Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
In “Numbered,” the new documentary by Dana Doron and Uriel Sinai, a journalist and Holocaust survivor named Ruth Bondy describes how in the early days of the Jewish state, sabras condescendingly stared at the serialized number the Nazis had tattooed on her forearm at Auschwitz.
“The popular opinion at that time was … that only the cruel survived, those willing to tread over bodies. So I decided to remove [the number],” she says.
When a doctor sliced off her tattoo at a Haifa hospital, Bondy recalls, “He mumbled something about the number as a mark of honor. But to me it was no mark of honor.”
Daniel Chanoch, meanwhile, insists that he doesn’t see his tattoo as a shameful scar, but rather as a “medal” of his survival of Auschwitz, Dachau and Mauthausen. He loves the summertime, when he can wear short sleeves and everyone can see the tattoo.
“I’m a celebrity,” he says.
Chanoch and Bondy are among more than a dozen elderly Israelis who tell their stories in “Numbered,” which premiered in July at the Jerusalem Film Festival and explores the experiences of survivors who were tattooed in
Auschwitz and Birkenau, the only camps to employ the practice.
The film opens as each survivor holds up his or her arm and recites the number, often in German, the language the SS officers used in the camps. Some, like Leo Luster, only reluctantly display their tattoo: “It was like I was no longer human,” he says of receiving the number. Another survivor attempts to erase the pain of her number and the loss of her family by compulsively shopping for clothes; still others recount the searing physical pain of the tattooing process.
The documentary also reveals a startling trend that has developed over the past few years: the phenomenon of survivors’ children and grandchildren tattooing themselves with a loved one’s number to honor their legacy and to remind younger generations about the Holocaust.
In the film, we meet Hanna Rabinovitz, a middle-aged woman who says she made the decision to tattoo herself as her beloved father lay dying in the hospital not long ago — even though she suspects he would have disapproved. She says she visited a tattoo parlor as soon as his -shivah had ended: “I just wanted his number etched on me,” she explains.
Then there is Abramo Nacson — a former dockworker whose job in Auschwitz was to pull gold teeth from corpses — who was appalled to learn that his grandson, Ayal Gelles, a computer programmer in his 20s, tattooed himself several years ago. For three years, Nacson refused to look at Gelles’ tattoo, but he finally did so during the documentary shoot, when he embraced his grandson and asked, “Did you do it so that people will never forget the Holocaust?” “It’s so that I won’t forget,” Gelles replied.
The idea for “Numbered” began when Doron, a physician in her early 30s, encountered an 83-year-old survivor complaining of chest pain at an emergency room in Safed several years ago.
Doron’s own grandmother had been interned in Auschwitz but did not have a tattoo; nor did she speak of her experiences in the camp. Doron herself had been turned off by the horrific images of the Holocaust she had been shown at school from the age of 5.
“The focus was on commemorating the sense of being victimized because we were Jewish,” she said during a phone call from a friend’s house near her home in Tel Aviv. “And for a long time I wanted nothing to do with these stories.”
The change came, in earnest, on that morning in the emergency room in Safed, when Doron’s elderly patient displayed her tattoo and asked, “Do you know what this is?” The woman went on to talk about her experiences for an hour.
“I listened with empathy,” Doron recalled, “but I was also shocked because I had never been that close to a tattoo in my life. I knew the symbol, but as a physician I had to take her pulse and draw blood from that arm. I was mesmerized, because it was like the ashes from Auschwitz were still engraved not only in her flesh but also in her soul. And I wondered, what was her relationship to the number and what do people make of it? Did she eat ice cream with that arm? Had anyone ever kissed the number? And when she looked at it, did she feel that it was the mark of Cain or it was like a superhero insignia?”
Doron promptly contacted her friend, Sinai, an award-winning photojournalist who works in Israel and the West Bank for Getty Images, to ask if he would like to track down and take pictures of some of the tattooed survivors still alive in Israel.
“At first we thought we might do a book,” Sinai, 34, said in a phone interview from his Tel Aviv home. But Sinai had just received a new Canon EOS 5D camera that was able to shoot both still photographs and moving pictures, so he suggested that he and Doron film the survivors as well.
Both Doron and Sinai, who was born in Tehran and has no survivors in his family, said they were “shocked” to discover that a couple of dozen descendants of survivors in Israel had inscribed themselves with a relative’s number; after screenings, Doron said, “The mainstream reaction was that people were horrified and said this trivializes the memory of the Holocaust.” The New York Times ran a front-page story on the tattooing phenomenon last year, spotlighting “Numbered” as part of the piece.
In an e-mail, the esteemed Holocaust scholar Michael Berenbaum, who is director of the Sigi Ziering Institute at American Jewish University in Los Angeles, weighed in on tattooing as a form of commemoration. “This would not be my first, second or third choice,” he said. “It is a brazen form of remembrance and a deep and indelible form of identification.”
Doron disagrees with the criticism she has received from some viewers about the tattooing trend.
“The way we truly diminish Holocaust remembrance is by not providing elderly survivors with enough funding to live well,” she said. “Another way is when we only discuss how Jews have been victimized. But the private gesture of tattooing a number on your arm to keep the story alive is touching in a very personal way.”
“Numbered” will screen at the Israel Film Festival on April 27, 5 p.m., at the Laemmle Town Center 5 in Encino. On April 28, noon, it will screen at an event for Holocaust survivors and their descendants at the Saban Theatre in Beverly Hills, as a fundraising event for survivors in need.
