Glen Berger wasn’t surprised when the announcement came. He’d had an inkling that “Spiderman: Turn off the Dark” was on the last of its eight legs well before producers made it official.
“I was speaking to some of the actors back in August, and the general feeling was that unless a miracle happens we were going to close in January,” he told the Forward. “It wasn’t the attendance or the grosses, but the weekly running costs were that high.”
Berger was hired by Julie Taymor, who conceived and directed the play, to co-write the book with her. Along with the show’s composers, Bono and The Edge of U2, Berger ultimately split with Taymor, and re-imagined the play, which officially opened in mid-2011.
Berger wrote about that experience in “Song of Spider-Man: The Inside Story of the Most Controversial Musical in Broadway History.” He spoke to the Forward about the critical response to the play, his 13-year leave of absence from Judaism, and what he discovered when he returned.
Curt Schleier: What were you doing when you were selected to co-write Spiderman?
Glen Berger: I was the head writer of the PBS children’s show, “Fetch.” It was an animated program with a mandate to teach science to kids. It was seen every week by 2 or 3 million people. A lot of people say Glen Berger was plucked from obscurity. But my show was seen every week by more people than “The Lion King” in its first five years.
Woody Guthrie sang of America’s “redwood forests” and “gulf stream waters.” The traveling troubadour and American folk poet electrified a nation with his paeans to America’s indomitable spirit and beauty.
Oklahoma-born and Texas-raised, he also ignited mighty debates with songs and writings that took on the establishment and sought to elevate the working masses. His guitar bore the message: “This machine kills fascists.” And he even has a Jewish connection, that lives on in some of his music and his ideals.
His baldly patriotic hymn to his country, “This Land Is Your Land,” features a stanza that states: “In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people, / By the relief office I seen my people; / As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking / Is this land made for you and me?”
Guthrie’s songs, spirit and life have been brought to the stage in a 90-minute musical biography written and performed by actor and musician David Lutken. His “Woody Sez,” developed with Nick Corley, tells the singer/songwriter’s story in song.
“Growing up in Texas I learned a lot of folk songs that had to do with the West and with America,” Lutken said. “Woody Guthrie was right in there. I didn’t know at the time when I was singing his ‘Take Me Riding in the Car Car’ when I was 5 that that was job training.” The show premiered at the Edinburgh Fringe festival in 2007 and has since toured the U.S. and beyond. It returns to Washington, D.C.’s Theater J through December 14 and then moves to Milwaukee Repertory Theater in January.
“Lies My Father Told Me” is one of the most ambitious productions in the 99-year history of the National Yiddish Theatre-Folksbiene. The musical has a large and extremely talented cast of 17. It features an innovative, Broadway-caliber set (by John C. Dining). And it has a long and storied history, both as an award-winning film and a play with music.
“Lies” is based on the autobiographical works of Ted Allan, a Canadian writer, who grew up in a poor Montreal neighborhood in the 1920s. His doppelgänger here is David Herman, who lives with his grandfather and parents.
Young David (Alex Dreier, definitely a star in the making) is caught between his beloved Tevye-like Zaida (Chuck Karel) and his father, Harry (Jonathan Raviv).
Zaida is a junk man, who takes David with him on his Sunday rounds, regaling him with Jewish stories and wisdom along the way. Harry fancies himself more modern and constantly belittles the older man and his beliefs.
If the inter-generational battle between religion and secular had been the central plot line, it would have been sufficiently involving. But Harry is also mean and delusional, blinded by ambition and always coming up with hair-brained schemes to make money. If that’s not enough, he’s also — at least by contemporary standards — abusive to his wife and son.
“Every Day a Visitor” is a play about seniors living — no, make that confined — in a faded Bronx nursing home. They have no family, friends or, very soon, an audience nearby.
Based on a short story by playwright Richard Abrons and presented off-Broadway a dozen years ago, the play tells the story of seven residents in a home that, as one resident describes it, “is not how I pictured ending up.”
The home has seen better days, when it was filled with people. Now it’s just these seven residents subsisting on a meagre diet and few activities.
An attendant suggests that the seven can improve their spirits and empower themselves by assuming the persona of famous individuals. So soon we have a would-be LaGuardia, Bella Abzug, and Kissinger strutting around the stage. Moreover, the most withdrawn and ill of them assumes the role of president.
