The dictionary definition of a “nance” is an effeminate man. It was also the name given to the campy homosexual character popular in 1930s burlesque, usually played by a straight man.
In Douglas Carter Beane’s outstanding new play, “The Nance,” Chauncey Miles — brilliantly portrayed by Nathan Lane — is a much beloved burlesque headliner, though burdened by the fact that he is gay. Meanwhile, Mayor LaGuardia is shutting down the New York’s burlesque houses, partly in reaction to the nances.
The burlesque’s manager and lead performer is a man named Efram, played by theater veteran Lewis J. Stadlen. Stadlen spoke to The Arty Semite about why he doesn’t like television, working with the highly sensitive Lane, and how understanding Jewish rhythms helped him land roles.
Curt Schleier: Why is your character Jewish?
Lewis J. Stadlen: I have no idea. That’s the role. He says oy vey iz mir and he’s Jewish. The Minsky brothers were Jewish, and so, I would imagine, were a lot of people involved in burlesque theater in New York and around the country.
Did this role resonate with you in a special way?
“The Megile of Itzik Manger” and the National Yiddish Theatre seem like a perfect partnership: love and marriage, horse and carriage, Purim shpiel and the Folksbiene.
Manger is considered one of the most important Yiddish poets and playwrights, and “The Megile” is one of several plays in which he put his own stamp on a biblical story. It was reworked as a musical by, among others, award-winning composer Dov Seltzer, a totem of Israeli creativity.
The play has had several successful productions, including a lengthy run in Israel and a brief one on Broadway. This interpretation, however, could better serve its extremely enthusiastic and talented cast.
In a couple of Russian-style numbers, the dancers wear fur caps, a tip-of-the, well, hat, to the theater’s large émigré audience. But this is hardly true to the show’s Persian locale. And director Motl Didner’s use of a circus theme seems puzzling. Employing a ring master (Shane Baker) as narrator works but, after an opening scene set in a 1937 Polish circus, the theme isn’t carried through in a meaningful way.
Jessica Hecht is best known for two television roles: the lesbian lover of David Schwimmer’s ex-wife in the long-running comedy “Friends,” and the married friend of the title character in the short running comedy “The Single Guy.”
Hecht spent many of the years since playing those roles in theater, both on and off Broadway. Notably, she earned a Tony nomination for her role as Beatrice in the 2010 revival of Arthur Miller’s “A View From the Bridge.”
The Tonys may come a-courting again for her performance as Julie in Richard Greenberg’s “The Assembled Parties,” opening April 17 at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre in Manhattan. Julie is the matriarchal anchor of the Bascovs, a Jewish family that lives in a 14-room Central Park West apartment.
The action takes place on Christmas Day, 1980, and two decades later. It is Greenberg at his best — thoughtful, funny, emotional and above all intelligent. The play is about love and loss and family and, at a recent preview, the audience was sufficiently moved to give the cast a standing ovation.
Several days later Hecht spoke to The Arty Semite about wanting a bat mitzvah in a secular household, how a Yiddish Shakespearean actor convinced her to walk the boards and what it was like working as a nanny for George Wendt.
Curt Schleier: What was your reaction when you first saw “The Assembled Parties” script?
Playwright Ari Roth stumbles sometimes when discussing the characters in “Andy and the Shadows,” his family drama that opens this week at Washington, D.C.’s Theater J. In fact, when Roth discusses Nate, the patriarch in the work, he slips, saying, “my father.” It’s undestandable, for Roth, long-time artistic director of Washington D.C. JCC-based theater, has fused elements of his own family history with fantasy, fact and fiction, in crafting his most personal work to date.
In the play, protagonist and sometime narrator Andy Glickstein is a filmmaker and the son of Holocaust refugees who is about to become engaged. His return home ignites a tangle of memories about his parents’ escapes from Hitler’s Europe that intrude on a busy American life on Chicago’s South Side. Is Roth, a Chicago native, son of Holocaust refugees? Yes. Then where does Roth’s story end and Andy’s begin? “I would move to do as much separating as possible,” Roth insisted, “but I think that would be a fruitless task at the same time. Any experienced reader of fiction or watcher of plays knows that there are critical differences, but at the same time there are also similarities to the author’s life and his creation. You’re borrowing, you’re referencing history … and then you’re making stuff up.”
