In Hollywood, the logline for this story would be: A playwright who has outwitted his demons to find balance in his life, has, after a devastating TV experience, returned to the stage with a play whose plot twist is as transformative to its actors, and to the audience’s assumptions about the characters, as writing it was for the playwright. The play is a success off-Broadway and then a bigger success on Broadway. And then, as validation and final vindication, he brings it to Los Angeles.
For Academy Award-winning actor Tim Robbins, who founded Actors’ Gang and serves as its artistic director, presenting plays that are relevant to our time is paramount for the company. To that end, the Culver City-based theater’s current offering is the U.S. premiere of “Oy,” a tale set in 1995 of two German-Jewish sisters, Selma (Mary Eileen O’Donnell), age 89, and Jenny (Jeanette Horn), age 86, who have accepted an invitation to visit Osnabrück, the town in Hanover, Germany, where they were raised and which they left as Hitler was consolidating his power. Because the sisters are among the dwindling number of survivors with recollections of the Nazi era, the town’s mayor has invited them to come to bear witness to that history for the younger generation.
"Everything I write is a question of identity," Jonathan Tolins says over tea after a yoga class in Sherman Oaks. "What choices do you have? What roles do you take on?"
And so, my two favorite playwrights find themselves on opposite sides of a longstanding Jewish divide. "All sound creative art is rooted in a ghetto," the critic Ludwig Lewisohn once wrote. Once out of that ghetto, the roots bifurcate, and we Jews have fashioned two strategies for survival. For the Mamets, salvation lies in toughness and certainty, the People of the Butch. For Kushner, our promise is in compromise and doubt.
A new bookshelf, overflowing with volumes, testifies to Gady Levy's latest and perhaps most ambitious endeavor: the Celebration of Jewish Books, which begins on Monday and extends through an all-day festival on Sunday. The celebration will offer lectures and signings with 40 authors -- including big names, such as Larry King, Michael Chabon, Kirk Douglas and Daniel Handler (Lemony Snicket) -- plus music and dance performances, food and a thousand titles for sale, provided by Borders and the Hebrew-language bookseller Steimatzky.
Mickey Birnbaum recently spent a year as an Inge Fellow in Independence, Kan., boyhood home of the late playwright William Inge, best known for his 1950s plays, "Picnic" and "Bus Stop." Birnbaum's "Big Death & Little Death," now being staged at the Road Theater Company in North Hollywood, does evoke playwrights of the past, but it is Thornton Wilder, not Inge, whose work has influenced Birnbaum.
William Finn, composer, lyricist and creator of the hit musical, "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee," says his own surname is the result of a misspelling. "When my great-uncle came from Russia, he kept saying he was looking for someone named Fein, so the genius at Ellis Island gave him the name Finn," he breezily explains from his Manhattan apartment.
As Laguna Playhouse Executive Director Richard Stein walked down Dizengoff Street in Tel Aviv during a trip to Israel last December, he was struck by a Bauhaus-style building famously used in the city decades ago.
Before David Rouda became a stage director and writer, he was an internationally ranked rower who placed 17th in the 1999 World Rowing Championships. Rouda, who started training as a sculler at 13, won six Gold Medals at the Maccabee Games and just missed qualifying for the 2000 Olympics.
During one of many cringe-worthy moments in Neil LaBute's play, "Fat Pig," a cad chastises a co-worker for dating a plus-sized woman named Helen.
"I was brought up Jewish, but I'm not religious in the least now, and I'm sort of the typical secular Jew," Hirsch said. Current world events, "coupled with getting older, being in my 50s," have forced him to re-examine his own spiritual values. "This character in the play is doing that, as well as I'm doing it now."
When asked whether he is Jewish, Mark Troy responds, "You will be needing proof of that?"
Sherwood Schwartz is not one to complain. Which isn't to say he has nothing to complain about.
David Mamet has written a book, "The Wicked Son: Anti-Semitism, Self-Hatred and the Jews" (Shocken/Nextbook), that is by turns bold, courageous, and outrageous -- it is a book that calls Diaspora Jews to the table and asks: "In or Out?"
