The Arty Semite

'Wiesenthal' Play Offers Emotional Dialogue, Dry History

By Curt Schleier

Photo: Carol Rosegg

In Tom Dugan’s play, “Wiesenthal,” the title character, Simon Wiesenthal (played by Dugan), describes a conversation with his wife, Cyla. She is ill and wants Simon to quit his work as a Nazi hunter and take her and their daughter to live in Israel.

Wiesenthal explains that he can’t:

“When we all meet in the next world, those who died in the camps will say, ‘Tell me what you did with this gift of life?’ One will tell of becoming a doctor; another a jeweler or a banker. When they ask me, I will say, ‘I have never forgotten you.’”

Then there was the time his 8-year-old daughter, the only Jew in her school, came home and asked why all the other children have family to spend holidays with. “Why do I have no one to visit?”

These are moments that will register with people of a certain generation. This play is important because there are other generations for whom this won’t register at all.

Unfortunately, emotional dialogue aside, the rest of the production comes off more as a dry history lesson than as an inspirational drama, lessening any potential impact it might have. The setting is Wiesenthal’s office at the Vienna Jewish Documentation Center in April 2003. It is his last day there and the show’s conceit is that one final group of visitors has come to hear him speak — or more accurately, recite.

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Maggie Gyllenhaal's Top 8 Roles

By Curt Schleier

It’s no surprise that the Roundabout Theater Company’s revival of Tom Stoppard’s “The Real Thing” boasts Maggie Gyllenhaal in the role of Anna. She is a strong, intelligent activist and actor, a key player in this drama about marital love and infidelity. It’s the type of character Gyllenhaal regularly and successfully inhabits.

For the young actress, who recently discovered her birth name is Margalit (Hebrew for Pearl), it adds another star performance in her ever-expanding galaxy. Here are some others:

1. The Honourable Woman

Gyllenhaal played British business executive Ness Stein in this eight-part mini-series that aired originally on the BBC and last summer on the Sundance Channel. Stein, who is Jewish, works hard to build bridges of peace between Israelis and Palestinians, but as soon becomes clear in this spy thriller, it is a complex and difficult task. But the series and Gullenhaal’s performance won raves, with The New York Times saying she played “a principled but conflicted woman whose quicksilver personality alters from hour to hour and flashback to flash-forward.”

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'Disgraced' Asks Uncomfortable Questions About Islam

By Curt Schleier

Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

“Disgraced,” which opened October 23 at Broadway’s Lyceum Theater, is breathtaking.

Literally.

There are moments when the entire audience gasps at something so surprising or disturbing on stage, it’s as though all the air is sucked out of the room. Those gasps, however, are the only sound the audience makes throughout this intellectually and emotionally engaging 90-minute production.

The play, written by Ayad Akhtar, debuted almost exactly two years ago off-Broadway, and deservedly won the Pulitzer Prize for drama.

It’s set in a lavishly furnished Upper East Side Manhattan apartment. Amir Kapoor (Hari Dhillon) is posing for a portrait painted by his wife Emily (Gretchen Mol). She was inspired by a Velazquez painting of a slave and their dinner the evening prior. The waiter kept staring at them, the gorgeous blond American princess and this brown-skinned man.

Amir was used to it. In fact, he’d conquered the prejudice. He is a successful mergers and acquisitions attorney working for a Jewish law firm. His boss and mentor, Mort, befriended and depended on him, and Amir sees a partnership in his future.

But all is not as it seems. Kapoor is not his real last name. It is Abdullah. While he claims his heritage is Indian (and presumably Hindu), his family emigrated from Pakistan and is Muslim. But he is not.

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Waiting on Tables, and for a Break

By Curt Schleier

Photo: Ken Jacques

The tiny Triad nightclub in the Upper West Side of Manhattan was filled by a crowd sufficiently large to give a fire marshal palpitations. That was probably due to the fact that the night’s attraction, Brad Zimmerman, grew up across the Hudson, just a hop, skip and $14 George Washington Bridge toll away.

