In "Turnaround," the third play in Roger Kumble's sardonic trilogy about Hollywood, Jewish hack Jeff Pelzman gushes over a sure-fire hit movie. Compiled by combining the plots of Oscar-winners, the fictional script opens as the camera pans down through the worried faces of Jewish Poles "until we find Moishe, a 12-year-old mentally challenged boy, skipping through the ghetto."
"A retard in the Holocaust," Pelzman says. "That's f--king brilliant!"
The cringeworthy scene is typical of the hysterically mordant play, starring "Friends" star David Schwimmer as a leech who'd swindle his mom (or trivialize the Holocaust) for a "go" film or a hot babe. Jonathan Silverman, Schwimmer's old pal from Beverly Hills High, plays the equally depraved Jewish producer, Richie Tolchin. Kumble wrote the black comedy for the two actors, who each portrayed Pelzman in the trilogy's first two plays, which have been called a Generation X take on a subject addressed in more mature plays, such as David Rabe's "Hurlyburly."
Although staging the satire at the Coast Playhouse has been a labor of love for the Jewish artists, each feels nervous about the provocative subject matter.
Schwimmer warned underage "Friends" fans to stay away; Silverman begged a Journal reporter, "Don't hate me!" while Kumble said he was "terrified" his motivations could be misconstrued.
At a Larchmont Boulevard cafe recently, the edgy but convivial writer-director ("Cruel Intentions," "The Sweetest Thing") said he conceived the "Moishe" script partly as an homage to Mel Brooks' Holocaust spoof, "Springtime for Hitler," in "The Producers." Another motivation was "noticing that every Holocaust-themed film seemed to get nominated for an Oscar," he said. "But I wanted to comment on people who use the Holocaust as a means to an end, not to skewer my own people." Kumble also wanted to continue skewering a real-life, reformed Hollywood creep: himself.
He said he invented Pelzman -- "definitely an alter-ego of mine" -- for his 1993 comedy-drama "Pay or Play" (starring Silverman) after a friend suggested, "write what you know." To create the character, he thought about the life path that began when he was a Northwestern University movie geek dreading law school in 1988. Then he saw a newspaper photograph of some USC hotshots who were selling spec scripts for big bucks and figured he could, too. The day after graduation, he drove out to Los Angeles, began the Hollywood hustle and, in 1989, moved into a studio apartment next door to Northwestern aquaintance Schwimmer. "I was driven by envy and ambition," he said of his first years in Los Angeles. "It was the 'you-have-it-I-want-it' mentality."
If Kumble brought those qualities to his protagonist in "Pay or Play," he wasn't above a Pelzman-esque maneuver to cast Schwimmer in its 1997 sequel, "d-girl." "It was New Year's Eve at SkyBar, I was drunk and David said he wanted to see the play," he recalled. "So I said, 'F--k you, Schwimmer, you're a huge TV star now, you're not going to read my little one-act.'"
Schwimmer's response: "Jackass, I will, too!"
Five years later, Kumble, 36, wrote "Turnaround" for Schwimmer and Silverman, after undergoing his own personal turnaround. Fearing that his lifestyle would lead to an early death, he said he stopped drinking, smoking cigarettes and compulsively focusing on his career. He got married and started praying daily. He said he identifies more with the spiritually inclined character of Seth (John Di Maggio), who's aiding a drug-addicted screenwriter (Tom Everett Scott), than the sleazeballs Jeff and Richie.
Silverman -- sounding less like a Hollywood shark than the nice Jewish boy he played on TV's "The Single Guy" -- said he was drawn to "Turnaround" because he "craved the opportunity to play such a lecherous character."
"[One impetus] goes back to the days when I was the rabbi's son at Sinai Temple and everyone expected me to behave properly," he said. Acting gave him the chance to behave badly, if only onstage, as well as to meet Schwimmer in drama class his first day at Beverly Hills High. The two bonded because "We were short, gawky drama geeks the girls found cute but not truly datable," Silverman said.
"[Jonny] is a nice Jewish guy and I think we had similar values that we were ... raised with," Schwimmer, who grew up Reform, told TV Guide in 1996.
The two friends were in rehearsals for "The Diary of Anne Frank" their senior year when Neil Simon tapped Silverman to replace Matthew Broderick in "Brighton Beach Memoirs" on Broadway. For the next decade, Silverman worked regularly while Schwimmer struggled -- until "Friends" catapulted him to superstardom in 1994. Yet unlike their "Turnaround" characters, the actors said, jealousy has never been an issue.
More on their minds during recent "Turnaround" rehearsals was: what will our parents think? After all, their characters swear, masturbate, and grope a hooker (Jaime Ray Newman) -- who, in typical Hollywood fashion, also attends Kabbalah class. And then there's that "Moishe" script.
"Opening night was a little uncomfortable," said Silverman, whose character calls Steven Spielberg "Mr. Holocaust." "But our parents understand that this is a morality tale. I mean, these kinds of people actually exist. There are people in this town who would kick their grandmother in the tooth to make a movie. I don't think it comes across as a smear of Jews in Hollywood so much as it does on certain people who have just lost their perspective."
The show runs thru March 2 at the Coast Playhouse, 8325 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood. For tickets and more information, call (866) 468-3399.
Silverman on Screen
February is a schizophrenic month for actor Jonathan Silverman. While he's playing the despicable producer Richie in "Turnaround," he's also portraying an idealistic civil rights attorney in Showtime's "Deacons for Defense," to air Feb. 16.
Silverman got the role when Showtime's Jerry Offsay approached him at Valley Beth Shalom last Yom Kippur and whispered "Call me tomorrow," the actor recalled. The next day, he was on a plane to Toronto to shoot "Deacons," based on the true story of African Americans who chose to take an armed stand in the civil rights movement. While his character, Michael Deane, is a composite of real-life activists, Silverman used a renowned Jewish civil rights attorney as inspiration.
"I read Peter Honigsberg's autobiography, 'Crossing Border Street: A Civil Rights Memoir,' in which he describes why he was willing to risk his life for the movement," Silverman said. "He said his parents escaped the Nazis because American strangers vouched for them and helped them obtain visas. And if strangers helped his family to live in peace and safety, why should he feel any differently?" -- NP