Sitting in her living room and poring through an enormous photo album, Alexandra More acts like the proud parent of successful offspring.
At the height of the intifada, in 2002, more than 600 Israeli pilots and soldiers, many in elite units, refused to serve in what they considered the occupied Palestinian territories.
These were not pacifists or conscientious objectors to war in any form. Many had fought in Israel's past wars for survival, but they refused to bear arms in what they saw as an oppressive campaign.
Playwright Wendy Wasserstein, known for wry portrayals of strong, conflicted, contemporary women in prizewinning works such as "The Heidi Chronicles," died this week in New York.
While not always overtly Jewish, her characters still bore the mark of the playwright's traditional Jewish upbringing in New York.
Later in her life, the feminist writer became a Jewish mother, although perhaps not in the way her own Jewish mother pictured.
Some years ago, playwright-performer Eve Ensler became mortified by her not-so-flat, post-40s belly. She starved herself, hired a trainer and watched late-night Ab-Roller infomercials. She compulsively worked the treadmill and even fantasized about contracting a parasite.
The intelligent design vs. Darwinism debate presumes that one or the other theory provides the answer to life and all its mysteries. Playwright Seth Greenland explores the falsity of this dichotomy in "Jerusalem," his play opening Friday at the NoHo Arts Center. Greenland's five principal characters -- a Jewish psychiatrist, his Protestant wife and his in-laws -- have varying degrees of religious faith, as well as varying degrees of conviction about psychoanalysis. In the end, Greenland seems to say, the wise man understands the merits of both religion and science. Even the wise man, though, knows the limits of his knowledge.
In New York, parents tell horror stories about the pressure to get their 5-year-old kids into the right kindergartens, the kind attended by Woody Allen's kids. In Los Angeles, the social cachet may be even more skewed.
"So and so from the Lakers' kid goes to some school," says playwright David Levinson, whose play, "Early Decision," at the Edgemar Center for the Arts in Santa Monica, has tapped into the Zeitgeist about the mania surrounding college admissions.
Provocative, ambiguous, biting, subtle, Harold Pinter, who has just been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, is one of the major playwrights of the English language and the author of 29 plays and two dozen film scripts. He is also one of the most political of writers, with an overriding concern for social justice and an abhorrence of fascism, authoritarianism and brutality. His plays deal with power and powerlessness, dominance and subservience, resistance to authority, doublethink, hypocrisy and the perversion of language.
In playwright Hindy Brooks' new play, "Turn a Blind Eye," researching Holocaust survivors' stories leads a young woman to discover things about her own family she might rather have never known.
Coming to terms with someone else's anguish is one subject of "Call Waiting," a new film about the bedridden daughter of Holocaust survivors. The film stars Caroline Aaron, who recreates her successful turn from the stage version. Aaron can relate to the material, both because she is Jewish and because her family has its own significant pain.
One week, I would ambitiously attempt to devour the entire "Box Car Children" series; another I would host a Judy Blume marathon and vigilantly try to sneak the purportedly trashy "Deenie" home in between my "Sheila the Great" and "Blubber."
To structure the sprawling "Waters," James Still drew on Arthur Schnitzler's classic play, "La Ronde," in which scenes are connected by protagonists moving from one sequence to another.
Last week, playwright Donald Margulies, The Manhattan Theater Club and The Forward weekly newspaper announced the winners of a contest they sponsored on the topic of "What It's Like Growing Up Jewish in New York."
You can read the winning entries at www.forward.com. I regret to say you will not find my name among them (what do they know?). Still, my great consolation is being able to share my account with you:
Growing up Jewish in New York as the children of refugee émigrés, as the first generation born since the Holocaust, was, for me and my playmates on West End Avenue, like living a Mittel European version of the American dream. Anything (good) was possible; anything (bad) could never happen again.
7 Days In The Arts
Alma Mahler-Gropius-Werfel, who married and bedded a string of the 20th century's most creative geniuses, is celebrating her 125th birthday -- and what a party it's going to be.
Playwright Leon Martell was dining at Canter's when his thoughts drifted to Billy Gray, the Jewish comic whose name had graced a 1950s nightclub on Fairfax.