The truth of the matter is that it wasn’t the fire marshal who should have been worried, but the building inspector. Because the moment he began his show, “My Son the Waiter, a Jewish Tragedy,” Zimmerman had the place and pretty much everyone’s belly shaking.

“My Son the Waiter” is a one-man show, an autobiographical retelling of a life at once sad and funny. Growing up, Zimmerman had a great deal going for him. He was the best athlete in his bunk at Camp Akiba, hit a home run on the first pitch in his first Little League at-bat and, of the three colleges he applied to, decided to attend the one that accepted him.

He graduated with a degree in theater, but spent the next 29 years of his life as a waiter in restaurants, but working with a Jewish deli waiter attitude. A customer starts to flag him as he is walking to the table. When Zimmerman comes over, the customer says, “I’m in a hurry.” Zimmerman tells him, “So, go.”

Waiting on tables was a humbling experience for the college grad — and his mom. When her friends told her about their sons’ successes and giant mansions, all Zimmerman’s mother could brag about was, “If all goes well, I think Brad is gonna buy a book case.”

Zimmerman’s problem wasn’t that he went out on auditions and was turned down. It was that he didn’t even try.

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How a Midlife Crisis Turned Into Jewish Cabaret

By Curt Schleier

Daniel Cainer’s “Jewish Chronicles,” currently at the Soho Playhouse in New York, is a delightful cabaret act filled with Yiddishkeit and Yiddish-cute.

Cainer is a British Jew who grew up in an observant household, but, inexplicably, was sent to a Church of England School. (Ironically, he notes, the school later became a synagogue, proving “God has a sense of humor.”)

Cainer became a musician and composer, and admits he didn’t have “much to do with the Jewish world until recently,” when he experienced a “midlife kosher crisis.” That’s when a rabbi came to him in a dream and told him he should write a Jewish musical.

So here he is, sitting on a bare stage behind what presumably was a Yamaha electric piano, renamed a “Yamalka” for the occasion. Over his 80-minute set he sings a half dozen songs, which doesn’t sound like much. But they are not so much songs as ballads, short stories set to music, about his family and observations of life around him.

Cainer starts with a song about two tailors set to a ragtime beat — pausing only long enough to point out to the humorless that that was a joke — tailors, ragtime, get it? Would it have worked better for you if he said shmatte time?

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Does 'Money Grubbin' Play Need To Be Jewish?

By Curt Schleier

Photo: Zack DeZon

There is a good play lurking within Sean J. Quinn’s “Money Grubbin’ Whores.” More’s the pity.

“MGW” takes place in the basement of what appears to be an old pizzeria in what is now a Hispanic neighborhood. There will be a kid’s birthday party there tomorrow. A banner reading Felíz Cumpleaños is on the wall and a candy-filled piñata hangs from the ceiling. But today, this party room will serve as an unlikely divorce settlement room, rented for the occasion with just the promise of buying a pie.

First to enter are Matt (Adam Mucci) and Frankie (James Andrew O’Connor). Matt is a plumber and in the process of divorcing his wife, the supposed title character. Frankie is his life-long friend and a paving contractor who considers himself a “dealmaker.” He is going to help Matt and his wife end their marriage in an amicable and financially stable way.

It’s a difficult chore, because Matt is angry. Very angry. He’s angry because whenever he sees his wife she’s wearing new clothes, short dresses and push-up bras. “And she’s smiling all the time. She looks like she’s trying to be very happy. And she knows I’m not.”

Also, Matt feels his wife turned their daughter against him. The last time he saw her, Matt asked for a hug and she just stared at him.

And, finally, there is the money problem. His wife’s new look is apparently expensive. The push-up bra cost $175. All she wants, Matt feels, is his money.

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Writing 'The Americans' and Remaking 'Can-Can'

By Curt Schleier

Photo: Joan Marcus

Joel Fields had me at “Hello.”

He began our phone conversation like this:

“A quick hello and let me tell you I can’t believe I’m getting a chance to talk to someone at the Forward. It was such a big part of my childhood. My dad, who passed away in January, was a rabbi [Harvey Fields, long time head of the Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles]. I grew up in East Brunswick [N.J.]. We lived in Israel. We moved to Toronto where I attended the Bialik Hebrew Day School and learned Yiddish. And the Forward was always present in our lives.”

