The Arty Semite

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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How Adam Jacobs Became a Disney Prince

By Curt Schleier

Adam Jacobs has a 1,000-megawatt smile that would put the young Donny Osmond to shame. And he puts it on constant display at the New Amsterdam Theatre in the heart of Times Square, where he plays the title character in the latest Disney megahit, the well-received “Aladdin.”

The son of a Filipino mother and Jewish father, Jacobs sings and dances up a storm as he makes the transition from street ragamuffin to successful suitor for Princess Jasmine’s heart.

Jacobs spent some time recently with the Forward to discuss how he became the go-to actor for Disney royalty, the difference between taking over a theater role and creating one, and balancing princely and fatherly duties.

Curt Schleier: This is not your first shot at Disney royalty, is it?

Adam Jacobs: Not if you count Simba [a role Jacobs played in “The Lion King”] as a prince, even though he’s a lion. He’s the king of the pride. Now I’ve stepped into the role of Aladdin who becomes Prince Ali. I didn’t go into this career knowing that was going to happen, but I’ll take it.

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Fran Drescher Is More Than 'The Nanny'

By Curt Schleier

An idiosyncrasy of the cavernous Broadway Theater in Manhattan — currently home to the hit show “Cinderella” — is that actors need to traverse the stage to get from their dressing rooms to the stage door. So it’s where I wait for Fran Drescher, who has very successfully traversed from lovable Jewish nanny to evil step mom.

But when she appears, it’s more like the fairy godmother — or at least someone with magical powers. Though it’s been 15 years since the finale of her hit TV sitcom, “The Nanny,” the 56-year-old actress hasn’t seemed to age a bit. And that’s not all that hasn’t changed.

There is, of course, the familiar voice, one the adjective nasal only begins to describe. No, she says, in response to a question, she is not comfortable “playing a character that you love to hate. I love playing characters you love to love.”

So the first time she ripped a fancy gown from Cinderella (Carly Rae Jepsen), she actually apologized to the young singer. Recalling that moment, Drescher laughs. That laugh. The laugh once called “the sound of a Buick with an empty gas tank cold cranking on a winter morning.”

Several days later on the phone, she continues the thread of that conversation, speaking also about how she got to Broadway and the perils of her very public life.

Curt Schleier: Did you really apologize to Carly Rae after the scene?

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Love Doomed in the Havana Harbor

By Joshua Furst

In 1939, Cuba’s Batista government, in collaboration with the government of the United States, delayed a ship called the SS St. Louis, which carried 937 Jewish-German refugees, in the Havana harbor. Despite assurances that they would be granted asylum, the refugees were told that they could not enter Cuba without a visa. Twenty-two were eventually allowed to come ashore. The rest were sent back to Germany, where they were interned at Mechelen and put to death.

This shameful event in the history of American-Cuban relations provides the back-story for “Sotto Voce,” the new play written and directed by Pulitzer Prize-winner Nilo Cruz, now running at Theater for the New City. The play follows a young Cuban-Jewish student, an aspiring writer named Saquiel Rafaeli (Andhy Mendez), who has come to New York City to track down the acclaimed German novelist Bemadette Kahn (Franca Sofia Barchiesi) after discovering that she was once the lover Ariel Strauss, one of the passengers on the SS St. Louis. After gradually earning her trust, and seducing her sassy but sentimental illegal immigrant housekeeper Lucila Pulpo (played by Arielle Jacobs, whose model good looks belie the play’s descriptions of her as plain and possibly overweight), he unlocks Bemadette’s repressed memories the war and the role her family played in Strauss’s death.

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The Year of Jason Robert Brown

By Curt Schleier

This will definitely be composer Jason Robert Brown’s year.

A musical version of Robert James Waller’s “The Bridges of Madison County” (music, lyrics and orchestration by Jason Robert Brown) opens February 20 on Broadway.

“Honeymoon in Vegas” (music, lyrics, dance and vocal orchestration by Jason Robert Brown), which received rapturous reviews during its debut at the Paper Mill Theater in New Jersey, opens on Broadway in the fall.

The film version of his innovative off-Broadway play, “The Last Five Years” (book, music and lyrics by Jason…you get the picture) will be in theaters later this year.

All this on top of the Tony he won (best original music score) for “Parade,” about the Leo Frank trial and “13,” his Broadway follow-up, about a young bar mitzvah-age boy transplanted from New York to the Midwest after his parents divorce.