His first edict is that if one is hospitalized, someone from the group would visit him or her every day. For some reason, their play-acting energizes the group, and even makes them nicer to each other — though why this happens is never clear.
After watching the excellent production of “Becoming Dr. Ruth,” at Manhattan’s West End Theatre, my first thought was that someone had handed playwright Mark St. Germain (creator of “Freud’s Last Session”) a gimme.
On the face of it, all Germain had to do was stick a microphone in front of the voluble sex therapist, transcribe her words, and there you have it: a play.
Because what a rich life she’s lived, filled with sadness and joy and the drama that makes great theater.
To his credit, Germain resisted the temptation to turn this into the burlesque it could easily have become. Nor does he dwell on the moments of pathos. Instead he does a delicate balancing act, effortlessly shifting between the ups and downs and taking the audience with him.
It’s the same approach smartly taken by star Debra Jo Rupp (“That ‘70s Show”), rrrrrolling her Rs, of course, German accent intact, but never reducing her role to a parody.
The play is set in 1997, a little more than two months after the unexpected death of Dr. Ruth’s third husband, Fred. She is cleaning out her Washington Heights apartment because, despite its spectacular views of the New Jersey Palisades across the Hudson River and of the George Washington and Tappen Zee Bridges, despite the objections of both her children, she feels she needs to move on.
(Reuters) — Anthony Weiner, the New York City mayoral candidate undone by a sexting scandal, stands in a schoolyard — the butt of his classmates’ jokes. A chorus of reporters breaks out into a sexually charged dance number during a Weiner press conference.
A new play about the misbegotten campaign of Weiner, the former Congressman whose political ambitions were crushed by revelations he sent women lewd pictures of himself, is based on actual texts and modeled on Greek tragedy.
The play, “The Weiner Monologues,” opens on November 6 — one day after New Yorkers go to the polls to elect the city’s next mayor.
“It’s about this very familiar story of one man’s hubris leading to his downfall,” said Jonathan Harper Schlieman, 27, who conceived the play along with fellow theater major John Oros, 23, for their senior project at Hunter College in Manhattan.
“The Weiner Monologues” examines the role of the public and the media as actors in the drama. It is based on transcripts of conversations Weiner had with women over social media that the women then leaked to the press, articles about the scandal and Weiner’s news conferences immortalized on YouTube.
“It’s the Heisenberg principle: The act of observation changes the thing being observed,” said Schlieman, who is also the play’s director.
Kathryn Grody is besieged.
The actress, on her way home after a recent preview performance of “The Model Apartment,” hadn’t made it out of the lobby when several audience members waylaid her. What happened next is both a tribute to Donald Margulies’ play and to Grody.
The play is intense and at times difficult to watch. Max (Mark Blum) and Lola (Grody) are survivors — she of the camps, he hiding in the woods. They’ve left Brooklyn for a new development in Florida, but arrived before their apartment was ready. So the developer puts them up in a model apartment where all the appliances are fake.
As they fled the Nazis they now flee from their daughter, who is obese and emotionally disturbed, but who somehow manages to get out of the institution where she lives and find them. She’s soon followed by her much younger and also troubled African-American boyfriend.
“The Model Apartment” is about many things, including the impact of the Shoah on the children of survivors. But much of what happens is open to the interpretation of audience members. Which is why the ladies hung around after the show to discuss what they’d seen and approach Grody on her way out.
Grody patiently answered all of their questions and more. As she told The Arty Semite several days later, “I ended up going out with one of the women. I continued to talk on the sidewalk with her. I was going to take a taxi home and was going to give her a lift if she lived on the West Side. But she lived on the East Side, so we started walking towards 84th Street. And when we got there I told her I was going to get a bite to eat. I didn’t get home until one in the morning. I’m sending her a Haggadah; Mandy [Patinkin, her husband] and I made our own Passover Haggadah and I’m putting that in the mail to her.”
During the rest of a telephone interview, Grody spoke about her take on the play, why no one thinks she’s Jewish and who cleans her kitchen.
Curt Schleier: This is a very uncomfortable play.
