September 23, 2019

Stages of Faith: Light, Dark, Absurd


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Better Angels” and “Liberation Day”

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

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

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

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

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

“States of Mind”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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