Roth’s mother, clinical psychiatrist Chaya Roth, was a hidden child, like Raya in the play. In her 2008 memoir, “The Fate of Holocaust Memories,” she recalls her experiences being disguised as a Catholic orphan while living in a Rome convent, where, against her mother’s wishes, she took communion with the other children. His father, Walter, an attorney, was born in Germany and wrote about his pre-war childhood and about his return trips five decades later in his 2013 memoir, “Departure and Return: Trips to and Memories from Roth, Germany.”
Stephen Sondheim turns 83 today — a birthday always worth noting, though this time it will pass without an entire year of galas and concerts, as was the case on the composer’s 80th. Even considering the Jewish contributors to modern American musical theater — Jerome Kern, George and Ira Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Richard Rodgers, Lorenz Hart, Leonard Bernstein (and many, many more) — it is Sondheim who has done the most to explore what is possible within the boundaries of the musical form. He is constantly pushing and reinventing, making musicals about ideas, themes, and plots that few other composers would have taken on. As such, I have selected what I consider to be his three finest musicals, though dissent in the comments section is welcome.
“A man with no emotional commitments reassesses his life on his 35th birthday by reviewing his relationships with his married acquaintances and girlfriends. That is the entire plot.”
In fact, there isn’t really a plot at all to Stephen Sondheim’s “Company,” which is what makes show such an important break in the history of the American musical. “Company” derives its content from a series of one-act plays written by George Furth, all about a couple in a relationship and an outsider. In the finished piece, the outsiders were composited into a single character, Bobby, with each song a one-act play in itself, a window into the life of Bobby and his relationships with these married couples.
“Leonard Cohen: The Musical.” What would such a creation possibly look like? I don’t know, but I’m curious to find out.
“Chelsea Hotel: The Songs of Leonard Cohen” premiered in February at the Firehall Arts Centre in Vancouver and will appear at the Prairie Theater Exchange in my own hometown of Winnipeg from January 22 to February 9, 2014.
The CBC reports that the play “tells the story of a writer haunted by his characters as he works in the Chelsea Hotel — but more importantly, it’ll feature Cohen hits like ‘Suzanne’ and ‘Hallelujah.’”
It had also better include “Chelsea Hotel No. 2,” Cohen’s song about Janis Joplin and the things they got up to “on the unmade bed / while the limousines wait in the street.” I wonder how that’ll go down onstage.
The story of five gay, cross-dressing Filipino migrants in cosmopolitan Tel Aviv who work by day as caretakers for elderly Hasidic men and by night transform into a musical drag act, might seem improbable. But it is a true story. Based on Tomer Heymann’s award-winning 2006 documentary of the same name, the world premiere of “Paper Dolls,” a play with music, is currently showing at the innovative Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn, north London.
This is a big story to tell on a small stage, but American writer Philip Himberg has managed an effective transfer. Himberg, the Artistic Director of the Sundance Institute Theater Program, told The Arty Semite that he was drawn to the story when he saw the film at its Los Angeles Film Festival premiere. He sensed that “Paper Dolls” had the potential for being a live, theatrical piece. Three years and 25 drafts later, his instinct has been proven correct.
“The idea of how people in our universe are crossing boundaries, literally and metaphorically, to make lives for themselves, and that this clash of culture — these Filipinos who are taking care of Orthodox men — just seemed like an incredible example of that,” Himberg said. Although the story is specific to Tel Aviv, there is a universal relevance to the issue of young people who are either unable or choose not to care for their parents or grandparents, and arrange for immigrants to do that work instead.
Michael Kovner’s first graphic novel, “Ezekiel’s World,” recently adapted for the stage by playwright Jenny Levison, peers into the uncomfortable world of things left unsaid between father, (Ezekiel) and son, (Amos); husband, (Amos) and wife, (Yvonne); and of history itself.
An Israeli painter who studied in New York with artist Philip Guston in the 1970s, Kovner is also the son of Israeli poet and Vilna Ghetto fighter, Abba Kovner, who died in 1987. Seen in its February premiere at the JCC in Manhattan, directed by Michael Barakiva, “Ezekiel’s World” finds the protagonist, a thinly disguised Abba Kovner, portrayed as a forgotten man – a writer whose poems and ideas, as well as his place in history, are no longer part of contemporary culture.
Downgrading one’s father is tough business, but it’s an excellent way to strip-down a hero’s identity. In the first scene, a physical therapist (Na’ama) visits Ezekiel’s Jerusalem home, giving the poet someone to not only fix him, but to speak to. Set in several cities, including San Francisco, where Ezekiel’s son and family live, as well as in Jerusalem and Vilna, the story moves between the 1991 Gulf War and World War II, and culminates in the pivotal moment of Ezekiel’s life, the Vilna Ghetto uprising. (Abba Kovner and the Partisans escaped through the sewers, but his mother was left behind and died.)