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April 3, 2013 | 8:44 am
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
“I grew up very conscious of the fact that I was Jewish,” said David S. Goyer, the screenwriter behind Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster “The Dark Knight” trilogy and the author of the highly anticipated Superman reboot “The Man of Steel” as well as the creator of the new historical fantasy “Da Vinci’s Demons,” premiering on STARZ on April 12. “There weren’t many Jews in our neighborhood in Ann Arbor, Mich., and I heard slurs like, ‘You killed Christ.’ ”
And so, he said, one of his favorite superheroes was the Incredible Hulk, whose alter ego, Bruce Banner, was like the young Goyer, “small and picked on,” but then could burst out of his clothes as he transforms into a ferocious green giant. “And while there weren’t many monsters or ghosts in the Jewish religion, I latched on to the few that existed, like the dybbuk and the golem, who for me was like the Jewish Hulk,” Goyer said during a recent interview at the Four Seasons hotel in Los Angeles.
He was drawn to fictionalize Leonardo da Vinci, because the great painter, inventor and futurist was also, in his own way, an oppressed outsider: “He was a bastard, born out of wedlock, which meant he wasn’t allowed to inherit wealth or land, and thus as a young man was excluded from many areas of society,” Goyer said.
The show is a fantasy set during the time when the artist was in his mid- to late 20s, before he painted his iconic “Mona Lisa” and “The Last Supper” and became a seminal figure in the Italian Renaissance.
Like the real da Vinci, the character on the series — produced in collaboration with BBC Worldwide — is a genius with almost superhuman powers: He scribbles prototypes for the machine gun, the tank and diving suit in his prolific journals; he is tall, handsome, a swashbuckling swordsman (and ambidextrous to boot); and is said to be able to bend iron bars with his bare hands.
Da Vinci is also a vegetarian, a freethinker ensconced in secret societies and a wheeler-dealer who shamelessly promotes his military designs to the ruling Medici clan while romancing several Florentine beauties. “Some people said that da Vinci was homosexual, some that he was bisexual, and others that he fathered a number of illegitimate children,” Goyer said, adding that the term “Renaissance man” was coined for the polymath.
Goyer enjoys the character, in part, because the historical da Vinci was an unabashed rogue: “I like antiheroes, like Bruce Wayne of ‘Batman,’ and da Vinci was a bit of a jerk,” Goyer said. “He had a big mouth; he was very outspoken, and he was critical of anyone and everyone. He famously said that Botticelli’s backgrounds and perspectives were inadequate. He mouthed off about the pope, and he constantly got in trouble and was thrown in jail a number of times. He overcharged his clients, and was famous for not finishing his projects. He could be a flake, a dilettante who didn’t give a s--t. He drank a lot, and he may have smoked opium.”
Goyer’s da Vinci is also presented as a member of a reviled minority group: “A couple of years ago, researchers were doing fingerprint analysis on some of his paintings, and there are apparently whorls in his fingerprints that are found in 95 percent of people of Arabic or Turkish descent, and are rarely found in Caucasians,” he said. “That led to a theory that his mother may have been a Turkish slave, and so we go with that on the show.”
Executive producer David S. Goyer. Photo courtesy of Starz
On the series, da Vinci’s ragtag gang includes fellow rapscallions who are Jewish as well as Abyssinian and Turkish: “We deal with minorities, both ethnic and religious, quite a bit,” Goyer said. “There’s even an episode where da Vinci and company hope to break into the secret archives of the Vatican, and they hide out in the Jewish quarter because they know no one will look for them there — and because the Jews are no friends of the Vatican.”
Goyer, 47, is the son of a Jewish mother and a non-Jewish father who divorced when he was 8. He attended Hebrew school and was thrilled to discover that most of the top comic book authors of all time were Jewish (think Bob Kane of “Batman” and Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster of “Superman”). “It was a kind of wish fulfillment for a hero to come and save the world from evil, especially for those who were creating characters in the 1940s before the Nazis were defeated,” he said.
While still studying at USC at the age of 22, Goyer sold his first action movie script, which became the Jean-Claude Van Damme thriller “Death Warrant.” In 1998, he wrote his breakout film, “Blade,” based on the Marvel comic book about a legendary vampire hunter, which became one of Hollywood’s most successful superhero franchises.
Goyer has reimagined da Vinci as a 15th century superhero of sorts, but he was initially reluctant to take on the project when the BBC approached him several years ago. “I didn’t want to do some dry historical drama,” he said.
He changed his mind when BBC executives assured him that they wanted “a “superhero-y, ‘Batman Begins’ kind of approach,” Goyer recalled, adding that a highlight of his research, which included reading translations of the artist’s 6,000 existing journal pages, was perusing some of da Vinci’s drawings at the British Museum.
“When you look at his journal pages, they’re filled with sketches and notes and even shopping lists; he spilled wine and food on them, and there are grease stains,” Goyer said. “You can literally smell him. And for me, that made history come alive.”
“Da Vinci’s Demons” premieres April 12 at 10 p.m. on STARZ.