Despite a highly successful playwriting career, Donald Margulies has not had much luck with “The Model Apartment.” For convoluted reasons the 30-year-old play has not yet enjoyed a fully successful production in New York. Ironically, when Primary Stages produced the work in 1995, critics were enthusiastic and the play won an OBIE. But it folded quickly when the lead actor jumped ship.
The play, opening October 15, is now being given a new lease on life. Primary Stages is reviving the dark comedy about aging Holocaust survivors, whose inability to deal with their own tortured history has shaped their grown daughter’s troubled life.
Margulies believes the zeitgeist is right for the play. Perhaps it’s taken three decades for audiences simply to “accept a post-modern take on the Holocaust,” he speculated during a phone interview from his New Haven home. “We’ve now had Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Inglorious Basterds’ and Art Spiegelman’s ‘Maus.’ This is ‘Oy Vey!’ humor. It’s irreverent. Previously, the play might have seemed untouchable.”
“This is not a sentimental play,” he continued. “It’s just the opposite. I’m demystifying the Holocaust by bringing the enormity of the event into a prosaic setting. Max and Lola are once again fleeing. But this time, they’re fleeing from their daughter. The challenge is to demystify without being disrespectful. I love all the characters.”
Set in the 1980s, the Holocaust couple (played by Mark Blum and Kathryn Grody) takes refuge in an ill-functioning but perfectly appointed model apartment in Florida. When their morbidly obese daughter and her African-American boyfriend (Diane Davis and Hubert Point-Du Jour) surface shortly thereafter, the already dysfunctional family spirals out of control. They all suffer from distorted memories that evoke nightmarish imagery.
Google and Moscow’s main Jewish Museum launched a virtual exhibition on Russian Jewish theater.
The project was launched last week on a dedicated, English-language website that is part of Google’s Milestones in History series and is accessible online worldwide.
The Internet giant set up the exhibition conjointly with Moscow’s Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center, according to a report published last week by the Russian news site Jewish.ru.
The museum, opened in November 2012, is the sixth Russian cultural institution to team up with Google, according to the Komersant newspaper.
“We believe that we are facilitating a dialogue between our children and our grandfathers and great-grandfathers,” Peter Adamczyk, Google’s head of programs for southeast Europe, told the news site News.ru.
Joshua Harmon applied for admission to the Juilliard School’s prestigious playwriting program three times. Three times he was told sorry, try again. On his fourth attempt, “Bad Jews” got him in.
No, that’s not a reference to crooked admissions officers. “Bad Jews” is Harmon’s play about relatives battling over a special chai pendant that belonged to their late grandfather.
The play opened for a brief run last fall in The Roundabout Theatre’s 62-seat Black Box venue to rapturous reviews. It’s success prompted a move to the larger Laura Pels Theatre, where it opens October 3.
The fight at the play’s center is between Daphna (Tracee Chimo), the most religiously observant of three grandchildren, and her cousin Liam (Michael Zegen), who doesn’t believe at all and wants the chai to give to his non-Jewish girlfriend.
The verbal sparring gets heated and even physical at one point, often prompting debate from departing audience members. Harmon spoke to The Arty Semite about his “very exciting ride,” the play’s title, and why he likes to stand in the back of the the theater almost every night.
Curt Schleier: You’re a playwriting student with an off-Broadway production under your belt. You’re probably more successful than your teachers.
One of the toughest tickets on Broadway today is “Book of Mormon,” the hilarious spoof on the Church of Latter Day Saints. It is a hoot. But I distinctly remember how uncomfortable I was as I watched, even while laughing out loud.
My personal litmus test in these situations is, what if the writers were making fun of me? Would I still be laughing?
Those of you who want to find what it feels like when you’re the target of jokes need only attend a screening of “Jewtopia,” which opens in select cities around the country September 20. Based on the play of the same name it is a sad exercise in self-mockery that uses virtually every stereotype to ridicule Jewish characters.
Actually, they’re more like caricatures. There isn’t a full-blooded character to be found anywhere. If the script were written by non-Jews, the ADL would be screaming, and with good cause.
Writers Bryan Fogel (who also directed) and Sam Wolfson actually started out with a potentially engaging concept. Christian O’Connell, who is not Christian in name alone, dated a Jewish girl in college who made all decisions for him. She broke up with Chris at graduation when they were about to enter “the real world,” where, of course, she’d marry a Jew.
