January 23, 2019

West Coast Jewish Theatre takes the stage

Last year, Howard Teichman, the artistic director of the West Coast Jewish Theatre (WCJT), stood before the audience applauding the final performance of “The Whipping Man” and sorrowfully announced there would be no future plays — there simply was no more money in the kitty.

This week, a more cheerful Teichman retracted the obituary and announced a lineup of three plays for the 2015-2016 season.

“Happily, five donors stepped forward, donated money and enlisted new subscribers,” Teichman told the Journal. “We also received a small grant from the Ahmanson Foundation.”

These efforts yielded some $60,000, hardly enough to buy peanuts and martini olives for a Hollywood wrap party, but enough for WCJT to rise and tread the boards another year.

To celebrate the near-miraculous recovery, the theater’s first production of the new season is the American premiere of “O My God” by the late Israeli playwright Anat Gov, opening April 18 at the Pico Playhouse .

Popular Israeli-American actor Mike Burstyn, in the title role, describes the play as dealing with “some of the most profound questions and emotions facing human beings, but in the format of a divine comedy.”

The play opens in the office of Ella (Maria Spassoff), a Tel Aviv child psychologist facing numerous challenges, including raising a teenage autistic son (Joseph Rishik), who also is a musical prodigy.

One day, she gets a call from a new patient who insists on an immediate appointment. The patient turns out to be God, who knows everything about Ella’s life and problems but otherwise shares the frailties and fallibilities of ordinary humans.

“The play poses the question of what you would do or say if given the chance to meet God,” Burstyn said. “Would you, like the psychologist, ask him where he was during all the catastrophes that have befallen the Jewish people?”

For a change of pace, the season’s second production is the romantic comedy “Romance.com” by veteran stage and screenwriter Hindi Brooks, who died in 2011 at age 85.

The play revolves around an elderly man and woman, who meet via cyber chat rooms, each trying to attract the other by inventing youthful and attractive alter egos.

When they finally decide to meet face-to-face on a date, each has to find a substitute to represent the images they have concocted.

“Fugu,” the season’s final play, is another switch in theme and style and is one Teichman, in collaboration with Steven Simon, has been researching and writing for some 20 years.

Fugu is a Japanese delicacy derived from blowfish, but it also was the code name for a historical episode in which some Japanese politicians hoped to prevent a confrontation with the United States in the months and years before the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Convinced that President Franklin D. Roosevelt was Jewish, the planners persuaded the Japanese government to grant asylum in the city of Kobe to some 6,000 Jewish refugees from Nazi persecution, hoping that in return FDR would lift the embargo on oil shipments to Japan and assume a mellower attitude in general toward the Empire of the Rising Sun.

To launch the plan, the head of Kobe’s Jewish community was dispatched to the United States to contact influential Jews in Hollywood and on Wall Street, and to meet with Rabbi Stephen Wise, at the time the head of the World Jewish Congress.

The date set for the meeting was Dec. 7, 1941, and while Wise and the envoy were talking about peace, the radio blasted out the announcement that the Imperial Fleet and Air Force were bombing Pearl Harbor.

As for the future of WCJT, which was founded in 1993 by Naomi Karz Jacobs to present readings of Jewish-themed plays, Teichman is “cautiously optimistic.”

He points with some envy to Jewish theaters in such cities as St. Louis, Minneapolis and Seattle, where small but dedicated Jewish communities and their federations support these theaters to “keep Yiddishkeit going,” Teichman said.

“O My God” will run April 18 to June 7, and “Romance.com” Oct. 3 to Nov. 22. “Fugu” is scheduled for 2016, with dates to be announced.

For tickets and more information, visit this story at jewishjournal.com.