March 28, 2013 | 5:17 am
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
It was the first day of spring, and Jeffrey Tambor was sitting in his car in the snow near his New York home, conducting an interview while his 6-year-old daughter — one of his four children, ages 3 to 8, including twin toddlers — was taking her piano lesson. “Daddy is tired, but I’m a lucky guy,” he said in his signature baritone. Life is good for the 68-year-old actor, not only in terms of his family but also in the realm of his career: In May, Tambor will reprise his role as George Bluth Sr., the Machiavellian patriarch of a dysfunctional Jewish clan when “Arrested Development” makes its much-anticipated return with 14 new episodes on Netflix.
And, on HBO through April 27, he’s appearing in the TV biopic “Phil Spector,” playing the flamboyant lead defense attorney in the legendary music producer’s murder trial, a project written and directed by Tambor’s hero, David Mamet, and starring Al Pacino and Helen Mirren.
The film opens in 2003, when a past-her-prime B-movie actress named Lana Clarkson is discovered dead in Spector’s gothic Alhambra mansion. Spector (Pacino) insists she put one of his many guns in her mouth and pulled the trigger, but the police suspect murder. Enter attorney Bruce Cutler (Tambor) — who is as known for his dapper two-tone shirts as he is for having defended Mafioso John Gotti. Cutler insists that Clarkson, a depressed celebrity wannabe, committed suicide, but he’s stumped as to how to shape Spector’s defense, fearing the jury may convict the eccentric, wig-coiffed producer because he had previously threatened women with guns — and simply for being, in their eyes, “a freak.”
And so Cutler brings in another star attorney to help — Linda Kenney Baden (Mirren), who initially thinks Spector committed the murder but after a time comes to believe that he is innocent. Even so, their best efforts result in a mistrial, and after a second trial, in 2009, Spector was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 19 years to life in prison, where he now resides.
Mamet has described his movie as a “mythological” version of the events, and the film opens with a disclaimer stating that the film is “a work of fiction … not based on a true story” — which is startling given that the script uses real names as well as some dialogue from real court transcripts.
A media backlash has ensued, critiquing what one reporter called a “mealy mouthed” approach to the truth and the wisdom of fictionalizing a notorious court case — especially since the film insinuates that Spector was convicted despite Mamet’s suggestion there was a generous amount of reasonable doubt.
Tambor strongly disagrees with the media criticism: “There’s the disclaimer,” he said, “and I think David has been acutely truthful about what he is trying to do. We’re not trying to pull the wool over anybody’s eyes. But then again, I’m an actor, not a politician, and I’m so proud of the movie and the questions it raises. I’m not saying whether Spector is guilty or not guilty, but I’m wildly against prejudice of any kind, and I believe that Spector experienced prejudice [in his trials] for being, essentially, a weirdo.”
Tambor didn’t always feel that way. Back at the time of the trial, he said, “I assumed Spector was guilty because I saw all his freakishness.” But participating in the movie, he added, has opened his eyes to the possibility that jurors were so turned off by Spector that they may have ignored any reasonable doubt raised in the courtroom. “I know the prejudice that was in me at the time of the trial, and if was in me, it was in other people,” he said.
Tambor traces his feelings about prejudice to an incident when he was a boy in San Francisco; he was driving in a car with his mother when another driver shouted out that she was a “kike.” “I didn’t know what that meant, and she told me and I was horrified,” he recalled.
Then there was his trip to Auschwitz some years ago, when Tambor was so overwhelmed, he said, “every nerve was just deadened and I felt numb. Much later when I was actually therapizing over this, I really hit a grief point. I’m getting emotional just thinking about it,” he added.
Tambor grew up with Orthodox, Yiddish-speaking grandparents from Kiev and a Hungarian-Jewish father who, according to family legend, was a boxer who once sparred with Joe Louis, “which is why he could only breathe out of one nostril,” the actor said.
As a boy, however, Tambor was ambivalent about his Judaism: “I was bar mitzvahed at gun point,” he joked. “My cantor was great except he chewed cottage cheese sandwiches for his snack while he was teaching me my Torah portion, and every time he made a ‘chuch’ or a ‘chech’ sound, curds would go flying and I would walk out looking like one of those speckled ceilings in a new house.”
Even so, he said, “I’ve always been Jewish, and I always feel my roots.”
He’s played a number of Jewish characters in a career that has spanned half a century — ever since Tambor was first drawn to the stage while watching theater rehearsals in the drama department of San Francisco State University when he was a boy.
One of his iconic characters is Hank Kingsley, Garry Shandling’s buffoonish sidekick on HBO’s acclaimed “The Larry Sanders Show,” from the 1990s. But Tambor is even better known for another character, who becomes observant for dubious reasons: George Bluth Sr. on “Arrested Development,” who finds religion for a time after he is sent to prison for security fraud during the show’s previous three seasons on the Fox network from 2003 to 2006 — he even crafted a yarmulke from his shoe. “Every day George has a different scheme,” Tambor explained. “I wouldn’t call him spiritual unless he has to be; I would call him a Darwinist.”
Bruce Cutler, the real defense attorney Tambor plays in “Phil Spector,” also happens to be Jewish. (“If I played the pope, he would be Jewish, Tambor quips — and in fact an Internet piece comparing him as a doppelganger for the new Pope Francis recently went viral.)
But per Mamet’s instructions, Tambor did not research Cutler, sticking to whatever nuances he found in the script to create his character. “David told me, in a text message, that if he had wanted the real Bruce Cutler, he would have hired Bruce Cutler,” Tambor said.