On the 60th anniversary of “Waiting For Godot,” Samuel Beckett’s existential comic-tragedy will be staged in Yiddish for the first time. It’s an idea that is both obvious, and ground-breaking, casting a new light on the masterpiece.
The play will run from September 20 to October 13 at the Castillo Theatre in Manhattan (543 W. 42nd St.) and is the brainchild of David Mandelbaum, artistic director of the six-year-old New Yiddish Rep, a company dedicated to presenting Yiddish plays and Yiddish adaptations of classical and contemporary works.
“Though Yiddish theater has a tradition of performing masterworks, it’s now identified with musical revues and light entertainment,” Mandelbaum said. “Yiddish is a riveting language and has compelling theater, but it’s in danger of becoming archived and relegated to YIVO.” Mandelbaum would like to see the New Yiddish Rep become a resident, repertory theater and is hopeful that “Godot” will serve as a stepping stone to that end.
Initially, the creative team wanted to set the play in a post-Holocaust universe inhabited by concentration camp survivors. Though the Beckett estate put an end to that idea, the artists have little doubt that Holocaust imagery will be evoked when the characters speak Yiddish and refer to the ashes and millions who are dead.
“That gives the drama a context and clarifies what it’s about,” Mandelbaum said. “Beckett, who wrote ‘Godot’ in 1947-48, had to be drawing upon the previous ten years of history.” The act one rehearsal I observed was startling in its resonance. It was also haunting and very funny, its despair and cataclysmic landscape notwithstanding.
First dates are always problematic. That’s especially true when it’s a blind date. The inherent tensions of the situation form the humorous backdrop for a new Broadway musical, “First Date.”
Aaron (Zachary Levi) is a little uptight; Casey (Krysta Rodriguez) is less so. It does not look like this is a match made in heaven. Or is it?
The play was written by Austin Winsberg with music and lyrics provided by his friends, Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner. “The idea came from us, three Jewish boys who dated a lot of girls, and what we thought of the dating world,” Winsberg told The Arty Semite.
This is the first play for Winsberg, whose background is mostly in film and television (“Jake in Progress,” “Still Standing”). He spoke to the Forward about his blind date experiences, dealing with some “mean spirited” reviews and his own bar mitzvah — in Israel, at age 19.
Curt Schleier: Did you meet your wife on a blind date?
Austin Winsberg: I did, actually. My best friend growing up is her third cousin. They hadn’t seen each other for a long time and reconnected at a Mother’s Day reunion. He and I have the same taste, and he told me had this wonderful person for me he wanted to set me up with. I asked him if she’s so great why don’t you want her. He said it was because she was his cousin. So we went out to dinner.
How did it go?
Just a few minutes into his performance, the screen behind Avi Hoffman lights up with an image of him as an 8-year-old with peyes. Not just any 8-year-old with peyes, mind you. He’s Tevye in a local production of “Fiddler on the Roof,” a performance his mom taped for posterity — perhaps anticipating this very moment.
Hoffman shares some of that audio recording, including his rendition of “If I Were A Rich Man,” sung with a distinct Bronx twang. Next up: his professional debut two years later in a Folksbiene production of “Bronx Express,” followed by his move to Israel, where his acting troupe entertained troops during the 1973 Yom Kippur war. To quote the King of Siam (or Yul Brenner), from there on in Hoffman’s career retrospective, “Still Jewish After All These Years,” is essentially, etcetera, etcetera.
Hoffman has gone to this well twice before, in “Too Jewish” (1994) and “Too Jewish, Too” (1998). But the truth, it never gets old — in part because Hoffman is so good at what he does. At 55, he’s still in fine voice, and his self-deprecating humor keeps this from becoming a vulgar exercise in patting-himself-on-the back. Hoffman is a man who knows how to milk a laugh — and a tear.
Part of the show’s appeal, too, is that like kosher hotels in the Catskills, the world he describes is slowly vanishing, and sadly, so is the audience that remembers it. Take his imitation of Yiddish comic actor Menasha Skulnik — it might have been dead-on, but my guess is that few in the audience could testify to that. But much of the rest of his 90-minute performance will likely be as warm and familiar to his likely audience as chicken soup.