I first saw Jason perform almost 20 years ago at a small suburban theater not far from Monsey, NY, where he grew up. I wish I could say I purposely sought out the show. Actually, his show was — to my way of thinking — just thrown in as part of a subscription to the plays I really wanted to see. But it wasn’t very long before he blew away with a musical review, “Songs for a New World.”

After that I followed him almost everywhere, walking that fine line between sycophant and stalker. I saw “The Last Five Years,” the story of his first marriage. I sat across the aisle from him at a preview performance of “Parade.” (For the record, that was a coincidence.)

At “13,” the PR folks gave out CDs of the score with the press kit and I rushed to him to get it autographed. He told me I was the first.

Finally, at the Paper Mill, I saw him in the lobby, reminded him of our past and begged him for an interview. He said three magic words I’ll never forget: “See the publicist.”

Well it wasn’t “no.” So here we are, a few weeks before Madison County is slated to open, and Jason is on the phone.

Curt Schleier: When did you realize you’re a genius?

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How To Be More Than One Josh Cohen at a Time

By Curt Schleier

The first time I spoke to Steve Rosen, almost 10 years ago, I credited him with sole responsibility for the Broadway production of “Spamalot.” Forget Monty Python. It was a Steve Rosen production.

Rosen played Sir Bedevere as well as several other characters, and of course participated in the chorus of the song that generated the most audience reaction, “You Won’t Succeed On Broadway.” It went like this:

In any great adventure,
that you don’t want to lose,
victory depends upon the people that you choose.
So, listen, Arthur darling, closely to this news:
We won’t succeed on Broadway,
If you don’t have any Jews.

The song went on to suggest that without Jews all you’ll get is boos. Your show won’t be saved even with great reviews, if you don’t have any Jews.

It turned out I was wrong. After the story was published, director Mike Nichols approached Rosen and said “You’re not the only out Jew in this production.”

Rosen offered that postscript in a phone conversation about his latest production, “The Other Josh Cohen.” It opens February 23 at the Paper Mill Theatre in Millburn, N.J., in what Rosen hopes is a pre-Broadway run.

The show originally ran off-Broadway for a brief Hurricane Sandy-interrupted run. But good reviews have prompted producers to resurrect the show.

Curt Schleier: I thought it was an inventive show and great fun. Where did that come from?

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A Different Kind of 'Right of Return'

By Ed Rampell

The Jewish people’s “right of return” is a cornerstone of Zionist philosophy, and was enshrined into law shortly after the creation of the State of Israel. According to this principle, any Jew from around the world can relocate to Israel and become a citizen.

Playwright Israel Horovitz’s “Lebensraum” — currently being revived in Los Angeles by the Harold Clurman Laboratory Theater Company — opens with an outrageous twist on this tenet. As the German Chancellor wakes from a dream, he decides to invite six million Jews to move to and live in Germany.

The “Fatherland,” indeed. The Chancellor’s offer sends shockwaves across contemporary Germany, as well as wherever dispersed Jewry dwells, from Europe to America to Australia to Israel and beyond. Jews begin to trickle in and then flock to avail themselves of the Chancellor’s seemingly generous proposal. But there are some, including members of a Jewish Defense League-type group from Israel, who smell a rat and suspect that the 1,000 year Reich is up to its old tricks. They believe the German invitation is really an insidious ruse to finish the Nazis’ “Final Solution.” Add to this combustible concoction unemployed Aryans who, amidst an economic downturn, must compete for limited jobs and resources with a formerly despised minority who are now being given preferential treatment — in what could be their millions.

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Finding ‘Homeland’ at L.A. Women’s Theatre Fest

By Ed Rampell

Photo Credit: Caideco Productions

For 20-plus years, the Los Angeles Women’s Theatre Festival has been one of L.A.’s top theater events, highlighting multi-cultural female performers for the live stage. This year, LAWTF — which begins properly on March 27 — is being preceded over three February weekends at the Fremont Centre Theatre by “From the Best of the Fest,” a selection of the finest performances by solo performing women artists who have previously presented their work during the Festival’s 20-year span. It is serendipitous that on February 6 the very first piece to kick off this “Best of the Fest” happens to be my favorite act I’ve ever encountered at LAWTF: Sariyah Idan’s breathtaking “Homeless in Homeland.”