For encore episodes of “Phil Spector,” which premiered on March 24, check HBO listings.
March 20, 2013 | 7:26 am
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
Two minutes into a telephone interview, actor Jeremy Piven riffed on his Jewish background: “I grew up Reconstructionist, so my father used to joke that we prayed to ‘To whom it may concern,’ ” he said, then paused as if for a rim shot. “I’m waiting for the laugh to die down,” he quipped. “That’s how hams work.”
Throughout the eight seasons of HBO’s hit series “Entourage,” Piven played one of the most outrageous hams ever to appear on TV, stealing practically every scene he was in. His character of Ari Gold, the manic, merciless pit bull of an uber-agent to a young Hollywood A-list movie star and his posse of libidinous pals from Queens, N.Y., made him an iconic image of Hollywood excess.
The mercurial Ari also hammed up his Judaism, throwing a lavish bat mitzvah for his daughter; sneaking a cell phone into synagogue on Yom Kippur (to his wife’s chagrin) in order to close a lucrative deal; and proclaiming in another scene, “It’s all gonna be fine … the Jew has arrived.”
No wonder Ari’s aura has been hard to shake for the 47-year-old Piven, who is still approached by fans who affectionately attempt to grip him in an Ari-style headlock and spout Ari-isms such as, “Hug it out, bitch!”
Even when Piven met Britain’s Prince Harry at a recent polo match, Harry, an avid “Entourage” fan, kept calling him “Ari.” “It was cute,” Piven recalled, sounding not too convinced.
The actor said he is grateful for the chance to return to TV in a very different, albeit equally larger-than-life role, this time in the “Masterpiece Classic” eight-episode period drama “Mr. Selfridge,” about the wheeling-and-dealing entrepreneur who pioneered the modern department store, premiering in the United States on PBS SoCal on March 31. Looking dapper in a top hat and tails, Piven portrays Harry Gordon Selfridge, the exuberant, Chicago-born retail magnate and womanizer who in 1909 had the chutzpah to open a palatial (some said crass) shop in the oh-so-proper milieu of Edwardian England.
“Harry’s goal was to make shopping as thrilling as sex, and he was all about glamour and razzmatazz,” said Piven, adding that the idea of going shopping as a leisure activity previously did not exist. “One of his heroes was P.T. Barnum, and he thought of himself as a bit of a performer and his theater as his shop.”
Selfridge invented the idea of ornate window dressings and browsing, which at the time was considered uncouth, as well as the saying, “The customer is always right.”
“It was his idea to move makeup, formerly considered only for showgirls and prostitutes, to the very front of the store,” Piven said. “And he even convinced Louis Bleriot, the French hero who was the first person to successfully fly over the English Channel, to display his airplane in the shop.”
On display, along with the lavish merchandise, are all of Harry’s flaws, which Piven compared to those of his “Entourage” character. “Both Ari and Harry ruled with an iron fist, but Harry’s bite ultimately was much worse than his bark, whereas Ari’s bark was much worse than his bite,” Piven said. “Ari was a monogamous guy who was seemingly a pig, while Harry was a man who could be so inspiring in business, but also had this other life where he was a risk addict and loved his gambling and his women.”
Although Selfridge was said to be very much in love with his wife, Rosalie, he famously bedded the burlesque actress Ellen Love, as well as the dancers Isadora Duncan and Anna Pavlova, among myriad other mistresses. But his fortunes eventually waned, and after the death of Rosalie in the 1918 influenza pandemic, he spiraled downward into financial and personal ruin, ultimately dying virtually a pauper in 1947, at the age of 83.
“Harry’s is a true story, and yet it feels Shakespearean,” Piven said.
And there’s another bonus to playing the part: “Being on ‘Masterpiece’ is like telling your Jewish mother that you’re going to become a doctor,” Piven said. “ ‘Entourage’ was a male wish fulfillment show, so, did my own mother have fun watching the boys trying to get laid because their best friend is famous? I don’t think so. Does she enjoy a turn-of-the-century period piece about an American entrepreneur with all of his beauty, warts and eccentricities? She saw the pilot and was intrigued, so I’m pretty proud of that.”
Piven’s parents, both actors who studied with Uta Hagen, introduced him to the stage, courtesy of their Piven Theatre Workshop in Evanston, Ill., where students included John Cusack and Aidan Quinn. In between performing Chekhov and Shakespeare, the young Piven also aspired to become a star football player on his high school team — to no avail. “If you fail in your own eyes early on, it stokes the fires of ambition and led to a lot of my tenacious ways with acting,” he said.
That persistence came in handy as Piven toiled for years to make it in Hollywood, playing secondary characters in dozens of films, including “Old School” and “Black Hawk Down.” His big break came in 2004, when “Entourage” creator Doug Ellin cast him as the character based on executive producer Mark Wahlberg’s real agent, Ari Emanuel. “Ari Gold was a proud Jew, but it was difficult for him to play by the rules, which led to some of our best comedy,” said Piven, who won three Emmy Awards and one Golden Globe for his work on the series.
Even so, “Playing Ari was physically exhausting, and it took a lot out of me,” said Piven, who relied on his training in commedia dell’arte to portray the volatile character.