Judith Malina will not go gentle into that good night. The fiery 86-year-old director of the Living Theatre is losing both her apartment and the Lower East Side home of the world renowned theater troupe she co-founded 66 years ago. Later this week Malina will move into an elder care facility in New Jersey, but she’s vowing to commute into Manhattan a few times a week and work with the company that has championed her unapologetic anarchist-utopian vision.
“We did some great plays and we managed to keep a company going all those years,” Malina told The Arty Semite. “And it’s still going.”
The Living Theatre’s performance space on Clinton Street will host one last performance February 27 at midnight. Earlier that evening the veteran Lower East Side performance artist Penny Arcade is doing a benefit to raise money for Malina’s car fare, so she can get into Manhattan and continue working with the company.
“If this was France or Japan or almost anywhere else in the world, Judith would be considered a national treasure and she’d be supported,” Arcade said. “I think people don’t realize that she is one of the main architects of the counterculture and of experimental theater in this country.”
How busy is Hannah Moscovitch? A mini-festival of her plays, including two world premieres, opened February 20 at Toronto’s prestigious Tarragon Theatre. She’s juggling commissions for theater, television and opera, along with film work like an adaptation of Alison Pick’s Holocaust-themed novel “Far to Go.” And she holds down a day job writing a popular TV cop show.
At 34, Moscovitch has also become Canada’s “most produced young playwright,” according to a Tarragon press release. The child of a Jewish father and an English-Irish Catholic mother, Moscovitch has made Jewish history, memory and experience a central part of her work. The plays she debuted last week include “Other People’s Children,” about a child’s relationship with her nanny, and “Little One,” a “stylish lullaby-nightmare thriller” about a pair of adopted siblings. The Arty Semite spoke to Moscovitch from her Toronto home early on a recent Sunday morning — the only time her schedule permitted.
Michael Kaminer: When you’re not preparing for a festival of your plays, what would you normally be doing on a snowy Sunday morning at 9 a.m.?
If one were to think back to “Glengarry Glen Ross,” the 1992 film with an all-male cast based on the award-winning 1984 David Mamet play about desperate real estate salesmen, what words would come to mind? Probably ones like “profanity” and “testosterone” — never “femininity” or “estrogen.”
But what is it they say? Never say never. It’s now 21 years later and Jason Reitman is staging a live read of “Glengarry Glen Ross” with an all-female cast. If he could put an African-American twist on a live read of Quentin Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs” last year, then he can likely pull off this double X challenge with aplomb.
The stand out cast will certainly help. Present at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) on February 21 for the one-night-only presentation will be Robin Wright, Catherine O’Hara, Maria Bello, Allison Janney, and Mae Whitman. Blake, the terrifying motivational speaker character played by Alec Baldwin, has yet to be cast.
As the audience files into NYU’s Skirball Center the deaf-blind actors are already on stage kneading dough. Throughout “Not by Bread Alone,” they are preparing bread for themselves and theatergoers who at the end of the performance will join the actors on stage and share the bread with them. Interspersed with the preparation—and as the sweet smell of baking fills the house — relationships between bakers are explored, daily life is lived, and dreams revealed.
A few of the actors speak, but mostly they communicate with each other through touch sign language and “translators,” who help with inter-communication, while serving as guides, steering the actors across the stage.
The 11 performers who comprise Tel Aviv’s Nalag’at (meaning “do touch”) are afflicted with Usher Syndrome, meaning they were born deaf or became deaf shortly thereafter and ultimately went blind. During its 13 year existence the company has garnered an international reputation for its ground-breaking theater that has unwittingly forged a new theatrical language. The current New York production marks the company’s American debut.
Founder and artistic director Adina Tal does not allow her troupe to perform in theater festivals that present and celebrate the work of physically or mentally challenged actors. If the latter are producing terrific theater, that’s fine. But disability in and of itself is no bond as far as she’s concerned.
Dora-winning actress Natasha Greenblatt went on a Birthright Israel trip in early 2009, just following Operation Cast Lead, and stayed on for a couple of months to volunteer in Nablus, in the northern West Bank. While there, the Torontonian heard about an Israeli-Palestinian woman who had brought a group of Palestinian children across the Green Line to play a concert for an audience of elderly Israelis.
Greenblatt, 28, could not get the story out of her head, and it became the inspiration for her first full-length play. Now, “The Peace Maker” is having its debut run at Toronto’s Next Stage Festival until January 13.