In this riveting one-woman show, the protean Idan (formerly known as Saria Idana) morphs into about 17 Jewish, Palestinian, male and female characters, ranging from childhood to old age, as she explores the complexities of the Arab-Israeli conflict. What’s a progressive young Jew to do when the oppressed appear to have become the oppressor? To find out Idan, made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, including to a refugee camp and other sites in the West Bank. Unlike Dorothy, she may not have gone over the rainbow, but the dancer and actress encountered a divided realm every bit as strange as Oz.

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Why I’m Going to See an ‘Anti-Israel’ Play

By Erika Dreifus

A few months ago, thanks in part to The Forward, I became aware of a controversy at Theater J. An organization housed within the Washington DC Jewish Community Center (DCJCC), the theater had announced its 2013-2014 season, which was to include a production of “The Admission” by Israeli playwright Motti Lerner.

Key to this play are contrasting and layered Israeli and Palestinian narratives about what happened in an Arab village during the 1948 war for Israeli independence. Arguing that by staging this play Theater J, the DCJCC, and the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington were “promoting a discredited and defamatory lie against Israel,” a committee called Citizens Opposed to Propaganda Masquerading as Art (COPMA) implemented an energetic and public campaign against it.

I confess that the merest hint of anti-Israel sentiment can set me on edge, even (perhaps especially) when that sentiment appears to come from my coreligionists. In this instance, my immediate reaction was to sympathize with COPMA’s argument that Federation (or other Jewish community-sourced) funds should not go to disparaging, demonizing, or delegitimizing the Jewish state. But without having read or seen “The Admission” for myself, I couldn’t be certain that the play was guilty as COPMA had charged it.

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Carole King Musical Is More Than a Jukebox Show

By Curt Schleier

Somewhere in the universe of critics, a Broadway purist will dismiss “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” as just another jukebox show.

Joan Marcus

But don’t mention that to Jarrod Spector, 32, who portrays Barry Mann: “A jukebox musical is something like ‘Mamma Mia,’ where you take a bunch of songs and make up a story around them. ‘Beautiful’ is a bio-musical. Rather than a story out of context, you’re actually getting a look at the genesis of these songs. You’re getting a look at the music industry in the ‘60s, when a bunch of Jewish teenagers sat in little rooms and wrote songs for black singers and soul groups.”

Jake Epstein, 26, who plays Gerry Goffin, adds: “This is a show about how these songs came to be.”

The music of King and Goffin, her writing partner and former husband, and Barry Mann and his wife and writing partner Cynthia Weil, with songs such as “Take Good Care of my Baby,” “Up on the Roof,” “On Broadway” and “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” among others, helped define the baby boomer generation.

Spector and Epstein spoke to the Forward about the music they listened to growing up, Jewish mothers, and playing drums in a Rage Against the Machine cover band.

Curt Schleier: Were you a fan of this music growing up?

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Power Couple Behind 'Handle With Care '

By Curt Schleier

“Handle With Care” starts with a loud monologue unintelligible to most audience members because it’s in Hebrew. True, that’s not how plays typically begin — at least outside of Tel Aviv — but somehow it all works. In fact, The New York Times called the show “hilarious and heartwarming.”

While top billing goes to Carol Lawrence, the main character and screamer, Ayelet, is played by Charlotte Cohn, in real life a former Israeli tank commander who, as it happens, is married to the playwright, Jason Odell Williams.

What Ayelet is yelling about is that the body of her deceased grandmother Edna (Lawrence) has somehow disappeared. The two were vacationing in the U.S. when grandma passed. The body was in an airport-bound package delivery truck that was stolen with its contents. In the process of recovering the truck, fate and love eventually triumph.

Cohn was born in Denmark to a Danish father and an Israeli mother, but was raised in Jerusalem. She served in the military for five years as tank commander and in intelligence. She saw action, but “can’t really talk about it.”

Williams says his background “is not as interesting,” but his present certainly is. In addition to having his first play produced, he’s a writer/producer of the Emmy-nominated children’s show, “Brain Game,” and his first novel, “Personal Statement,” published last August, was promptly optioned by a film studio.

Cohn and Williams spoke to the Forward about how her parents met cute, how they met themselves, and how the play came about.

Curt Schleier: Your father is Danish. Your mother is Israeli. How did they meet?

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