“Mr. Selfridge” creator Andrew Davies (“Pride and Prejudice,” “Bleak House”) said it was Piven’s performance in “Entourage” that led him to cast the actor: “All of us are terrific fans of ‘Entourage,’ and we thought Jeremy showed the kind of energy and outrageousness we needed for our character.” Davies said.
These days, Piven said he’s thrilled that an “Entourage” movie is in the works, but he also seems glad to take a break from Ari.
“The U.K. has really embraced ‘Mr. Selfridge,’ and in Britain I don’t see Ari attached to my name so much anymore. I’ve been typecast now as Harry Selfridge, which is really fun.”
March 13, 2013 | 4:24 am
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
The tribes in Nina Raine’s comedy-drama “Tribes,” now at the Mark Taper Forum, are Jewish, literati and deaf — all as perceived through the lens of one garrulous, even antagonistic British-Jewish family.
The patriarch of this argumentative clan is Christopher, an elitist, politically incorrect academic and writer who not only rejects his membership in the Jewish tribe but also attacks what he perceives to be conformity of any kind. He is thus appalled when his youngest son, Billy, who was born deaf but is expected to read lips, brings home a new girlfriend, Sylvia, who is going deaf and who is introducing Billy to sign language as well as to members of London’s deaf community. Christopher retorts that the deaf community is a cult “founded on exclusivity,” that the deaf are “the f-----g Muslims of the handicapped world,” and that making one’s handicap the center of one’s personality is ludicrous.
Adding to the raucous discourse are Christopher’s wife, Beth; his oldest son, Daniel, who suffers from auditory hallucinations; and his daughter, Ruth, a wannabe opera singer, as power dynamics in the family shift over the course of the play.
Speaking by phone from London, where she was directing William Boyd’s new play, “Longing,” Raines said “Tribes” is as much about what it means to be a member of a tribe as it is about how we hear each other, literally and figuratively.
Her own family tribe, like the one in the play, is verbal, cerebral and at times quarrelsome. Her father is Craig Raine, the famously acerbic British poet and academic; he is not Jewish, while Raine’s mother, Ann Pasternak Slater, is an academic who has taught Shakespeare at Oxford, and hails from a Jewish family — her mother left the Soviet Union to study medicine in Germany, then fled the Nazis to England.
“Some of my cousins are very observant and keep kosher, and some are completely lax, but they all have a slightly sarcastic opinion of each other,” said Raine, who is in her mid-30s and was alternately breezy and thoughtful during the course of a conversation. She noted that the fictional Christopher has no patience for a cousin who has become observant after marrying an Orthodox woman: “[Can’t his parents] just tease him out of being kosher?” he says.
Raine’s immediate family was hardly kosher: “We didn’t learn Hebrew, and we eat ham, but my mother felt like after the Holocaust you should be proud to be Jewish, and she named my brothers Moses and Isaac as if to say, ‘This is our heritage,’ ” she said. “And I don’t feel completely English, because I feel so connected to my family’s refugee history.”
Raine was one of only two Jewish students at her all-girls high school in London, during teenage years when “you’re quite vulnerable to feeling like you want to belong to something,” she said. She found that sense of belonging, in part, by attending synagogue and Shabbat dinners with her Jewish cousins, a practice she continues to this day.
“I also enjoy that game of figuring out whether people are Jewish or not,” she said, with a laugh. “It’s something I love to do, even though my boyfriend, who is not Jewish, just doesn’t understand why that is interesting at all.”
“Tribes” began several years ago, when Raine chanced to watch a documentary about expecting deaf parents who were elated to learn that their baby would be born deaf. “I was startled,” she said, “but then I thought that if I were to have a baby, and it turned out to have my nose and my blue eyes, it would delight me. There’s a kind of joy in putting an image of yourself out there in the world, of furthering your tribe, your family tree.
“Then I started looking around, and tribes seemed to be everywhere,” she said. During a visit to New York, Raine was fascinated by the Chasidim she saw walking the streets of Williamsburg, “who all wore a sort of uniform, like an extended family.”
“I realized that in the deaf community, everyone has opinions about whether you’re being deaf in the best way possible, a bit like I imagine if you decide to become an observant Jew, people are going to have opinions about how ‘kosher’ you are. It’s like intellectuals talking about other intellectuals, or even family members arguing with each other.”
It was Raine’s family that ushered her into the tribe of the theater; when she was 11, her parents took her to the opening night of the opera “The Electrification of the Soviet Union,” for which her father had written the libretto. “I remember meeting the director and wearing a pretty dress, staying up late and being allowed to have a bit of champagne,” she recalled. “I was quite young, and I found all that [glittering] stuff very cool and exciting.”
Raine began writing plays while studying at Oxford; when she couldn’t find a theater to produce her edgy 2006 play, “Rabbit,” she opted to direct it herself in a tiny theater above the Old Red Lion theater pub in the Islington section of London. She was rewarded for her efforts with good reviews and the Evening Standard Award — which came with 30,000 pounds — for most promising new playwright. Her play “Tiger Country,” which delves into the psyches of young doctors at a busy London hospital, also opened to good reviews in 2011.
It is Raine’s parents who have been among her harshest critics: “My mother can’t lie, so she’s crap at sugaring the pill,” Raine said. “But she never says things to deliberately hurt you, which actually is the most gutting thing. And my father is a brilliant editor, so he’s used to taking out his red pen.”