Billy Gray's Band Box had been a sexy, Hollywood gangsterland kind of joint where stars like Lou Costello had schmoozed with mobster Mickey Cohen. But the club was long gone and Gray's name had faded from Fairfax, Martell noted -- until he glanced at the menu and saw the Billy Gray Band Box special.
"Billy lives on in the Fairfax -- as a chopped liver sandwich," he said.
For Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Donald Margulies, "Brooklyn Boy" represents both a return and a departure.
Clifford Odets burst onto Broadway in 1935, when three plays by the 29-year-old actor-writer -- "Waiting for Lefty," "Awake and Sing" and "Paradise Lost" -- opened in the same year.
Norman Hudis is a patient man, not by temperament but by necessity. It took the ex-Londoner and current Woodland Hills resident some 30 years to see his play produced on stage, and if the venue is Santa Ana rather than Manhattan, he is as pleased as any playwright savoring his name on a Broadway marquee.
"I don't ever read reviews," playwright Jessica Goldberg said. "I'm too sensitive ... I'd rather not know."
In a rehearsal room at the Odyssey Theatre, Colette Freedman propped her electric-blue high tops on a chair and good naturedly laughed at herself. "I'm truly flawed," the 30-ish actress-playwright said. "I am totally a hypocrite."
Well, not totally. While her "Deconstructing the Torah," an evening of one-acts, skewers part of herself, it mostly dissects conflicts faced by Freedman and other modern Jewish women.
Jewish talent and themes scored only modestly in the Oscar nominations announced Tuesday.
However, there was recognition for the critically acclaimed "House of Sand and Fog" by Vadim Perelman, a 39-year old native of Kiev, in his first feature film.
For playwright Miriam Hoffman, Yiddish is hardly a dying language. "It just doesn't want to die," said Hoffman, who will teach Yiddish at the Dec. 14-20 intensive language/culture immersion courses at UCLA and the University of Judaism.
"Yiddish was always a problem since its birth," said Hoffman, who writes children's books on the subject, lectures at Columbia University and writes for the Yiddish-language newspaper, Forvertz. "It had to compete with the sacred language, which is Hebrew. Yiddish carried [Zionism] on its back for 1,000 years."
Speaking from his London home, the droll, precise Harwood -- who won a screenwriting Oscar for "The Pianist" -- said he tried not to take sides while writing the play and the film.
Neil Simon has always laced his plays with aspects of his own life and, at age 75, he takes on mortality -- specifically the mortality of a creative writer -- in "Rose and Walsh."
Playwright Martin Blank confesses he has an affinity for spy stories.
Fertility therapy, Jewish identity, pressure to marry, single parenting. All are themes that flow through both the personal life and creative work of playwright Wendy Wasserstein, who won a Pulitzer Prize and Tony in 1998 for "The Heidi Chronicles."
In a rare peek behind the curtains on Broadway, Wasserstein will share some scenes out of her own theater experience at the Newport Beach Public Library on Jan. 23 at 7 p.m. The $36 cost per person includes a complimentary copy of Wasserstein's latest book, "Shiksa Goddess (Or How I Spent My Forties)," essays chronicling challenges facing contemporary women in America.
7 Days in the Arts
First the House Un-American Activities Committee and then the fall of the U.S.S.R. Apparently, it's not easy being red.
One day during his junior year abroad in Vienna in 1978, Jon Marans told a professor of his intention to visit the concentration camp Dachau.
One day during his junior year abroad in Vienna in 1978, Jon Marans told a professor of his intention to visit the concentration camp Dachau. Her response stunned him. "She said, 'Why do you want to go there for? It's just a bunch of dead Jews,'" recalled the Pulitzer-nominated playwright, whose "Jumping for Joy" opens Sept. 7 at Laguna Playhouse.
Alan Rosenberg and Marg Helgenberger know playwright A.R. Gurney is perhaps the quintessential chronicler of WASP American life. So why are the Jewish actor and his lapsed Catholic TV-star wife performing Gurney's "Love Letters" June 9 at the Skirball Cultural Center to benefit West L.A. congregation Adat Shalom?