Eat your heart out, New York Times.

Fields made his bones as a television writer. He worked on “Ugly Betty” and “Rizzoli & Isles” and is currently writer and executive producer on “The Americans,” one of those hot water cooler shows on FX.

But that’s not the reason we’re talking. Along with writer David Lee (“Wings,” “Frasier”), Fields took on the daunting task of re-writing “Can-Can,” which opens October 1 at the Paper Mill Theater. The Abe Burrows-Cole Porter musical, featuring ageless songs such as “I Love Paris” and “C’est Magnifique,” was a success in both its Broadway and West End productions and spawned a Frank Sinatra movie. But subsequent revivals failed to wow audiences.

Fields spoke to his favorite paper about how this production came about, why it took more than a decade to make it to the stage, and why he doesn’t count his Broadway chickens before they hatch.

Curt Schleier: You’re a TV guy. How did come to make a musical?

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Clearing Hurdles at the Nazi Olympics

By Curt Schleier

Photo: Carol Rosegg

I’m certain everyone involved in “Olympics Uber Alles,” currently running off-Broadway, had good intentions. But as we all know, the road to Hell was paved with them. And while the play won’t lead audiences to the netherworld, it won’t leave them feeling a heavenly embrace, either.

History Professor Steve Feinstein (Tim Dowd) wants to mount an exhibit about anti-Semitism using the 1936 — or Nazi — Olympics as its prime example. But the museum curator, Kate McCarthy (Amy Handra), claims the event slots are reserved for minorities, and by minorities she means Blacks, Hispanics and Asians.

The play travels back and forth in time, from the ‘30s, when Marty Glickman and teammate Sam Stoller are kept from running in the Olympics, back to the present, when Feinstein tries to convince the museum board that Jews are a minority worthy of a spot on the schedule.

“Olympics” was written by Samuel J. Bernstein with the help of Marguerite Krupp, who provided, according to the program, “the Catholic perspective.” Bernstein, who has had some plays produced in smaller venues, is a professor of English at Northeastern University and Krupp lectures there as well.

This is not surprising since much of the dialogue sounds lecture-like rather than conversational. Even when a discussion becomes more relaxed, it’s clearly to establish a plot point rather than a natural outgrowth of the story.

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Good Intentions Aren't Enough for 'Good and the True'

By Curt Schleier

“The Good and the True,” a two-person play that just transferred to New York after runs in the U.K. and Belgium, unexpectedly became a potential nova-making vehicle.

The play originally starred Saul Reichlin as Milos Dobry (Dobry is Czech for “good”) and Isobel Pravda (Russian for “true” — hence the title), who played her grandmother Hana.

However, because of a glitch in a U.S. State Department computer, Isobel was unable to get her visa, and the producers, with limited access to the theater (a new show begins there in mid-September), had no choice but to start without her.

Enter understudy Hannah D. Scott. I was, of course, hoping for a Lou Gehrig or Leonard Bernstein moment, where a last-minute substitute steps in and becomes a star.

Sadly it’s not to be. Both Scott and Reichlin are competent, but are hampered by a script that is surprisingly vanilla.

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London's Crusade Drama Falls Flat

By Liam Hoare

Photo: Marc Brenner

Is this the most ill opportune time to mount a “fantasia on the Third Crusade and the history of violent struggle in the Holy Lands”? That’s how the pompous, Kushner-esque subtitle of David Eldridge’s underbaked new play “Holy Warriors” would have it.

London’s Globe Theatre might believe this is quite the coup, for what better time to stage a play about war in the Middle East than in a time of war in the Middle East? But the debate surrounding the Arab-Israeli conflict — so polarized and contentious at the best of times — becomes even more entrenched, bitter and blind during periods of armed struggle. The instinct to pick a side overtakes the mind and ears close to nuance, including the nuance of art.