Raine admits to bringing a bit of her father to the fictional Christopher, but she disagrees with viewers who have perceived the character as monstrous. “Christopher loves his family, but he also worships the individual, and he would never assimilate into any kind of group,” she explained. “And he’s just a complete contrarian — to the point where if someone told him it was inappropriate to wear a colorful waistcoat to a funeral, he would say, ‘F--k it,’ and wear it all the same.”
Jeff Still, who plays Christopher, has even encountered viewers who have congratulated him for convincingly portraying “such an ass----, in their words,” he said. “They think they’re being complimentary, but I see Christopher differently. He is above all a family man but he has his flaws. He wants to be the star attraction in the room; he’s going to speak and he wants you to hear what he has to say, and he’s used to being right.”
Raine spent several months visiting hospitals in London to research “Tiger Country”; for “Tribes,” which debuted at London’s Royal Court Theatre in 2010, she not only interviewed members of the city’s deaf community, but also attempted to learn sign language — an endeavor she found daunting. “I felt stupid, slow, uncomprehending,” she said. “I wondered, ‘Is this what it might be like to be a deaf person trying to follow a rapid spoken conversation?’ ”
In “Tribes,” she said, deafness becomes a metaphor: “It’s about communication, and what it means emotionally when we hear.”
For tickets and information, visit www.centertheatregroup.org.
March 6, 2013 | 5:52 am
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
You might only know Alex Karpovsky as Ray Ploshansky, the caustic barista who fitfully romances the naïf Shoshanna on HBO’s zeitgeist-y hit, “Girls.”
But while shooting that show, Karpovsky also has managed to write, direct and star in two independent films that recently premiered at Lincoln Center in New York: “Red Flag,” a meta-comedy in which he plays a self-absorbed independent filmmaker named, well, Alex Karpovsky; and “Rubberneck,” a psychological thriller about a scientist who becomes dangerously obsessed with a co-worker.
And in December, Karpovsky will appear as a hopeless square (and wannabe bohemian) in the Coen brothers’ “Inside Llewyn Davis,” a folk music saga set in 1961.
Why so busy? “I just have a restless drive to keep working,” said Karpovsky, who begins shooting the third season of “Girls” this month. He does see a thread connecting the roles, however.
“I’m drawn to characters who are lonely, neurotic and on journeys of self-discovery,” he said. “Many of them want to become better people, but the road is often tortuous.”
Speaking by phone from the apartment he sublets in Brooklyn, Karpovsky, 33, frankly discussed his own neuroses, which he sometimes draws upon to create his characters. “I have an acute death anxiety,” he said. “ I think about death all the time. It’s the root fear that creates a lot of my day-to-day insecurities.”
Like his character in “Red Flag,” Karpovsky was once dumped by a girlfriend who was fed up by his refusal to propose. “The character feels that if he gets married, his drive and ambition will stagnate, which he sees as a form of death,” Karpovsky said. The actor also has had issues with that kind of commitmentphobia, which, he said, has even extended beyond relationships to housing arrangements. Karpovsky said because of this he tends to sublet apartments, sometimes for short periods of time, and to date has never signed a lease.
“I’m hoping to get a place in April, but it’s hard because I don’t have any credit,” he said. No matter that Karpovsky is among the stars of one of the most talked-about shows on television. “Most of the landlords in my area are Eastern Europeans, and they don’t watch HBO, never mind ‘Girls,’ ” he said.
The fictional Ray’s living situation is even more tenuous: On a recent episode of the show created by its lead actress, Lena Dunham, Ray admitted that he has essentially moved in with Shoshanna because he is homeless and living out of his Mitsubishi.
“I love the fact that all the characters are very authentic, and the relationships are grounded in naturalism,” Karpovsky said. “Viewers are much more familiar with comedies expressed in broader tones, with beautiful people, but we’re doing something much more raw, and, hopefully, reflective of the world we see around us in Brooklyn every day.”
Karpovsky grew up in Boston, the son of a computer science professor, where the décor in his childhood home included paintings of shtetls and other images of Jewish life in the Pale of Settlement. His parents are Russian Jews who immigrated from the former Soviet Union in the late 1970s: “They had endured anti-Semitism and the many limits and quotas the Soviets placed on Jews,” Karpovsky said. “They left to create a better life for themselves, and also for me.”
While in his 20s, Karpovsky assumed he would follow his father’s footsteps into academia, but he left his doctoral program in visual ethnography at Oxford University when he discovered his penchant for the theater. Back in the United States, he began making his own movies while working at a film editing company, where he was allowed to borrow the in-house equipment to work on his own projects.
It was while screening his third movie, “Trust Us, This Is All Made Up,” at the South by Southwest film festival several years ago that Karpovsky met Dunham, who promptly cast him as a self-centered beau in her acclaimed, low-budget 2010 film “Tiny Furniture.”
When Dunham hired Karpovsky to play Ray in “Girls” the following year, the actor immediately grasped what she wanted from the character: “Ray is a contrarian who speaks his mind and calls out the other characters on their b.s.,” he said. “He’s 33, a bit older than everyone else, and he feels this strange obligation to blurt out his perspective on what others are doing, even if it is misguided and occasionally perverse.”
This season has revealed that Ray’s cynicism “actually comes from a sad, lonely place,” Karpovsky said; viewers have learned that Ray is an orphan, with plenty of abandonment issues.
