December 15, 2018

Rebel with Another Cause

Think Jean-Claude van Itallie, and you think, “icon of the 1960s.”

He is a legendary figure in the downtown New York theater scene and the author of “American Hurrah,” considered to be a watershed political play of the Vietnam War era.

Of late, the 62-year-old playwright has also become an actor and the author of his first one-man show, “War, Sex & Dreams.” It is the first time van Itallie has specifically written about the Holocaust, though the Shoah permeates much of his work.

You’ll find it in “the violence, the paranoia, the explosive breaking of the fourth wall,” says the artist, who has penned more than 30 plays and translations, including acclaimed versions of Chekhov’s major plays.

In “War, Sex & Dreams,” which opens on Jan. 21 at Highways in Santa Monica, van Itallie recalls how he was awakened in the middle of the night upon the German invasion of Brussels two weeks before his fourth birthday. A coat was hastily thrown over his pajamas, and he was bundled into the family car, which sped off for the coast, with his mother at the wheel.

Meanwhile, van Itallie’s father, who was in the Belgian army, escaped by swimming out to the British ships at Dunkirk. The family reunited in France, then fled from Spain to Portugal to the United States.

As a result of the Holocaust, van Itallie says, his parents craved safety and protection. The family moved to Great Neck, N.Y., “which was something like Disneyland: manicured, clean, careful,” says van Itallie, who attended an Episcopalian Sunday school.

Ultimately, he rebelled against his parents’ fear and paranoia: While they craved respectability, he determined to live beyond the fringe of the mainstream. After graduating from Harvard, he moved to Greenwich Village, where he became an experimental playwright and, eventually, a seminal figure of the American avant-garde. He lived an openly gay lifestyle and practiced Tibetan Buddhism.

Van Itallie began improvising “War, Sex & Dreams” about two years ago, around the time of his father’s death. In a way, he says, the piece is another rebellion, “against the childhood denial of my Jewishness and the horrors of the Holocaust.”

“As a survivor, I am the only one left in my family to tell the tale, and, as such, I have an obligation to tell it,” he says.

“War, Sex & Dreams” runs from Jan. 21 through 30 at Highways, 1651 18th St., Santa Monica. For tickets, call (323) 660-TKTS.