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Jewish Journal

Safdie weighs challenges of making art from ashes

by Iris Mann

April 30, 2014 | 10:47 am

Daniel J. Travanti and Amanda Saunders rehearse a scene from “False Solution” at Santa Monica Playhouse. Photo by Oren Safdie

Daniel J. Travanti and Amanda Saunders rehearse a scene from “False Solution” at Santa Monica Playhouse. Photo by Oren Safdie

"Can you express the Holocaust in the form of original art?” 

That’s one of the questions playwright-director Oren Safdie asks in his work, “False Solution,” about a famous architect who has won a competition to design a Holocaust museum in Poland. The play premiered last summer at La MaMa in New York City and recently opened at the Santa Monica Playhouse.

The action takes place in the studio of internationally celebrated architect Anton Seligman (Golden Globe and Emmy Award winner Daniel J. Travanti). As he enters, Seligman meets blond, beautiful Linda Johansson (Amanda Saunders), his new intern, who turns out to be highly critical of his design for the museum. The two engage in an esoteric, but sexually charged, debate about how the museum should be built. 

According to Safdie, architecture is merely the medium for an exploration of deeper issues. It’s a profession he knows well. His father is the noted architect Moshe Safdie, who designed the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum in Israel (and the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles), and he himself holds an architectural degree from Columbia University. 

Safdie explained that his two characters hold diametrically opposed philosophical views about depicting the Holocaust through architecture. Anton, accustomed to being praised for his style, has designed the museum in a way that’s very similar to all his previous creations.

“He’s taken this deconstructivist kind of architecture,” Safdie remarked. “Let’s say he takes the Star of David and deconstructs it — and really tries to create angst in his building and express the Holocaust, and I think he keeps pouring more on, because he’s so haunted by it, and he feels that he’s not giving enough expression to it.”

But Linda would prefer not to have the museum built at all. “She feels that any kind of expression is almost insulting. For her, it’s degrading,” Safdie said, comparing her attitude to the viewpoint of people who insist that depicting the Holocaust through commercial art forms trivializes the horror and offends the victims. 

Safdie added that Linda knows she doesn’t have the power to stop the project, so she has to bargain with Anton to render the building less offensive and even tries to seduce him into making changes. At one point she suggests putting it all underground in a park. But Anton replies: “Insubstantial — especially from a marketing point of view. I mean, what’s the brochure going to look like? I know, it sounds vulgar, but these are the things I have to deal with.”

Another theme the playwright examines has to do with what it means to be Jewish. This issue is influenced by the experiences of his mother, who told him a story about what happened in her town of Kielce, Poland, after World War II. A young Catholic schoolboy was missing for a time and later was thought to have been kidnapped by Jews, so the townspeople went to an apartment building that was mainly inhabited by Jewish residents.

“And they shot all the Jews in this apartment building, while the police just sort of looked on. Later, when the factories let out from work, the factory workers just marched in with bats and clubs, looked for anyone Jewish and started swiping at them,” Safdie said. 

That event propelled his mother’s family to immigrate to Israel. Both of Safdie’s parents were raised there, but only met after they had moved to Canada. Safdie grew up in Montreal and now lives in Malibu but spends a lot of time in Israel. He said his parents were quite secular, having come out of the socialist period during Israel’s early years, so most of his exposure to religious practice came through his paternal grandfather. 

The playwright is now married to a Korean woman who converted to Judaism, and they are raising their 6-year-old daughter in the tradition. 

“I think it just adds roots that she knows she’s Jewish,” Safdie said. “I mean, she’ll always be half-Korean, but she knows she’s Jewish, and she’s proud of it. She knows the Bible stories, and I take a lot of joy in educating her that way and knowing that she identifies herself as Jewish.”

The Jewish identity of the characters in Safdie’s play is viewed differently by each of them. Anton, who had a Jewish father, isn’t even circumcised, and Safdie calls the architect’s relationship to his heritage “adjustable Judaism.” 

“I think he takes his Judaism as something that gives him carte blanche to a certain world. It’s almost something that he likes to wear, because it provides an opening into the Jewish community for professional reasons, which help him. And he’s probably identified himself as Jewish as a way of finding inroads in that profession. But he doesn’t take his Judaism that seriously.” 

However, Linda’s sense of being Jewish, through her mother, is primarily defined by the Holocaust. “That’s become her identity,” Safdie said, “and part of it is based in her own upbringing, in being blond and Aryan-looking and not really looking like she’s Jewish, which connects back to her mother’s past, where her mother survived the war because she didn’t look Jewish. And her mother’s sister, who did look Jewish, did not survive.”

He continued: “And this task before her, to change the museum, almost becomes a calling. She has to do this for Judaism’s sake in some way. So she’s very driven and feels like this is something she has to do that will almost prove her identity, her Jewish identity.” 

As the balance of power ebbs and flows between his characters and secrets are revealed, Safdie doesn’t take sides or try to tell his audiences how to feel. 

“I leave that open to them,” he said. “And that’s the most important thing for me, for a playwright not to let his point of view seep into the play, and [for him] to let his characters really take them on a ride.”

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