They’ve also learned that Ray isn’t Jewish: “In a recent episode, someone calls Ray a kike, and he responds by saying that he’s actually Greek Orthodox,” Karposvky said. “That was a surprise for me as an actor, and from I’ve read on Twitter, it was also a surprise to some members of the viewing public as well.”
What’s it like for Karpovsky to be a boy on “Girls”? “I feel like a voyeur at times, when I’m hearing three or four of the female characters talk to each other on the show,” he said.
“Every man has the secret desire to overhear the conversations of women, and to know what they’re really thinking — and that’s incredibly juicy, delicious information to get ahold of.”
“Girls” will air the final episode of its second season on March 17.
February 27, 2013 | 8:44 am
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
Jeff Bernhardt is an author, playwright, psychotherapist and Jewish educator who directs social-action programs at Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills; he is also the lead tutor for the b’nai mitzvah program at Temple Israel of Hollywood. But his new play, “Therapy” — opening March 2 at the Secret Rose Theatre in North Hollywood — draws on his experience as a social worker for Jewish Family Service and Occidental College’s student counseling center in the 1990s and early 2000s.
Wearing a colorful kippah and a clipped beard during a recent interview at Temple Israel, the intense, affable Bernhardt recalled how the idea for the play began, in part, with a telephone call that shook him to the core: One of his former psychotherapy clients, a man in his 20s, committed suicide about five months after completing some short-term counseling.
The young man had not come to Bernhardt specifically for symptoms of depression, nor had he expressed a desire to kill himself; rather the counseling had revolved around “normal developmental, identity and relationship issues,” Bernhard said. So when the news came that he had died, “I was devastated, shocked and paralyzed,” Bernhardt said. “I talked it through with the people I had worked with, and we revisited the experience of working with the client, but you don’t ever really get over it. There were the inevitable questions of ‘What could I have done differently?’ ”
Bernhardt began mulling over the challenges therapists face, and how therapists themselves often bring their own personal and work-related problems to their own therapists. He also thought about how some practitioners struggle to help patients, even as the patients’ crises trigger the therapist’s own emotional baggage (Sigmund Freud called this phenomenon “countertransference.”)
And so, “Therapy” emerged as a drama revolving around three therapists: Moira, an earthy, motherly social worker who is battling guilt over her mother, whose health is declining in a distant city; Moira’s therapist, Sandra, a reserved, rigid practitioner who very much keeps within the rules of traditional boundaries in psychotherapy; and Steven, a novice social worker who comes to Moira for counseling, in part to explore the lingering pain stemming from the death of his brother when Steven was a child.
As the play opens, Steven begins treating a new patient, Lance, a disturbed young man who is skeptical about the therapeutic process; Lance’s journey will have unexpected repercussions for all the therapists in the play.
“One of the things that all these therapists are struggling with is their feeling of failure — feeling like they didn’t, or simply couldn’t, give somebody what they needed,” Bernhardt said. “The play explores their grappling with ‘What am I able to give, and what am I professionally bound to give, given what’s going on in my own life?’
Bernhardt, 51, grew up in a Conservative home in New Jersey and attended Brandeis University, where his interest in social work was sparked, in part, by a classmate who confided to him that she had attempted suicide while in middle school. “It was as if somebody shook me and said, ‘You’re not living in the real world,’ ” he said. After graduation, Bernhardt went on to co-develop a suicide-prevention program for Jewish schools in Boston and Los Angeles.
In 1994, he earned his double master’s degree, in social work and Jewish communal service, from USC and Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion; along the way, dramatic events in his own life spurred him to become a writer.
“Right after Sept. 11, I was at the Ahmanson Theatre and somebody had a medical emergency, and the show stopped,” he said by way of example. “I knew that a friend of mine was elsewhere in the audience who had recently had medical issues, so I felt the anxiety of, ‘Is that him?’ [Bernhardt later discovered it wasn’t.] And at the same time, some friends in Israel had a son who had had a swimming accident and was in a coma. All these things had happened right around the time of Rosh Hashanah and were swirling around in my brain, so I felt I needed to create characters who were struggling with some of these issues.”
The result was Bernhardt’s dramatic reading, “Who Shall Live…?” which has since been performed around the time of the High Holy Days at synagogues throughout the United States; a recent trip to Germany prompted his 2010 play, “Mixed Blessings,” the story of how a straight Jewish college student and his gay German roommate push each other to explore their respective identities.
For “Therapy,” Bernhardt said he drew upon “what I, as a therapist, sometimes struggled with, which is how you put your own personal issues aside to help your client,” he said.
“I’m interested in writing about people who are human beings, who have vulnerabilities and weaknesses,” he added. “I am really interested in how all people struggle.”
“Therapy” runs through March 17. For tickets and information, call (800) 838-3006 or visit www.brownpapertickets.com/event/322663.
February 20, 2013 | 11:59 am
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
Joe Weisberg is an ex-CIA agent and creator of FX’s new spy thriller “The Americans,” which spotlights KGB agents deep undercover in the United States. But back in 1989, he was a Yale University graduate flying to the Soviet Union on his own clandestine Jewish mission. His goal was to set up secret meetings with refuseniks, Jewish dissidents who had been fired from their jobs and otherwise persecuted by the KGB. Meeting with them in their modest apartments, he handed over the Levis jeans and Seiko watches he had smuggled into the country so they could sell the goods on the black market to augment their incomes.