Hoffman performs songs by the Jewish songwriters he grew up admiring, such as Paul Simon, Billy Joel and Bob Dylan; songs from some of the plays he appeared in, and a moving piece about his father. (His mother, Miriam Hoffman, contributes to the Forverts — he calls her the “Jewish Dave Barry.”)
A few months ago, I reported on the growing number of crowdfunding campaigns for Yiddish projects, including an effort to raise $40,000 for a Yiddish production of “Waiting for Godot.”
That campaign didn’t meet its goal, but the play will be going forward anyway, in part thanks to the $7,370 it did succeed in raising. According to a New York Times blog post on Friday, the New Yiddish Rep will be partnering with the Castillo Theater to mount the production from September 20 to October 13 at the 543 West 42nd Street in Manhattan.
The production will be directed by Yiddish theater veteran Moshe Yassur, and is based on a text translated by Shane Baker, who is the creator of a series of comic videos for the Forverts. Baker also acts in the play, alongside Avi Hoffman, Nicholas Jenkins, Rafael Goldwaser and New Yiddish Rep artistic director David Mandelbaum, who will be play the role of Estragon.
“Who’s better at waiting than the Jews?” Baker said in a press release sent out this morning. “Interestingly, in Beckett’s early drafts of the play, the character of Estragon was named Levy. That tells you something.”
There won’t be much physical action in “Married Sex,” Washington, D.C.-based playwright Laura Zam’s latest work. And, truthfully, like the complaints of many long-married couples, the sex in this one-woman show is really just a starting point to discuss relationships, traumas and healing. But the play, which makes its New York debut August 10 as part of the New York International Fringe Festival, takes audiences on a wild and emotional ride through what might be called the sex industrial complex.
Zam can be sharply sarcastic, witty, rueful and revealing about what goes on, or doesn’t, in the marital bedroom. She’s particularly open about her own sex life and the problems she’s encountered along the way to what is now a happy and fulfilling married life.
But it took her a long time to get there. Now 49, Zam, a solo performer and playwright, has had her work produced around the country, including at The Public Theater in New York, The Kennedy Center and U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., as well as in more intimate settings including workshops for wounded soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan at Walter Reed Army Medical Center; workshops for women who have been raped; dialogues between Israeli Jewish and Arab teens; and a program for disenfranchised youths in Southwest Washington. In her earlier play, “Collaterally Damaged,” Zam explored her mother’s experience as a survivor of Auschwitz alongside accounts of contemporary genocide, putting a spotlight on ravaged regions such as Darfur, Rwanda and Bosnia.
“Married Sex” explores another type of survivor — one of child sexual abuse — and delves deeply into Zam’s difficult experience as a victim of not one but two sexual predators.
Paul Manuel Kane had ambitious goals for “Dancing on Nails,” including discussions of race, love and family. Unfortunately, these themes play out in the context of a five-caricature play. Not characters, but caricatures, whose motivations are confusing and undermine the best of Kane’s intentions.
The setting is New York in the spring of 1953. Sam Heisler (Peter Van Wagner) is a 50-year-old Jewish bachelor who seems most comfortable in the successful hardware store he owns.
His only employees are Carlos, a never-seen deliveryman, and Rose Levitt (Lori Wilner), Sam’s unhappily married cousin. Her husband, Joe (Michael Lewis), is a would-be jazz musician who blames the world for his problems.
Luba (Lauren Klein) seems to be a family friend, whose sole purpose is to fill in the many plot holes on the play’s road to an unsatisfying denouement.
Rose has hired a young African American, Natalie Washington (Jazmyn Richardson), to help out at the store. Natalie lives with her grandmother, wants to be an opera singer, and studies music.
At first Heisler is cold to her, insisting she stay late on her first day when she clearly wants to leave. He’s also dismissive of her goals. “Don’t throw your life away with fancy ambitions,” he tells her. “You gotta be practical.”
The other day, just as I was coming up from the subway at Manhattan’s Herald Square, a Hasidic man in full attire — long coat and broad-brimmed hat, in 95 degree heat — rode right past me on a blue CitiBike. I kicked myself for not having a camera at the ready; it was a perfect example of a Hasid doing his thing without concern for the petty politics of his leaders. It was only later that I realized the timeliness of it: I was on my way to see the play “Division Avenue,” which is set against the backdrop of Hasidim vs. bicyclists in Williamsburg, and the political circus that has sprung up in recent years over the issue.
