December 8, 2010
Winning, losing, laughing
Sam Bobrick is an anomaly — a happy, cheerful writer. After 30 plays, six books, and innumerable TV skits and songs, Bobrick maintains, “I’m a happy guy, I’m not complicated, I don’t need a therapist.”
Local theatergoers can make him even happier by attending the reading of one of his plays, “New York Water,” on Dec. 12 at the Westside Jewish Community Center, and on Dec. 19 at the JCC on the Milken campus in West Hills.
Like all his other plays, “Water” is a comedy. “There is nothing more satisfying to me than sitting in the audience and hearing people laugh,” Bobrick declares. “I want people to leave the theater feeling good. Life is tough enough. Why send an audience home suicidal? It only cuts into future ticket sales.”
The cast of “Water” consists of Linda, a receptionist, and Albert, a CPA. The two New Yorkers tire of life in the Big Apple and move to Davenport, Iowa, and then on to rustic Los Angeles.
There Linda evolves into a real dynamo and makes it big in the movie business. On the other hand, Albert keeps going down and down.
In a review in the Lewiston, Maine, Sun Journal, the play was praised as “saying something serious about relationships, values and the quality of life.”
Bobrick looks at his work somewhat differently. “This is about what happens to two losers when one becomes a winner,” he said. “Albert is a very confused guy, and I also have always been very confused by women. Between us, they are so much brighter than we are.”
“Water” stars Ross Benjamin and Bridget Flanery and is produced and directed by Alexandra More, who has helmed the Celebrity Staged Play Reading Series for 20 seasons and 150 plays.
Among the actors who have trod her stage are Ed Asner, Cloris Leachman, Doris Roberts, Hal Linden and Theodore Bikel.
Bobrick, a hardworking 78-year-old, was born in Chicago, but overcame that handicap and now lives happily in Encino with his wife and collaborator, Julie Stein, and boasts of three remarkable children and two exceptional grandchildren.
After a highly forgettable four-year stint in the U.S. Air Force in the early 1950s, he studied at the University of Illinois, switching from law to journalism, and then enjoyed a brief career in his uncle’s business, selling bushel baskets to Midwestern farmers.
Tiring of this occupation, he moved into his aunt’s New York apartment and, as in all American success stories, launched his professional career in the mailroom of the ABC network.
“Then I knocked around, writing songs for Ray Bolger and stuff for game shows,” he recalls. “In between, I drew $40 a week in unemployment benefits, and since I paid only $40 a month for rent, life was good.”
Nevertheless, in 1962, he moved to Los Angeles “when it was cheap to live here and the networks were more intimate and smaller.”
He soon moved up and wrote for such classic television shows as “Captain Kangaroo,” “Get Smart,” “The
Andy Griffith Show,” “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour,” “The Kraft Music Hall” and others. Elvis Presley recorded one of his songs, and Bobrick wrote the music for two MAD magazine albums.
His first play, co-authored with Ron Clark, was “Norman, Is That You?” which landed on Broadway in 1970 with such high-powered talent as director George Abbott and actors Lou Jacobi and Maureen Stapleton.
Audiences loved it, but The New York Times reviewer didn’t, so the show closed after two weeks.
“ ‘Norman’ was the first comedy about homosexuality, and at that time the critics felt this was not a subject to make light of, and that, in any case, a play should not just entertain, but also enlighten the people,” Bobrick says.
“They were more enlightened in Europe, and the play ran for five years in Paris, as well as in 25 other international capitals.”
Bobrick had four more plays on Broadway. The critics didn’t approve of them, and “they all flopped,” he recounts without rancor.
Whatever the views of effete Eastern critics, Bobrick has come up with some great play titles, among which our favorite is “Hamlet II (Better Than the Original).”
Though Bobrick is unmistakably Jewish, he insists that he doesn’t write “Jewish” plays.
“I like to think that my plays deal with universal themes, and a comedy like ‘Norman’ has been performed by black actors, Italian actors and [actors] of every other ethnicity,” he said.
Nevertheless, like fellow writer Neil Simon, Bobrick acknowledges that his characters and their dilemmas feel Jewish. An example is “The Outrageous Adventures of Sheldon & Mrs. Levine,” featuring an overbearing mother and a son who runs away from home at age 31.
Speaking of Jewish mothers, nothing annoys Bobrick as much as comics and playwrights who insist on presenting Jewish mothers with Old World accents. “They’re Americans,” he says. “They may still complain, but they don’t have accents.”
Currently, Bobrick is trying something new. In collaboration with his son Joey, he is working on a “risqué” country-western musical.
Bobrick has no intention of slowing down, and with the accumulated wisdom of nearly eight decades, he observes: “The point of life is that it’s never over till it’s over. What I try to say in my plays is that you never stop; you never retire; you never give up.”