But perhaps in the case of “Holy Warriors” (running in repertory until August 24), the notion that its subtlety might be lost shouldn’t be of much concern. The play’s first act is a well staged and often engaging canter through 12th-century Levantine history, beginning in Damascus with Saladin’s decision to march upon Jerusalem, through the Battle of Hattin, the capitulation of the Christian rulers of Jerusalem in 1197, and the Third Crusade and Richard the Lionheart’s failure to recapture Jerusalem from its Muslim rulers.

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Manhattan Project's Forgotten Humanist

By Lisa Amand

Photo: Carol Rosegg

Growing up in Australia, Danny Ginges was both fascinated and fearful of the atomic bomb, and as an adult delved deeper into the story of the scientists who created the monster. The more he discovered of these men (and woman) and their top-secret Manhattan Project, the clearer it became that one name was lesser known than the others.

Ginges was working in advertising in Sydney in 2002 when he wrote a screenplay revolving around Leo Szilard, the Hungarian-American, Jewish physicist who conceived nuclear chain reaction. A decade later Ginges’s project has evolved into the big, polished, off-Broadway musical “Atomic,” on through August 16 at Theatre Row’s Acorn Theatre.

“When I came across Szilard’s story it both engaged me and enraged me,” Ginges said. “My anger that such an important figure should be forgotten by history is the fuel that’s driven me this far, and continues to drive me every single day. I feel very strongly that Szilard has a message for today. Fifty years after his death, it’s high time it was told.”

Oppenheimer, performed by Euan Morton, narrates the fleet-footed show that includes a surprising mix of gleeful dancing and rock music (by Philip Foxman), a daring contrast with the tragedies of the Holocaust and World War ll (cue “Springtime for Hitler”). Book and lyrics are by Gregory Bonsignore and Ginges, who hopes “Atomic” restarts a dialog. ”A lot of people don’t want to deal with this event, even after this much time. But it’s better not to have things locked up in a closet.”

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'Shakespeare in Love' Adaptation Gets Rave Reviews in London

By Edward Baran

Courtesy of the Walt Disney Company

(Reuters) - The Disney-backed stage adaptation of the hit film “Shakespeare in Love” won nearly across-the-board rave reviews in London this week, to the relief of its creators who are pleased that their big gamble looks set to pay off.

The show, based on the 1998 Hollywood movie starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Joseph Fiennes, received a standing ovation from its opening night audience on Wednesday at the Noel Coward theater in London’s West End theater district.

With the backing of the Disney organization, which is behind money-spinners like the “The Lion King,” and co-production by leading British producer Sonia Friedman, the stage revamp has gone straight to a commercial theater instead of having the benefit of a first run at a government-subsidized venue, as is common in British theater.

“Obviously something like this was such a huge production which is probably the biggest play that has even been put on in the West End,” playwright Lee Hall, who did the adaptation from the movie script that was in part written by Tom Stoppard, told Reuters on Wednesday.

“We have got 28 in the cast and a dog, quite a complicated set, it’s been years in the planning, and I am stunned to finally get here but it’s wonderful to get such a warm response,” he added.

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A Refugee Pianist, Played by Her Daughter

By Curt Schleier

Lisa Jura was a talented teenage pianist who dreamed of one day performing the Grieg piano concerto with the Vienna Philharmonic at the famed Musikverein. It was a lofty ambition, to be sure, but she had the talent and will to make it happen.

Unfortunately, it was 1938 and her life and the lives of all of Austria’s Jews were about to be turned upside down. Her story is told in “The Pianist of Willesden Lane,” a powerful, emotional drama that runs through August 24 at the 59E59 Theaters in Manhattan.

The play is especially fascinating because not only is the story true, but it is told by her daughter, Mona Golabek, an extremely talented pianist in her own right. Golabek plays her mother and all of the show’s other characters. The play is based on a book, “The Children of Willesden Lane,” written by Golabek and Lee Cohen.

To a very sad degree, the narrative is familiar. The Jura family lived a comfortable middle class existence. Lisa’s dad had a successful tailor shop. Lisa herself went every Friday for piano lessons, until the Anschluss.

