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Jewish Journal

Tweaking David Ives ‘Ancient History’

When celebrities need material, they "Get" Bruce Vilanch


by Gene Lichtenstein

September 16, 1999 | 8:00 pm

Dear David Ives:

I attended a preview performance of your play "Ancient History" last Saturday (Sept. 11) at the Fountain Theatre, where a member of the production company announced that the play still needed "tweaking," and so we should feel free to pass along our comments and suggestions. I'm taking her at her word.

I should tell you first that your play seems tailor-made for our 60,000 Jewish readers. An attractive mid-30s man and woman, he a lapsed Catholic and she an upper-middle-class Jewish woman; witty lines and an irreverent sense of humor; in-jokes and knowing toss-away references to films and television (I liked, particularly, their play on the Tracy-Hepburn repartee where each calls the other Pinky); and lots of amusing and playful sex, or at least talk about sex. What is there not to like? You're funny and precocious, even smart, and if you are not Jewish, don't worry, you could probably pass.

In part because the acting was particularly good (Renee Ridgeley as Ruth and John Michael Morgan as Jack), I was carried along from the play's opening -- a couple loving and lusting after one another, seeing themselves as children cut adrift. And as they play out their charade with one another, toasting themselves with the words "no parents, no politics and no plastic," I was just a bit surprised that they were in their mid-30s instead of, say, 21. Nevertheless, I liked them; they had charm.

But as you carried the story forward, I began to shift uncomfortably. The man, Jack, comes more clearly into view. No problem. He has rejected all the shibboleths of conventional society: Catholicism, family, money, manners. But you make clear that though he spends a fair amount of energy ridiculing middle-class pieties, he seems to understand and accept the price of his rejection.

It's with Ruth, the Jewish woman, that you come a cropper. She's obviously less certain turning her back on the conventional life. For one, she wants marriage and children; and for another, she hasn't managed to separate herself yet from her parents. That's fair enough. You as playwright presumably are going to carry me as audience forward to explore -- wittily, of course -- why at 35 she still has not managed this task and what its consequences are for her.

But, no. Instead, you make a sharp right turn. Ruth's conventional side appears. She persuades Jack to marry; since she is intent on having children, she pushes ahead and insists they be raised as Jews. In the process, you manage to convert Ruth into a two-dimensional figure, a Jewish stereotype, and a not-very-interesting one at that, and take us all down the cliché lane known as Jewish life in America. You leave out bagels and lox, Woody Allen and Leonard Bernstein, but not much else. Why?

My complaint is this: If you want me to care about this couple, who may or may not be able to carry their isolated, separate game together much longer, you need to take her seriously -- either as a complex Jewish woman or as someone (perhaps, but not necessarily, Jewish) who still is unable to separate as a child from her family -- which, of course, is the price of becoming a grown-up. So, go back and tweak.

Cordially,

Gene Lichtenstein

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