“Division Avenue,” written by Miki Bone and directed by Dean Nolen and produced at the Midtown International Theatre Festival, is about bicycles, but more importantly, it’s about a community that has lived more than a half century comfortably cloistered in its tiny New York City enclave of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, only to be encroached upon, through the ‘90s and aughts, first physically, by hipsterdom and gentrification, and then virtually, by the Internet and DVDs and smartphones.
The play’s central character is Efraim (played by Jordan Feltner), a Satmar Hasidic widower in his 20s who is in the midst of leaving his community after a personal crisis of faith. He meets Sarah (Mary Rasmussen), a Texan transplant, avid cyclist and social worker. A romance develops, and Sarah soon takes on the role of coach, guiding Efraim’s tentative steps outside his sheltered world.
In the meantime, Efraim’s father, Moishe, played exceptionally by Mitch Greenberg, hires Dean (Colby Lane Chambers), a local civil rights attorney, to file a lawsuit against bicyclists who clandestinely repaint bike lanes along Williamsburg streets.
Dean, who is gay and Baptist and Texan (all of which Moishe knows: “I googled you”), had a boyfriend who died in a bicycle accident, and so is now hostile to cyclists, and sympathetic to the Satmars. He too thinks bicycles are dangerous, although the Satmars are opposed for different reasons: They fear the outside influences bike lanes bring — immodest attire and disruptions in traffic patterns and, most importantly, a reminder that they can no longer keep outsiders on the outside.
If the performance of Marc Blitzstein’s “The Cradle Will Rock” by the “Encores! Off-Center” series, which just ended its all-too-brief five-performance run July 13 at New York City Center, is not recorded for posterity, it will be a major loss. To call it revelatory is an understatement. This searing, hilarious and deeply affecting production resurrected a show that had been regarded as a famous but historical agitprop curio from the depths of the Depression.
The all-star, multi-talented cast exposed the rich theatricality of Blitzstein’s 1937 attack on the evils of unrestrained capitalism. This semi-staged version, choreographed by Chase Brock, directed by Sam Gold and conducted by Chris Fenwick, had no need of sets to turn the work into a relevant and vital powerhouse in its swift 90-minute arc.
The now-legendary premiere of this work in 1937, recounted in Tim Robbins’s 1999 film of the same name, had to dispense with sets too. It was directed by Orson Welles and produced by John Houseman for the Federal Theater Project of the WPA. However, causing alarm because of its politics, the production was cancelled before it could open. Uncowed, the cast walked to another theater and put the show on anyway, with the composer playing the piano and the actors performing their parts from seats in the audience — defying yet honoring the injunction forbidding them to appear onstage. Largely because of this show, Congress later killed the whole federal program.
Jonathan Tolin’s hilarious and at times poignant comedy, “Buyer and Cellar,” has received rapturous reviews. It recently moved into the Barrow Street Theater in Greenwich Village, where it continues to play to sold-out crowds.
The idea for the show sprang from Barbra Streisand’s coffee table book, “My Passion for Design.” A self-aggrandizing tribute to her taste, it recounts how she created her Malibu estate, including a private mini-mall built to house her acquisitions in the basement of a barn. There are several stores there, including one for dolls, one for antique clothing and even a “gift shoppe.”
Until now, Tolins was best known for “Twilight of the Golds,” about a Jewish family wrestling with a “gay” problem. When genetic testing indicates a daughter is pregnant with a child likely to be gay, the family, including a gay son, debates the next step. It ran briefly on Broadway, had numerous productions around the world, and was turned into a Showtime movie.
Tolins spoke to The Arty Semite about how his new play came about, the time he met Barbra and how his own parents dealt with his coming out.
Curt Schleier: How did “My Passion for Design” become the basis of your play?
Jonathan Tolins: I started thinking, how would you like to be the guy who works down there? A friend suggested I wrote it as a one-man show. I’d never done that before and the idea just tickled me. I just thought it would be really funny and interesting and give me a chance to write about things I cared about: money and show business, how people with a lot of money spend their time, and about uneven relationships where both parties have a lot of power. The idea wouldn’t go away. I did a lot of reading and thinking about it until the situation became so real to me I could write about it as if it actually happened.