There's a serious note to Oren Safdie's musical comedy, "Jews & Jesus" -- his own life. Safdie, 38, drew on his interfaith dating experiences to write the play about two religiously mixed couples trying to walk the fine line between tradition and emotion, love and guilt. Debra (Iris Bahr), the child of a mixed marriage, travels to Israel, where she meets an American rabbinical student (Griffin Shaw) struggling against the temptation of premarital sex.
Steven (Adam Fleck), a secular Jew on the prowl, and Luscious (Gretel Roenfeldt), who is Catholic and looking for commitment, meet on a bus bound for a Catskills singles weekend -- and also wind up in Israel. Now at the Malibu Stage Company, the show poses musical questions such as "Seder plates and Christmas trees/The messiah, would he eat a ham and cheese?"
The irreverent piece "is a reminder that terrific original work ... often comes from a strong point of view and a willingness to take chances," The New York Times wrote in 1998.
Safdie, who is married to a Korean-born non-Jew, said the play grew out of a long-term relationship he had with a Catholic woman.
"Though I had been brought up quite secular, as our relationship developed, I realized there were things [about my Jewishness] that were important to me," he said. "If not from my parents, from my grandparents, [I got] the feeling of guilt, that interfaith relationships are causing the death of [our] religion. From my mother, who survived the [Nazis] in hiding, I got the sense of how fragile the religion is."
Safdie uses dark comedy to explore his mixed feelings about mixed marriage in "Jews & Jesus." One hilarious scene in which the fictional Steven attends a funeral at a church replicates an incident Safdie and his then-girlfriend went through when he attended a Catholic wedding -- but couldn't bring himself to kneel.
"What's the matter," Steven says when everyone stares. "You've never seen a Jew before?"
Safdie, like his characters, has had his share of identity crises. While his parents are Israeli (his father is the famed architect Moshe Safdie, who designed the Skirball Cultural Center), he was born in Montreal and now lives in Los Angeles.
While he originally intended to follow in his father's professional footsteps, show business unexpectedly beckoned. Back in 1990, Oren Safdie was working on his architecture master's degree at Columbia University when he chanced to take an elective playwriting class. His first one-act won a school prize, prompting him to switch career paths.
"My father had always warned me to stay away from architecture because it's a tough profession, so I chose something even tougher," the amiable author said, wryly. "But because I had never been a particularly literate person, everyone was quite shocked when I suddenly said I wanted to be a writer. It took a long time for anyone to take me seriously."
Everyone took Safdie seriously after he wrote "Jews & Jesus," with music and lyrics by his Columbia classmate, Ronnie Cohen. The play received rave reviews upon opening at Manhattan's La MaMa Experimental Theater in 1998 (the Village Voice called it a "witty musical comedy ... about love among the ruins of organized religious beliefs").
Safdie went on to write a 1999 film, "You Can Thank Me Later," starring Ellen Burstyn, which also touched on issues of Jewish identity and continuity. The movie revolves around a Montreal Jewish family that is so eager to assimilate, the father makes it a point to go to a Catholic hospital when he needs surgery.
Safdie's most recent play, "Private Jokes, Public Places," is based on his days in architecture school and will open off-Broadway in October. He took the title from a controversial Atlantic Monthly article his father wrote a decade ago on his profession.
Since he married Myung-Jin Kang, an actress and playwright, in 2000, his life has continued to provide fodder for fiction.
"I still struggle with the questions I explored in 'Jews & Jesus,'" he said. "But now that I'm married, the interfaith issues are more about 'Does she convert when we have kids, and if so, which denominations will recognize that they are Jewish?' It's a whole, complicated mishmash."
Which means he may have to write a new play.
"Jews & Jesus" runs Fridays and Saturdays, 8 p.m., through Sept. 14 at the Malibu Stage Company, 29243 Pacific Coast Highway. $20. For tickets and reservations, call (310) 589-1998.
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