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Jewish Journal

Theater of the Divine

by Naomi Pfefferman

May 30, 2002 | 8:00 pm

In Dean Fortunato's stage adaptation of Philip Roth's "The Conversion of the Jews," a kid named Ozzie has a vexing question for his rabbi: "If God created the world in six days, why can't He whip up an Immaculate Conception?" The rabbi retorts: "You'll never get bar mitzvahed if I can help it!"

It's vintage Roth, both funny and scathing, but Fortunato doesn't think the controversial author is a self-hating Jew. "His work is about outsiders trying to move in," says the actor-director, whose playlet is one of three about kids and God now playing at the Greenway Court Theater.

"I'm drawn to it, because I've always had an outsider's inferiority complex about Judaism. Since my last name is Fortunato, people always ask, 'Oh, you're Jewish? You mean, half-Jewish?' It shrinks your confidence."

It didn't help that Fortunato, who is Jewish but has an Italian-Catholic grandfather, has parents who were lackadaisical about religion. He had to beg them to send him to Hebrew school -- not because he loved Judaism but because all his friends went. His bar mitzvah in Skokie, Ill. was lavish, but spiritually empty. "Since then, I've been searching for a Jewish identity," says Fortunato, who found one by reading Jewish-American authors such as Roth.

Lately, the 41-year-old director has continued his quest by organizing a "Jewish boot camp" for the "Conversion" cast. He enlisted an Orthodox rabbi to teach the actors how to recite prayers and uses his own bar mitzvah Tanach as a prop. "That makes the piece more personal for me," says Fortunato, who nevertheless believes the play's message is more universal than Jewish.

After Ozzie is smacked for his impertinence, he begs the adults in his life "never to hit anyone because of God." "That resonates with everyone after the tragedy of Sept. 11," Fortunato says. "It hits people on a visceral level."

"Conversion," along with one-acts based on stories by Flannery O'Connor and Judy Blume, runs through June 9 at the Greenway Court Theater, 544 N. Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles, (323) 655-4402.

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