Bruce Jay Friedman’s darkly comic play “Steambath” posits a provocative scenario in which a motley crew of recently departed souls discover that the afterlife is a steam room and God is a Puerto Rican attendant named Morty.
When it opened off-Broadway in 1970, its profanity, brief nudity and what some perceived as blasphemy, courted controversy and it closed after 128 performances. A film version made for PBS in 1973, starring Bill Bixby, Kenneth Mars and Valerie Perrine, proved so controversial that only 24 stations aired it. Five somewhat enlightened decades later, the play is controversial for different reasons: Its dialogue is decidedly misogynistic and full of ethnic, religious and gay slurs.
Odyssey Theatre artistic director Ron Sossi considered shifting the time frame and updating old references for its new production, but in a modern context, “the politically incorrect stuff is worse,” he told the Journal after a rehearsal. Those plans were dropped, and the 1970s milieu and context remain intact.
“It’s a funny play, and naughty,” Sossi said. “Even the politically incorrect stuff is fun to do. I think you should press people’s buttons every once in a while. But who knows what the reaction is going to be? I think it will be a lot of pro and a lot of against, not a lot of middle ground.”
Button-pushing elements aside, the director believes that the play’s central theme remains relevant. “We have all this stuff we want to do and think we have enough time to do [it]. We don’t acknowledge death. Maybe if we eat enough health food and do enough exercise we’ll never die. We’re all living our lives thinking there’s always tomorrow.”
“Even the politically incorrect stuff is fun to do. I think you should press people’s buttons every once in a while.” — Ron Sossi
Sossi also thinks that the play will have particular resonance with Jewish audiences. Friedman “is a very Jewish writer. [The play] has a lot of Woody Allen in it, Neil Simon, Murray Schisgal,” he said. “The kind of humor in it will be very recognizable.”
Gabriel Grunfield, an Israeli-born film and television writer-producer on the Odyssey Theatre board of directors, describes “Steambath” as “a Jewish play about keeping the faith despite all odds. There are so many things in the Old Testament that have to be taken on faith,” he said. “If we choose faith over logic, our world improves and that’s what this play is about. I believe [Friedman] would have made God Jewish, but that would have been too on the nose.”
In this production, comedian Paul Rodriguez plays God, who relishes devising creative ways to kill off Earth’s mortals. Jeff LeBeau plays Tandy, the victim of presumably tainted Chinese food. He was drawn to the themes of “examining your life, why you’re alive, how we kid ourselves,” he said, as well as the idea of “embracing every moment and celebrating it, because you don’t know how much time you’re going to have.”
Playing Tandy, who goes through the various stages of grief — denial, anger, bargaining with God — before accepting his fate, has made LeBeau examine his own existence.
“It’s moved me more toward religion, toward God. It’s actually made me want to go to synagogue,” said the actor, whose family name was Lubovitch before his grandfather changed it. Jewish on his father’s side, he grew up in Los Angeles around his paternal relatives, and although he was brought up celebrating Hanukkah and Christmas, “I really feel an affinity for the Jewish side,” he said. “I identify with the sensibility.”
A self-described “nerd, outcast, misfit,” he gained confidence — and the attention of girls — after he discovered the theater. When he landed the role of Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof” at his “very Jewish” high school, there were some who raised an eyebrow at his casting, he said. Today, there’s genetic proof of his heritage. “Since I did 23andMe, I can prove I’m 48.5 percent Ashkenazi Jew,” he said.
Robert Lesser (“Die Hard,” “Hester Street”), plays Bieberman, a bellyaching type with questionable hygiene habits. “He reminds me of a social studies teacher I had in junior high school, or my father when he spit out the car window,” he said. Lesser believes that other Jews will be able to relate to the play and its characters. “There are no people on Earth that question things more persistently and deeply than we Jews, no matter where we are on the religious spectrum,” he said.
Lesser has been acting since childhood, in camp and school plays. Growing up on New York City’s Upper West Side, descended from Russian and Polish immigrants and “surrounded by secular Jews,” he feels a strong Jewish connection and takes pride “in Jewish culture, humor, art and the intellectual tradition that we have,” he said.
He recalls seeing the original production of “Steambath” with Hector Elizondo as God and Anthony Perkins playing Tandy and directing. “I always felt that it was a masterpiece of that era,” he said. “It’s profound and authentic, [posing] an existential dilemma and an eternal question that we all have to sort out.”
Grunfield hopes that the audience comes away from the theater laughing, but is also motivated “to re-examine their own sense of faith. These are terrible times, politically and otherwise,” he said. “We have to have faith that God will save us at the end of the day.”
“Steambath” runs at the Odyssey Theatre through Dec. 16. Visit OdysseyTheatre.com for more information.