Jewish Journal


November 15, 2007

Theater: Davidson’s retirement leads to ‘Lessons’


Gordon Davidson is back where he belongs, in the director's chair.

The man whose name is practically synonymous with Los Angeles theater, who raised the city's reputation from a provincial backwater to the breeding ground for innovative and controversial plays, retired in the summer of 2005 as founding artistic director of the Center Theatre Group.

Now he has resumed his craft, not at the Mark Taper Forum, the site of many of his triumphs and some failures for 38 seasons, but at the more modest venue of the Strasberg Creative Center's Marilyn Monroe Theatre in West Hollywood.

Davidson has taken an hour off from the final rehearsal of Wendy Graf's "Lessons" and, sitting in a hastily borrowed office offstage, he appears physically little changed from our last interview seven years ago.

At 73, he remains lean and distinctive, and his signature prominent black eyebrows continue to set off his enviable shock of white hair. Davidson seems weary as our conversation begins, but he becomes more animated as he talks about his new play, the joys and sorrows of retirement, and his ongoing exploration of what it means to be an American Jew in the 21st century.

"Lessons" is a two-character play about Ben, a man in his 70s, played by Hal Linden, and a 40-something rabbi, Ruth, portrayed by Larissa Laskin.

"Ben remembers his Orthodox grandfather, how as a boy he was drawn to and also repelled by his constant davening," Davidson explains.

"Ben's father returns from World War II, suffering from post-traumatic stress, and rejects all religion. Ben's mother is mainly interested in being an American; she's a 'watered-down Jew,' who has both a Christmas tree and a menorah," he continues.

Ben enjoys dancing and baseball, has no connection to Jewish life, but one day someone convinces him to take a trip to Israel and suggests the name of a teacher for some basic Hebrew lessons.

The teacher is Ruth, a rabbi, who has lost her calling and her faith after her daughter, in Israel to celebrate her bat mitzvah, is killed in a terrorist attack.

Ruth now makes a living teaching Hebrew, but her new elderly pupil soon grows bored with the lessons. One day, Ben announces that he wants to have the bar mitzvah he missed as a boy and asks Ruth to prepare him for the rite of passage.

"It's a provocative play," Davidson says. "It's about the nature of faith and the mystery of religion, the mystery of God and Torah. The play doesn't preach; it has no easy answers."

Davidson says that he has discovered some parallels to his own heritage in the play.

"I guess we're the prototype of the American Jewish family," he reminisces. "My paternal grandfather, born in a small town near Kiev, was Orthodox, my father was Conservative, and I'm Reform."

He remembers vividly as a Brooklyn-born youngster visiting his grandfather in Hartford, Conn. One of young Gordon's tasks was to tear a roll of toilet paper into individual tissues, so that the old man wouldn't have to desecrate Shabbat by performing menial chores.

There is another family angle to how Davidson came to direct "Lessons." His son Adam, who won an Oscar with his first short film ("The Lunch Date," in 1989), had directed an earlier version of the play in 2005 for the West Coast Jewish Theatre, which is co-presenting the current production.

Two years later, the Jewish Theatre and The Group at Strasberg suggested a revival with the same director, but the younger Davidson was tied up with a television series and sent the script to his father for consideration.

The elder Davidson was fascinated by the play's concept, but both he and playwright Graf felt that the drama needed major surgery, particularly in the character of Ben.

"The result is that we now have an entirely new play," Graf says.

How does a famous father feel about coming off the bench to pinch-hit for his son?

"I was very proud that he asked me to take over," the father replies.

When Gordon Davidson retired after 38 years and 300 productions at the Taper, later adding the Ahmanson and Kirk Douglas theaters, he was hailed as much for his personal characteristics as his professional achievements.

"Gordon is just a huge mensch," playwright Tony Kushner said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. "He's what the word means. And he's haimish."

Kushner's "Angels in America" was one of the most celebrated works nourished by Davidson at the Taper, but it was only one in a long list of distinguished plays he produced or directed in Los Angeles, as well as on Broadway.

