Oct. 12 at the Edgemar Center for the Arts in Santa Monica.

“When you have an aging parent and you have to make a decision, it can’t just be a cookie-cutter decision,” Levitin said in an interview. “You have to take into account everything about that person — their early life, what they endured, their personality and how they are going to react. What’s going to be the next step for them? And people are very different. Almost everyone I talk to has an aging parent, and I hear many different stories — of sibling rivalries coming out, some parents going on their own, making a plan; others a little resistant.” 

Levitin’s play traces the life of Marlena, called Mama (Arva Rose as the older Marlena, Gina Manziello as her younger self), who, when we first meet her, is a feisty, independent woman of German-Jewish heritage in her mid-80s. She has almost set her apartment on fire and is displaying other signs of encroaching dementia. Her youngest daughter, Anne (Manziello, in a dual role) continually clashes with her middle daughter, Stella (Sharon Rosner), over whether to put Mama in a home, and it is clear Mama resists the idea with all her might.

Much of the action is shown in flashback, as we revisit significant events in Marlena’s life. The story reverts to Germany in 1923, when, at the age of 26, she exhibits the strength and resolve that will carry her through life by defying her autocratic father, learning a profession, and marrying the charming, flamboyant Gustav (Peter Lucas). Fifteen years later, with the advent of Nazism, Gustav flees to Cuba, and Marlena escapes to Switzerland with their three young daughters, where they are helped by a priest who enlists the aid of a Catholic family.

The following year, Marlena, the girls and Gustav reunite in America, and Gustav, who is a designer, goes into the shmatte business. But he is a womanizer, and Marlena endures an unhappy marriage.  

After Gustav dies, Marlena falls in love and has a short-lived relationship with another man as the dementia overtakes her.

Levitin based the work on her own late mother’s life, incorporating memories her mother related, as well as on her own recollections, some of which go back to her days as a young child in Nazi Germany.

“I remember that Hitler parade that I refer to in the play. It was very frightening.  I remember scattered things. I remember being in Switzerland.”

Levitin said she also remembers how impoverished she, her mother and her sisters were in Switzerland. “My mother wasn’t allowed to work because she wasn’t a citizen, and you had to be a citizen. She was willing to do anything, and she was absolutely destitute. She went to an agency that was supposed to help refugees, and they told her to go back to Germany. She did go to a rabbi, and he found families for her who were not Jewish but would take the children.” 

Once in America, Levitin’s mother, who had been raised in a beautiful home, with a nanny and maids, still struggled. “She had to work,” Levitin recalled, “and she had to work at very grimy jobs, cleaning other people’s houses, scrubbing the floor, after hours, in a restaurant. This is a woman who came from a well-to-do family.

“My mother’s experience has had an effect on my children, in that they understood her independence and her courage,” Levitin added.

Levitin recalls that just as the character of Anne, her counterpart in the script, is in denial about Marlena’s dementia, she herself could never acknowledge her mother’s mental deterioration. 

“Anne says in the play, ‘You know, I haven’t even said it to myself.’ And it was gradual, and the truth is, I never said it until this woman came over to assess her, the woman who ran the group home, who was lovely. She met my mother, and we talked. I remember it was outside on the lawn, and my mother went in for a sweater or something, and the woman said, ‘Well, she’s going to fit right in. They’re all demented.’ It was like the bottom had just dropped out. Yes, I knew, but I didn’t know. I had managed her; I really had.”

The character of Marlena as an old woman shares her life story with the viewer at key moments in the play, coming to the apron of the stage to address the audience directly. Those segments transition into flashbacks, and, for director Doug Kaback, they represent Marlena’s growing isolation.

“Her mind is drifting to the events of her past, and I think what she’s really analyzing and experiencing in a way, because we bring these events to life, is a sort of validation of the things that she did to save her children and herself, to hold on to a marriage that was proving very fateful and without passion. Her arc is to come to terms with that and to recognize that, even though she sometimes has a caustic character, she has tremendous love and value, and has accomplished really heroic things in her lifetime.”

But, Kaback added, she is burdened by a lifelong sense of guilt.

“She carries such a huge weight, and this terrible horror of what she experienced getting out of Nazi Germany, and the fact that so many loved ones remained, and that she couldn’t help them, and the tragedy of their early deaths, is something that she just can’t quite make whole for herself.  Consequently, she drifts more and more internally, into a world of loss, and she’s pulling back from life in a way.” 

Rose, who plays Marlena, believes that her character’s guilt over having left her contentious mother, Lucie (also played by Rose), in Germany as the Nazis were taking power is pivotal.

“It creates a deep sadness, a great defensiveness and a depression that is not uncommon in many Eastern European Jews,” Rose said. “We come to guilt easily. She didn’t just abandon her mother. She abandoned her mother knowing, in her gut, that she was abandoning her to something terrible. So, even though she begged her to leave, she knew that she could have done more, and that it was, to a certain degree, self-serving that she didn’t do more.”

Rose was particularly drawn to this material because of its ethnic underpinnings. “I’m very Jewish. Most of the theater that I do, that is of consequence and that matters to me, often has a Jewish theme. I am not just an actor. For the last 25 years, I’ve been a family therapist, and the combination of the family dynamics, the Jewishness of the plot and the characters, made it completely irresistible to me.”

Rose would like the play to transmit a sense of what she calls “the incredible bond between family members, particularly mothers and daughters.”