Lisa’s father, Mona’s grandfather, secured one pass on the Kindertransport. Perhaps because she was so talented, Lisa — and not one of her two sisters — was awarded the prize.

At the train station before leaving for England, Lisa’s mother tells her: “Never stop playing and hold on to your music.”

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Why 'Bert Berns Story' Is Best Summer Musical

By Curt Schleier

Photo: Jenny Anderson

Bert Berns is the best pop songwriter you never heard of.

“Piece of My Heart: The Bert Berns Story” is the best new musical of the summer, and you heard that here first.

Berns was an angst-ridden Jewish kid from the Bronx, haunted by a weak heart and a doctor’s predictions that he wouldn’t live beyond 30. He died at 38, but not before writing a slew of hits including “Twist and Shout,” “Hang on Sloopy” and “Cry Baby” (among many others). He also produced early hits for Neil Diamond, Solomon Burke and Van Morrison (among others).

“Piece of My Heart” is a highly entertaining (if not entirely factual), toe-tapping retelling of Berns’s story. Book writer Daniel Goldfarb (“Modern Orthodox,” “Adam Baum and the Jew Movie”) has taken an imaginative approach.

Bert’s daughter, Jessie (Leslie Kritzler) gets a mysterious phone call urging her to return to New York, to her father’s office. When she gets there, she meets Carmine “Wassel” DeNoia (Joseph Siravo), her dad’s best friend, manager and supporter, who has mob connections.

He’s concerned because Jessie’s mom, Ilene (Linda Hart), is about to sell Bert’s catalogue. Jessie, who ostensibly was only 10 days old when her father passed away, knew nothing of this. She didn’t even know he had an office, so Wassel takes her on a journey into the past.

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Szymon Szurmiej, Jewish Actor and Polish Leader, Dies at 91

By JTA

Wikipedia

(JTA) — The Jewish actor and director Szymon Szurmiej, the longtime head of Poland’s State Jewish Theatre, has died.

Szurmiej, a leading Jewish figure for years during the post-Holocaust communist era, died Wednesday in Warsaw. He was 91.

He survived the widespread anti-Semitic purges of 1968 and, in addition to heading the theater since 1970, served as the longtime president of the Social and Cultural Association of Polish Jews, or TSKZ, a secular, state-allied body that was one of the few Jewish organizations permitted to operate under communism.

Szurmiej also served as a member of Poland’s Parliament in the 1980s and represented Polish Jewry in international Jewish organizations.

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David Ives Tells Truths About Roman Polanski

By Dorri Olds

Playwright David Ives got a telephone message from Roman Polanski: “I love your play and want to turn it into a movie.” The two didn’t know each other. Imagine getting a voicemail like that.

It would be an oversimplification to say Roman Polanski’s “Venus in Fur” is about sadomasochism, but technically it is. It’s about sex and power and humiliation, yet there’s nothing really sexy about it. It’s more a study of the nature of human relationships — to dominate or be dominated. It’s seen through the prism of two lonely people on the edge, played by Polanski’s wife, Emmanuelle Seigner, and Mathieu Amalric, an actor who looks eerily like a younger Polanski.

When you throw Polanski’s name into this story — that of a man who’s successfully avoided prosecution for raping a minor — the project takes on a new significance. But, as with Woody Allen, Polanski’s supreme artistry can overshadow what we don’t know and don’t want to know.

The Forward’s Dorri Olds landed an exclusive interview with Ives, who spoke about his collaboration with Polanski for their “Venus in Fur” screenplay and to elaborate on his time spent with a genius on the lam.

Dorri Olds: Where did you meet Polanski?

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'Making Stalin Laugh' Finds Humor in Tragedy

By Liam Hoare

Photo: Simon Annand/JW3

The second act of David Schneider’s new play, “Making Stalin Laugh,” opens in 1935, the year the Moscow State Yiddish Theater decided to mount a production of “King Lear” with its legendary director Solomon Mikhoels as the lead. Lear, Mikhoels tells the cast as the party apparatchiki watch over his rehearsal, is a “tragedy about the slow disintegration of a man’s illusions. Illusions don’t shatter overnight,” Mikhoels states, “they wither.”

