Michael Schlitt sees a definite connection between his type of Jewishness and his reasons for directing a Neil Simon play in India. Being drawn to India and all things Eastern is Jewish, he says. And so is asking a million questions about everything.
"Basically, my work is very Jewish, even if it's not about something Jewish," declares the 44-year-old actor, writer, director and founding member of the Actors' Gang theater company, now based in Culver City. "I've always been a searcher, the wheels in my head always spinning. A rabbi once told me that's as Jewish as it gets."
Schlitt spent the past five years transforming a midlife crisis, a professionally disastrous trip to India, and his burning and failed ambition to make a movie about that disaster into a one-man show called, "Mike's Incredible Indian Adventure." A play about a film about a play, Schiltt's work premieres Friday at EdgeFest, the annual Los Angeles festival dedicated to new and experimental theater. His play's script reads like a page of Talmud, with the central event of the India adventure framed by commentary about the trip itself, the filming of the trip and the questions that inevitably arise from the failure "to create a masterpiece."
"If someone told me to see some one-man show about a guy's attempt to make a movie about his trip to India, I'd probably say 'No thanks,'" says Schlitt over coffee at a Culver City Starbucks. "But on the other hand, there's a real hook to the show. Neil Simon in India is bound to pique curiosity."
Directed by Nancy Keystone, who's also married to Schlitt, the play, at its core, addresses the painful realization that certain youthful dreams will never materialize, "that moment you understand you're never going to make 'Citizen Kane,'" Schlitt says. "Rarely is the journey what you think it's going to be."
In 1999, a producer of questionable repute invited Schlitt to direct a production in India of Simon's "They're Playing Our Song." In the throes of a midlife crisis, Schlitt, who detests this play, ignored his intuition and accepted the offer to put together a production ASAP and tour it in three Indian cities. His rationale: He'd make a movie about whatever happened because that's been his dream, even though he despises the movie business.
"All my life there had been this strange tension between working in the theater and working in film. I mean I live in Los Angeles, the film capital of the world," he writes in the script.
"The whole prospect was so shady," Schlitt recalls. "I thought I would just bring the cameras and I would have this great film, some kind of cross between 'Waiting for Guffman' and 'Salaam Bombay.' Instead, I wound up butting my head against the wall for years."
Unable to complete his film, Schlitt finally listened to the advice of a filmmaker friend and returned to the theater.
"You could say it was the path of least resistance, but it's where I needed to be," he says. "I know the theater and that feels great."
"What I love about Mike's play is that it's blazingly honest," says Keystone, whose directing credits led her to be named as one of 2005's "Faces to Watch" in the L.A. Times. "He exposes everything, including some unpleasant aspects of himself, and I have a lot of admiration for him."
Describing himself as "a laid-back neurotic," which he attributes to growing up first in New York and later in Berkeley, Schlitt says his Jewish education ended after nursery school and until recently, "never thought of myself as Jewish." Raised by his mother, who once aspired to be an actress, Schlitt also credits his father, who wrote for the 1960s TV show, "The Monkees," as a considerable artistic influence.
"He was the kind of Jewish father who got me reading Kierkegaard at age 4," he says.
As a theater major at UCLA, Schlitt met the future famous actor Tim Robbins. And they and other fellow students formed the Actors' Gang in 1981, a company that rose to prominence in the L.A. theater scene for its often provocative, avant-garde productions.
"We were this group of guys who all hung out together," he says of the Gang's origins. "There was a lot of testosterone but we all had this great passion for the theater."
Standing in as leader of the Gang when Robbins left for a life in New York with actress Susan Sarandon, Schlitt worked on some 40 productions. This included directing the American premiere of George Tabori's "Mein Kampf," an adaptation of Gogol's "The Inspector General" and performing his critically acclaimed solo show, "Drive, He Said." In 2000, Schlitt essentially parted from the Gang, a move he'd rather not discuss in great detail. It did, however, have something to do with the midlife crisis that led to his current show. "For 16 years, I was the company's resident Solomon," he says. "It was time to step away."
Though Schlitt says he hasn't completely given up on finally making his movie, the play he wound up with instead "has definitely gotten the monkey off my back. I have fed myself artistically," he says. "And if it's between the artistic or the commercial path, I know which one I'd choose."
"Mike's Incredible Indian Adventure" runs Oct. 7-23, 9:15 p.m. at the Los Angeles Theatre Center, 514 S. Spring St., Los Angeles. Tickets are $15 or $8 with EdgeFest Passport. For more information, call (866) 811-4111 or visit www.edgeoftheworld.org.