February 26, 2020

Play Reading’s the Thing for Director

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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