A comedy within a tragedy, “Making Stalin Laugh” — premiering this month at London’s JW3 — is also about the slow withering of illusion: in this case, the notion held onto by Mikhoels that Jewish culture could survive in a state that saw Yiddish and Judaism as anachronisms, antithetical to revolution and progress.

“Making Stalin Laugh” follows the fate of the Moscow State Yiddish Theater from around the time of its production of “The Travels of Benjamin III” in 1927 until the assassination of Mikhoels by the Ministry for State Security in Minsk in 1948, the closure of the theatre company in 1949, and the Night of the Murdered Poets on August 12, 1952. Having been arrested on charges of espionage and treason, the Soviet Union’s most prominent Yiddish writers were executed as part of Stalin’s wider campaign against “rootless cosmopolitans.”

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Learning the Wrong Lessons From the Rosenbergs

By Curt Schleier

Photo: Rahav Segev/Photopass

There are lessons to be learned from “Ethel Sings,” the new play about the Rosenbergs running through mid-July in Manhattan.

The most obvious is about the dangers of governmental overreach. Also: less is more. And both playwright Joan Beber and director Will Pomerantz would do well to learn that.

“Ethel Sings” is a potentially powerful story burdened by totally unnecessary over writing and directing. It’s been a little over six decades since the couple were executed, but much of their story remains hauntingly familiar.

Ethel (Tracy Michailidis) and Julius (Ari Butler) meet at a Young Communist League. She wants to become a singer; he wants to change the world. In a country where anti-Semitism and racism flourish, he sees communism as a beacon of hope.

Ethel is less enthralled with politics and concerned that her husband’s affiliation keeps getting him fired. She urges him to quit the Party.

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Ruth Bader Ginsburg Watched Her Life Onstage

By Renee Ghert-Zand

Photo: Ari Roth

Despite having had a long, busy day at the US Supreme Court this past Monday, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg made a point of attending a special performance of “Stars of David: Story to Song” in Washington that evening. The performance of the musical review celebrating the lives of Jewish public figures — including Ginsburg herself — was a benefit for Theater J, a program of the Washington DC Jewish Community Center.

To the delight of the cast, the 81-year-old Justice visited them backstage after the performance to express her appreciation. “She was very expressive,” actor and singer Aaron Serotsky, who was in the original “Stars of David” off-Broadway run in New York last fall, shared with the Forward the next day. Ginsburg reportedly told him and the others that she was moved to laughter and tears as she watched the show, which is based on the best-selling book by Abigail Pogrebin and features original music by Broadway’s finest composers and lyricists.

According to Serotsky, the cast was made aware just an hour before curtain time that the Justice, who had been invited to the benefit performance by Theater J artistic director Ari Roth, was actually going to show up. “We knew she was there when a female security guard showed up backstage,” Serotsky recalled.

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How a Theater Legend Overcame the Odds

By Curt Schleier

“Act One,” Moss Hart’s inspirational memoir, is the story of the son of Jewish immigrants who found and successfully pursued his passion for theater despite — or because of — his family’s impoverished circumstances.

Hart’s muse was his Aunt Kate, an eccentric woman who encouraged his love of theater, where he found “a refuge for an unhappy child … a scrawny, poor kid with bad teeth, a funny name and a mother who was a drudge.”

In addition to abject poverty, Hart had a difficult relationship with both of his parents, particularly his father, who forced him to quit school after the eighth grade to work and contribute to the family coffers.

Still, he managed to become one of the 20th century’s greatest playwrights (“You Can’t Take It With You,” which won the Pulitzer Prize, and “The Man Who Came to Dinner”), Broadway directors (the original “My Fair Lady” and “Camelot”) and screenwriters (“A Gentleman’s Agreement,” “A Star is Born”).

Hart died unexpectedly at age 59, so he never had a chance to write a second chapter to his memoir incorporating many of these achievements. Still, those early years provided more than enough drama for a successful play — or at least they should have.

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