All the while, Weisberg wondered whether KGB agents were spying on him. “It was intimidating,” said Weisberg, who nevertheless went on to join the CIA in 1990 “to become a ‘cold warrior’ and to do my part to bring down the evil empire.”
During his four years at the agency, Weisberg learned learning everything from how to recruit spies to light paramilitary combat — yet he quit before his first assignment abroad in 1994. “I realized I didn’t want to recruit other human beings and put them at risk to gather information that seemed dubious in terms of whether it was actually worth anything,” he said.
And so Weisberg turned to writing spy novels, such as “10th Grade” (2002) and “An Ordinary Spy” (2008). He was working as a staff writer on TNT’s sci-fi series “Falling Skies” when DreamWorks television executives phoned him about “The Americans” in 2010.
The FBI had just arrested 10 Russian sleeper agents who allegedly had been operating in the United States using techniques that seemed right out of a John le Carre novel: exchanging bags as they brushed past one another on the street, sending messages in invisible ink and burying stashes of cash underground, according to The New York Times.
The DreamWorks executives wanted Weisberg to concoct a series revolving around fictional KGB operatives, but the former CIA agent, for a time, was stumped. It wasn’t that he was reluctant to make television heroes out of his old nemeses; the fall of the Soviet Union meant that these kinds of agents were no longer a true threat, and even the 10 arrested KGB officers had never managed to extract information of any import to send back home.
From left: Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg, producers of “The Americans.” Photos courtesy of FX
“My response to these spies was, ‘Really? They’re still doing this even though the Cold War is over?’ It didn’t seem that the stakes were high enough to make for a compelling TV show. But then I realized that if we moved the action back to the Cold War, when we were really at each other’s throats, that could make for good drama.”
Along with his fellow “Americans” executive producers, Joel Fields and Graham Yost, Weisberg set the thriller in 1981, the year after Ronald Reagan was elected president and fanned the flames of the decades-old Cold War.
The show revolves around Elizabeth and Philip Jennings (Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys), two KGB agents who were set up in an arranged marriage in the 1960s and sent off to northern Virginia to establish a travel agency and have children as part of their cover. The husband and wife have been forbidden to speak Russian, and even to talk to one another about their pre-KGB pasts or tell their children about their true identities. As the new Reagan administration adds tension to their job, as well as to their marriage, Elizabeth and Philip manage to assassinate a turncoat KGB officer, plant a bug in the home of then-Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, and to elude the suspicious FBI counterintelligence agent (played by Noah Emmerich), who has moved in across the street.
Weisberg said he drew on his recollections of operatives sent abroad to create the fictional Jenningses. “I had been very struck by the fact that these parents can’t tell their kids what they do when the children are young, because they’ll just go to school and tell all their friends and blow the parents’ cover,” he said. “It’s when they’re mature enough to keep a secret that their parents have what’s called ‘The Talk,’ and for some children this can be very traumatic. Spying isn’t just about the gadgets; it’s about the lies that come into the family and the damage that can do, and I felt that was a very powerful dynamic to bring to the show.”
Not that “The Americans” asks audiences to cheer for the enemy. “It’s not about wanting people to root for totalitarian socialism, because we know that the U.S.S.R. collapsed and that oppressive communism didn’t work,” Fields (“Rizzoli & Isles”), 48, said. “The show is asking you, rather, to root for this couple and this marriage, and that the Jenningses can find their humanity in this horrible situation.”
Like Weisberg, Fields, the son of Rabbi Emeritus Harvey Fields of Wilshire Boulevard Temple, first learned about the “evil empire” while learning about refuseniks at religious school in the 1970s. During a joint conversation from their New York offices, both men said they were also inspired as children by stories of Jewish agents and covert operatives: for example, Eli Cohen, the Israeli who was caught and publicly hanged in Damascus in 1965, and Yoni Netanyahu, the Israeli assault commander killed in the 1976 top-secret raid on Entebbe. “I got a book of his letters for my bar mitzvah, and his story just bored into me and made me feel like he was the kind of man you’re supposed to be — an intellectual and a hero,” Weisberg said.
It was Weisberg, the former CIA agent, who vetted the circa-1980s spy craft depicted on “The Americans”: “At the time, there was a lot more Morse code and dead drops, where you leave a coded message for somebody in a concealed way,” Weisberg said.
The fictional Elizabeth makes use of the notorious KGB poisoned umbrella, created with a spiked tip to inoculate targets, and both of the Jenningses employ the so-called “honey trap” technique, drawing on their sexuality to recruit other spies. “The KGB had very liberal attitudes about sex for both their male and female officers,” said Weisberg, who also read former KGB agents’ memoirs as research for the show. “For example, they had something called the Secretary’s Defensive, when they noticed that many of their officers were having luck seducing secretaries of powerful officials and thus gaining access to their secrets.”
Per documents he signed upon leaving the CIA, Weisberg must submit all his scripts to the agency for approval: “They just check them to make sure there’s no classified information, and so far they’ve approved everything,” he said.
Will the show draw on Fields’ and Weisberg’s interest in Jewish spies? “We wrote a great story with a Mossad and a refusenik twist, but ultimately it didn’t pan out for this season,” Fields said. “Yet it’s stuff that’s very much on our minds, given both of our backgrounds, and in future seasons, it’s fare I’m sure we’ll explore.”
“The Americans” airs on Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on FX.