The two voices began screaming inside Murray Mednick's head the minute he sat down to write a play some years ago. The characters were arguing viciously about money.
They sounded alarmingly familiar.
"I recognized my parents," said Mednick, founder of the Padua Hills Playwrights Workshop/Festival, one of the most important theater labs in the nation. "The dialogue just poured out of me at breakneck speed. The play came out whole."
"Joe and Betty," one of three Jewish-themed Mednick plays in Padua's 2001 season, is his most autobiographical work to date. The searing piece is set in his childhood home in a Catskills hamlet in 1951, the year his beloved grandmother died. But it doesn't offer the usual idyllic view of the mountain resort area frequented by New York Jews during the last century.
Like Mednick's parents, also named Joe and Betty, the protagonists live in a freezing, filthy hovel across the street from an Orthodox synagogue. Their six children, who are discussed but never appear onstage, are lice-ridden and malnourished. The siblings hide in closets and under beds to escape from Betty, who is mentally ill and physically violent. The sullen eldest child, Emile, Mednick's alter ego, is so traumatized by his bubbie's death that he rarely speaks.
As Betty whines about her life ("God hates me"), Joe calls her the "Monster From the Deep." It's a metaphor for the Jewish psychic angst caused by centuries of anti-Semitism, Mednick suggests.
"There was a desperate, destructive anxiety and hysteria that had been handed down, the cumulative result of generations of impoverishment and persecution ... that took its extreme form in my parents," the intense, soft-spoken author said during an interview in his Santa Monica home.
In real life, Mednick, now 61, was so hungry that he stole money to buy food. At the age of 14, he went to work in a run-down hotel frequented by Holocaust refugees who were also obsessed with food. "They ate grimly, as if only to survive," Mednick recalled.
At home, he turned to books "primarily as an escape from the noise and the chaos"; he read Tolstoy and Hemingway in the wee hours, the only time the house was silent. His sympathetic teachers allowed him to sleep in and to miss school in the mornings. During his senior year, they collected several hundred dollars to help him attend Brooklyn College. By then, Mednick was writing short stories. "My writing saved me," he said. "From my Judaism, I inherited a reverence for the idea of text."
Eventually, he joined a circle of Lower East Side poets, discovered the theater and won an Obie and a Guggenheim Fellowship for his cutting-edge work. In 1978, he created the Padua festival, now called Padua Playwrights Productions, which, he says, is dedicated to noncommercial drama in a country where "theater is drowned out by film and TV."
Best-known for his Native American-tinged "The Coyote Cycle," Mednick, a member of Ohr HaTorah Congregation, says he didn't feel confident enough to explore his Jewish roots in a play until recent years. "I was so damaged by my childhood that it was a frightening thing to revisit," he said.
After a six-year hiatus, Padua reopened this season with Mednick's "16 Routines," drawing on the stand-up rhythms the author heard while working as a busboy in the Catskills.
"Mrs. Feuerstein," which debuts July 6, was inspired by a photograph of a glamorous German couple Mednick saw in the nonfiction book "Hitler's Willing Executioners" several years ago. Max Wohl was a member of an SS execution squad stationed in Poland; while sipping champagne and eating finger sandwiches, his wife, Freida, watched him butcher 50 Jewish men in a town square later hosed down to remove the blood. "It made me want to examine the notion of revenge," Mednick said. "I set out to explore, 'Who do you take revenge on, especially now? Who do you kill?'"
In the play, a Holocaust refugee named Mrs. Feuerstein squares off with this German couple. In Mrs. Feuerstein's fantasy life, she and Freida begin a torrid lesbian affair. "It's an allegory of the eros of revenge and expatriation," Mednick explained. "Freida longs for expiation, and Mrs. Feuerstein longs for revenge. When the two meet, it's like an erotic thing. They are drawn to one another."
"Joe and Betty" runs through June 23 at 2100 Square Feet, 5615 San Vicente Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 692-2652.