Among them are "The Kentucky Cycle" which, with "Angels in America," won back-to-back Pulitzer prizes for drama; "In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer," "The Trial of the Catonsville Nine," "Zoot Suit," "Children of a Lesser God," "I Ought to Be in Pictures" and "QED."

He also met with less rapturous receptions -- well, he bombed -- with two Shakespearean plays, as director of "Hamlet" and producer of "Julius Caesar."

Davidson sees himself as an integrated human being, who does not like to compartmentalize himself as a Jew, an American or an artist.

But given his own heritage, the prominence of Jewish playwrights and his large Jewish core audience, inevitably a considerable number of his productions touched on Jewish themes.

Among them were "The Deputy," his first play at the UCLA Theatre Group, the Taper's forerunner; as well as Taper productions, "The Dybbuk," "I Ought to Be in Pictures," "Number Our Days," "Tales From Hollywood," "The American Clock," "Green Card," "The Immigrant" and "Ghetto."

Davidson's own Jewish connection has been strongly reinforced by his wife, Judy, who was raised in an observant and Zionist family and who heads her own arts-oriented public relations company.

The couple lives in Santa Monica, in a house once owned by émigré screenwriter Salka Viertel and the one-time social center for such illustrious exiles as Thomas and Heinrich Mann, Bertolt Brecht, Lion Feuchtwanger, Arnold Schoenberg, Bruno Walter, Franz Werfel and others. "There are a lot of prominent ghosts there," Davidson says.

Another anchor has been his longtime affiliation with Leo Baeck Temple, a Reform congregation in West Los Angeles.

"I was drawn to Leo Baeck by its rabbis, Leonard Beerman and Sandy Ragins, and their concern for social justice, an emphasis now continued by Rabbi Ken Chasen," Davidson says.

He sees a parallel between the missions of the rabbi and the artistic director.

"In some ways, both deliver sermons. Sometimes a rabbi has to ask disturbing questions, which his audience may not want to hear. The artist has the same function."

How does a man who was at the center of the city's artistic and cultural life for nearly four decades deal with retirement?

"I like to think of it not as retirement, but as moving on," Davidson starts out.

That said, "I initially thought it would be a smoother transition," he adds. "I am generally satisfied with my body of work, but letting go took some doing on a personal level.

"I am happy not to have to raise money and deal with all that administrative paper work, but I miss the theater community I worked with; we were like family."

Davidson no longer attends opening nights.

"People would come up to me and say, 'We miss you,' and 'What do you think of the play?' I felt it was a distraction for the current artists."

He now has a small office in Culver City, with a kitchen, living room and one assistant. He is organizing his voluminous files, spanning the years from 1967 to 2005, covering not only his professional work but also some of the historic and political events of the era.

When organized, the material will go to a library, but he had not yet decided which one.

There are other projects, unfinished or not yet started.

"I want to write a memoir and deal with the growth of the public theater in this country," Davidson says. "I am trying to write a play about Los Angeles, but I can't get my arms around it."

He was slated to direct an opera in China, but the project fell through. He conducts occasional seminars at UCLA and other universities, and he has staged a benefit revival of the anti-Vietnam war play "The Trial of the Catonsville Nine."

"Live plays are not like movies; they are written in sand," he muses. "That's why you need revivals; that's why you need to keep telling the story. There's always a new generation, with new ways of looking at things."

There's a new generation in his daughter Rachel's family, his 6-year-old granddaughter Arielle, opening a new chapter in the Davidsons' personal story.

Gordon Davidson is still working to define his identity as a Jew. He and Judy were deeply moved when they visited a school in St. Petersburg, where Jewish kids with no background in their heritage were learning the rudiments of celebrating Shabbat.

"What defines a Jew?" he asks rhetorically. "I am still trying to absorb the mystery."

"Lessons" continues through Dec. 23, Thursdays-Sundays (no performances the week of Dec. 10) at the Strasberg Creative Center's Marilyn Monroe Theatre, 7936 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood. For ticket information, phone (323) 650-7777 or visit www.westcoastjewishtheatre.org.

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