"It's a bit odd," says the willowy Helgenberger, 43, who's on the CBS smash hit "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation."
"But theater is the purview of Jews more than any other group," pipes up Rosenberg ("The Guardian"). "So the play wouldn't have been successful if Jews hadn't gone to see it."
"Hold Please" began when playwright Annie Weisman had some politically incorrect thoughts about the Clinton-Lewinsky affair.
The writer believed that Monica Lewinsky virtually blackmailed Bill Clinton into finding her a job. "It's important to set standards to protect the powerless in [boss-intern] relationships," Weisman, 28, says. "But it's not always the person in power who's doing the exploiting. Young women have a powerful trump card when they get into relationships with powerful men. I think many women are wise to that and use it to their advantage."
When Marc Wolf set out to interview gay and lesbian military personnel for his Obie-winning play, "Another American: Asking & Telling," in 1996, secrecy was crucial.
Three years into President Clinton's controversial "don't ask, don't tell" policy, paranoia among gays in the military was high. So Wolf headed off to interviews without telling anyone of his destination. He traveled in his parents' car and paid for hotel bills in cash. "I had to be careful not to leave a trail of where I'd been," recalls the thoughtful, soft-spoken Jewish playwright and performer. "At times, I even thought my phone was being tapped."
Eliot "E.J." Safirstein, an award-winning playwright, died July 31 at the age of 39.
A childhood survivor of cancer, Safirstein wrote the 1988 John Cauble Award-winning short play "Waterworks," which was performed at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. His first television script, a "Family Law" episode titled "Generations," was broadcast on Dec. 11, 2000.
Playwright Wendy Wasserstein went ahead and called her new essay collection "Shiksa Goddess." But not to worry, the title essay -- a spoof on discovering her Episcopalian "roots" -- and 34 others prove that Wasserstein remains the same witty Jewish cultural critic her fans have come to love through her plays, like "The Sisters Rosensweig" and the Pulitzer prize-winning "The Heidi Chronicles."
With its witty observations, rapid pacing and expertly delivered one-liners, "The Pages of My Diary I'd Rather Not Read" is a great evening of theater for its humor alone. What makes Eydie Faye's debut as a playwright special, however, is its trio of strong characters.
Playwright Arje Shaw's first memory was crawling across the floor, finding a piece of black, moldy bread and dipping the crust in water in order to chew it. He was 18 months old. "I looked like a Biafran baby," he says.
Israeli filmmaker Amos Gitai will direct a novice actor in his next movie. He is playwright Arthur Miller, better known as the author of "Death of a Salesman," "The Crucible" and numerous other dramas.
Before Robbie Baitz was Jon Robin Baitz, the playwright, he was, in his words, "a smart-ass little spoiled Beverly Hills snot" who worked as a gofer for a couple of Hollywood con artists. Rather than sensibly going East to college, he had elected to remain in Los Angeles to glean some life experience, and so had fallen in with "a den of thieves," he says.
The Sundance Film Festival, that two-week industry schmooze-fest in Park City, Utah, was once more a launching pad for Jewish independent cinema.
The nightmares have plagued Dr. Sigi Ziering since the Holocaust.
In an ironic twist that Bertolt Brecht would have appreciated, his legendary Berliner Ensemble will make its American debut at UCLA July 7 to 11, and then lower the curtain permanently.
A play with both wit and heart is a compelling combination, and it's one that playwright Donald Margulies' pulls off in his mostly rewarding "Collected Stories."
"Stories" drew critical praise and a 1997 Pulitzer Prize nomination following it's world première at Costa Mesa's South Coast Repertory. Happily, in director Gilbert Cates' current Los Angeles production at the Geffen Playhouse, the play's intelligence and emotional power remain intact.
"King Levine," a two-act comedy at the Odyssey Theatre, is propelled by a fairly ingenious concept. Playwright Richard Krevolin has transformed Shakespeare's King Lear into an elderly, self-made business tycoon, who reigns supreme as the frozen-bialy monarch of America.