And Kaback hopes that “whatever station we’re at in life, we’re able to see in Marlena a reflection of ourselves, and a recognition that we, too, have to confront some very challenging and difficult questions as we grow older.”

As for what Levitin would like audiences to take from her play: “I want them to come away with a feeling of the fullness of life, the triumph of life and of people over all the things that can befall them. I want them to become encouraged by the show, and to say, ‘Wow! That was a woman who knew how to live.’ ”

 


“Surviving Mama”

Edgemar Center for the Arts, on the Main Stage

2437 Main St., Santa Monica, CA 90405

Oct. 12- Nov. 18

Fri. at 8 pm, Saturday at 3 and and 8 pm, Sunday at 5 pm.

Tickets:  $34.99

RESERVATIONS: (310) 392-7327

ONLINE TICKETING: http://www.edgemarcenter.org/ 

‘Jewtopia’s’ universal truths


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

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

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

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

“He deserves this,” Katz said. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stage dramedy tackles interfaith marriage taboo


If you take Israel out of the equation, there’s little in the Jewish world that gets people as riled up as the idea of intermarriage. For most secular and liberal Jews, intermarriage, which once carried a huge social stigma, has become more acceptable. Visit any Reform synagogue in Los Angeles, and you’re bound to come across all kinds of intermarried families. Indeed, in the liberal Jewish world, intermarriage has even begun to be seen as an opportunity to bring more people into the Jewish community. But in the Orthodox world, the stigma of intermarriage is as strong as ever, and Maia Madison’s new play “Nobody Likes Jews When They’re Winning,” explores exactly what happens when a girl from a traditional family falls in love with guy who happens to be non-Jewish.

“The play is about an interfaith couple who want to get married and live happily ever after, as long as her Jewish family doesn’t find out,” said Madison, during a phone interview between rehearsals. Her main character, who draws a little from Madison’s own life story, “goes on a quest to find out the real meaning of her Jewish identity and the real meaning of family.”

Madison grew up in an observant home in New York City. Her parents were both from Orthodox backgrounds and kept kosher, to an extent, but Madison was also the first girl in her family to have a bat mitzvah.

“I’m a very strong-minded woman, I went to Northwestern University,” said Madison, noting that some in her family were disappointed she didn’t go to Stern College.

The idea that became “Nobody Likes Jews When They’re Winning” came to Madison when she watched a close friend’s relationship fall apart after her ill father moved in with her and her partner. “She picked her family over her relationship.”

The experience made Madison realize that sometimes we’re forced into tough situations where we have to choose between family and love.

“Now if you’re 30, you can’t get a job, even though you have an MBA,” said Madison of the economic situation that’s left many post-college grads living at home. According to Madison, that new dynamic has wreaked havoc with the notion of “leave and cleave” that’s presented in Genesis 2:24: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined (cleave) to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.”

An additional topic explored in Madison’s play is how Hollywood and the world at large sees Jews. Madison recalled getting a call from a non-Jewish friend at CBS who’d just been pitched a show that he described as “ ‘The O.C.’ meets Temple Beth Israel,” and wanted Madison’s opinion as a Jew as to why it felt “off” to him. “Nobody likes Jews when they’re winning,” Madison told him.

“There are no shows where likable Jews drive around in fancy cars, live in million-dollar homes and spend a $100,000 on a bar mitzvah at the Beverly Wilshire, the same way that the people on ‘Revenge’ do, for example,” Madison said. The question of why that’s so is one that dogs her, and she explores it thoroughly in the show.

But lest anyone think the play appeals only to Jews, the director, Diana Basmajian, a non-Jew, says that’s just not so.

“No matter what a person’s background was, they were still talking in that lobby,” Basmajian said of the audience from the show’s staged readings.

Basmajian and Madison have been friends for more than 20 years. “I’m half Armenian, and I think as I got to know more of my Armenian heritage that I was drawn to plays about the human struggle, and particularly the Holocaust,” Basmajian said. “I was always teased by Maia, because my early work as a director was all Holocaust plays and plays on Jewish families.”

Basmajian jumped at the chance to work with Madison on her latest piece, because she realized it was something that was close to Madison’s heart. “It kind of bridges that beautiful gap between drama and comedy. That’s real life — some things are hilarious and some things, you’re on the verge of tears at the same time.”

Producer Laetitia Leon was also eager to work with Madison, and coming from an intermarried family, the piece was particularly poignant for her. “I felt like I wish I’d had this story when I was younger. It’s not that I don’t appreciate religion, I just wasn’t raised with it,” said Leon, whose parents raised her as an atheist. She believes the play will spark dialogue, no matter a person’s background. “If you don’t want to talk about it, I don’t think you were listening,” said Leon, laughing.

“You don’t want to write a play that only has meaning for one section of the population,” Madison said. “All of my gay friends came to me and said, oh my God, this is a coming-out story. I didn’t even realize. Every one of my gay friends had to face going to their parents and knowing that they may turn their backs on them forever.”

Basmajian, for one, is bullish on the piece, and she hopes it will touch audiences of all backgrounds who come to see it at the Open Fist Theatre Company. “We need that other voice out there that watches and listens and says, ‘Oh wait, I agree, I disagree, here’s my opinion, here’s what happened to me.’ ”

“Nobody Likes Jews When They’re Winning” will be playing at the Open Fist Theatre Company through Sept. 8. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit openfist.org.  A scene from the play will also be performed as part of the Temple of the Arts’ (www.templeofthearts.org) Friday night service on Aug. 17.