“It’s about a young woman named Sophie [played by Rebecca Auerbach] who goes on Birthright and volunteers at a music center in the West Bank and gets the idea to bring Palestinian kids to play for Holocaust survivors in Israel,” the playwright told The Arty Semite by phone. “She ends up making the Palestinian community angry, because they feel she is undermining their struggle against Israel.” Sophie also gets grief from Israelis. “Basically, she screws up despite having had the best intentions,” Greenblatt said.
The most basic advice given to every would-be author is to write what you know. And Chaim Potok did just that.
His best and most popular novels — “The Chosen” and “My Name Is Asher Lev” — are about boys struggling between their ultra-Orthodox upbringing and secular destinies. In “The Chosen,” the protagonist, the son of a hasidic rebbe, wants to be a psychologist; for Asher Lev it is art that draws him from his family.
Though not hasidic, Potok was raised in an Orthodox household where reading and writing on non-Jewish subjects was discouraged. But for Potok, who was also an artist, there didn’t seem to be a choice.
When my parents landed in New York in 1947 they were assigned a case worker. I’m not sure who did the assigning, but I remember my father saying how puzzled he was. “Case” was German for cheese, and he didn’t understand why he needed a cheese worker.
My parents didn’t tell many stories about their early lives, about crossing the border from Austria into Switzerland after the Anschluss or how they got to the goldene medina. Perhaps I didn’t ask the right questions.
But that particular anecdote stayed with me, because it was about their life at the precipice. They were starting a new life in a new land with a new language, one briefly filled with optimism and faith that life could and would be better.
Perhaps that is why I am such a fan of the new National Yiddish Theatre-Folksbiene production of “The Golden Land,” a joyous celebration of the turn-of-the-century Jewish immigrant experience.
Henry Winkler is on the phone. Finally. We missed our connection a couple of days earlier and by missed connection I mean he forgot to call. He had two performances of his new Broadway play, “The Performers,” that day — as though that should take priority — and The Forward got lost in the shuffle. Go figure.
When next I heard from the Fonz (yeah, right, make believe you don’t know who that is), he left a contrite voicemail message that he was at the zoo with his grandson. But finally, from a cab on a way to a restaurant, there he was.
“The Performers” takes place on the night of the Adult Film Awards — the Oscars of the porn industry — and Winkler plays Chuck Wood, an aging Jewish star with a large schmekel up for an award. It’s a comeback role for Wood, unlike Winkler, who never went away. He’s been omnipresent as a writer, director, producer and of course actor, most famously of late for his recurring role on the hit TV series “Royal Pains.” While riding through midtown, Winkler spoke to The Arty Semite about the play, winning the Order of the British Empire and the synagogue his parents helped found.
Curt Schleier: Was making Chuck Wood Jewish your idea or was that in the original play?
“The Other Josh Cohen” may be the reason they invented off-Broadway. On the face of it, this clever and original musical about fate and Jewish guilt may seem too slight for the Great White Way. But in truth, it is witty and smart and far more entertaining than many of the projects that open (and usually quickly close) on Broadway.
There are actually three Josh Cohens in the production. One lives in the present, as a narrator played by David Rossmer (who co-wrote book, music and lyrics). His doppelgänger, played by Steve Rosen (the other co-writer), is Cohen of a year ago.
The problem is that a little over two years ago, the doppelgänger came home and discovered his apartment had been robbed. Everything was gone, from his computer to the cake he’d left in the refrigerator to his sole porno DVD, “Oversexed Injury Lawyers.” The only thing left behind was a CD, “Neil Diamond III,” which is certainly not his best material.
Cohen feels like the burglary is the final insult. It started in grade school, when Betsy refused his entreaties because he had cooties, and continued in high school when Jen turned him down because the poem he sent her “made me think of Shel Silverstein, which is perfect if I was 13.”
By Eugene Ionesco
Directed by Emanuel Demarcy-Mota
Theatre de la Ville
The sleek new production of “Rhinoceros,” by Eugene Ionesco (who may or may not have been partially Jewish), currently running at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, is, well, very French.
It comes via the Theatre de la Villa, Paris’s contribution to what I’d like to call the aesthetic of global hip.
The stylized gestures of the actors are drenched in Jacques Le Coq style clowning. The empty box of the stage—sets that for all their trap doors and scrims and signify toward rather than creating a literal world for the actors to live in—that would bring an “ah, oui,” to Peter Brooks’ lips. The costuming—the matching grey suits and ruby red skinny ties on the men, the fitted skirts and blouses open to the third button on the arch buxom women—conveys a cool snatched from Godard films and Robert Palmer videos.
The effect of all this is to keep you in your head, far away from your heart. But in this case, that’s just where you should be. “Rhinoceros” is, in part, a play about thinking, and what can happen when the thinking stops.
The story is simple: On an otherwise average day, in an otherwise average town, a massive rhinoceros runs wild through the streets destroying property and wounding people and animals. Then it happens again. And again. And again. People have no idea where this rhino came from or even if it’s just one, or many of them. As the rhino sightings become epidemic, it becomes clear that there are many of them. They’re beautiful creatures, actually, muscular and powerful, noble. Their brute force is seductive. And when the residents of the town recognize the rhino’s seductive power, they themselves turn into Rhinoceri. Eventually, everyone succumbs. The only human being left is a drunk and a shlump, a guy who’s too lost and confused to see what’s good for him.
A single metaphor drawn out through an extended story. An allegory. The beauty of a virile metaphor embedded in an allegorical world is that it’s both specific and abstract enough to be applied to almost anything. Metaphorical allegories are high-end aphorisms, anti-platitudinous platitudes.
Here’s what I took away from it:
The powerful find their ways to tyrannize us. It can happen at any time, anywhere. At first, we’re lost in the seemingly inscrutable experience of being so weak in the presence of such a violent intrusion into our lives, so savage, so malevolent, so blind to our needs. We search for meaning. We struggle to understand. We argue with each other. The semantic, pedantic, logical, illogical, syllogical, and tautological rabbit holes of debate can distract, abstract, attenuate and obfuscate the bare, simple fact of what’s happening. And eventually we reach an interpretation, a story that may or may not be the correct, the true story, but most definitely has the power to lull us into thinking we understand and are control of our circumstances. Thus society complacently wends its way through time. Having figured things out, we allow ourselves to stop thinking. We allow ourselves to be seduced by the very thing that’s tyrannizing us. Power, after all, can afford to be pretty. It’s toned and graceful and it only destroys those who oppose it. Our brains might still tell us that something essential to who we are will be lost if we align ourselves with this power, but resistance is exhausting and wouldn’t it be easier to turn off our minds, to stop asking why and what does it all mean and just lose ourselves in herd?
Ionesco called this fascism. I call it corporatism (vis, the shiny new Barclay’s Stadium, just up the street from BAM). Either way, the smelly, the ugly, the gimpy, the drunk, the mentally imbalanced and physically deformed, the person who thinks, and the person who is human, has no place in this new world order.
Or, as Ionesco says, “I think they’re worshiping nothingness, and that too is just a word.” And also, “Think and you’ll exist.”
Joshua Furst’s most recent novel is “The Sabotage Café”
There are two words for all the actors, singers and dancers who believe “theater” is a major art form too important to denigrate: tough luck.
After a three-year hiatus, “Forbidden Broadway” is back to put them in their place. “FB” has become something of an institution on the Great White Way — and on the road, both in the U.S. and overseas.
The latest edition, “Alive and Kicking,” has won universal raves for its creative spoofs of current (“Evita”), recently closed (“Ghost”) and coming productions (Annie). Satiric arrows are aimed at targets so familiar, it’s not even necessary to have seen the show.
Jenny Lee Stern, 34 (“But I’m very petite; that makes me read much younger”), is one of the show’s four cast members. Most of her previous experience is in regional theater productions of Broadway musicals. She spoke to The Arty Semite about her new show, her conversation with Patti LuPone’s lawyer and what “Forbidden Broadway” means for her career.
Curt Schleier: Had you ever seen a previous production of “Forbidden Broadway”?
No matter what he does, Woody Harrelson will always be known for his Emmy Award-winning role as Woody Boyd, the lovable, intellectually challenged bartender on the TV show “Cheers.”
Since then, however, he’s built a career as a serious and intelligent actor, landing highly-praised roles in films such as “The Messenger” and “The People vs. Larry Flint,” both of which earned him Academy Award nominations.
Now Harrelson’s tried his hand at something new: playwriting and directing. His drama, “Bullet for Adolf,” is set in Houston during the summer of 1983, when Harrelson met his co-writer, Frankie Hyman.
One of their characters makes liberal use of the “N” word and another, a German who owns a pistol that supposedly belonged to Hitler, praises the Fuhrer’s accomplishments. The pistol’s disappearance sets events in motion.
Harrelson spoke to The Arty Semite about how the play came about and whether there should be any limits on “funny.”
Curt Schleier: How did you come to write “Bullet for Adolf”?
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