Friday, April 29, 2011

Two Jews Walk Into a War: Preview

Here's a link to my preview of Two Jews Walk into a War in this week's Ticket in the Sarasota Herald Tribune: Two Jews Walk into a War. Text posted below:

Two Jews take a leap of faith in Kabul in new play
The title of Seth Rozin’s play sounds like the set-up for a joke – “Two Jews Walk Into a War …”
It really is a joke, Rozin says, an existential one.

The play, which opens May 5 at Florida Studio Theatre’s Gompertz Theatre, is about the only two surviving Jews in Kabul, Afghanistan, who are hiding in a bombed-out synagogue at the end of the Taliban’s regime.

“Ishaq and Zeblyan should support each other,” Rozin says. “They’re the last Jews left, and they hate each other! It’s one of history’s grim jokes — and the joke is on them.”

Not all the play’s jokes are grim. Rozin uses his unlikely duo to create a kind of vaudeville of the absurd. Bickering, mismatched characters are a comic staple, after all. But expect more than “The Odd Couple” in Kabul.

“Although they despise each other, they force themselves to work together,” he says. “Ishaq and Zeblyan plan to rebuild the Jewish community by re-creating a Torah scroll to attract a rabbi.” Rozin explains that the Taliban burned the synagogue’s original scroll. “Fortunately, Ishaq knows the Torah by heart. He speaks and Zeblyan writes.”

But would a new Torah scroll actually attract a rabbi?

“Probably not,” he says. “Their project may seem foolish, even crazy. But they feel compelled. You can call it a leap of faith.”

Their faith compels them to write, he says. But writing a new Torah makes them question their faith. Zeblyan asks most of the questions. Ishaq hates the constant interruptions and sees it as a lack of faith.

“Zeblyan starts by questioning religious minutia,” Rozin explains. “‘Why can we eat elephants but not rock badgers?’ He winds up asking bigger questions that anyone can relate to, whatever their faith.”
Rozin didn’t plan to write a parable of faith.

“I’m an atheist from a long line of non-observing Jews,” he says. “The seed was a news item that struck me as existentially funny. As I got to know my characters, they started telling me what they wanted, and the story veered off from the facts. Rewriting the Torah was their idea, and it surprised me.”

Rozin adds that his play is not a theology lesson, or any kind of lesson.

“The questions are more important than the answers,” he says. “It’s mostly a comic journey, but I’m not locked into that. I don’t impose a tone or a message. I want a sense of life as it happens — what emerges from these two characters in this place and time.”

Director Kate Alexander loves that raw spontaneity.

“Rozin’s comedy flows out of his flesh-and-blood characters,” she says. “We’ve got two great comic actors: Warren Kelley as Zeblyan and George Crowley as Ishaq. They’re brilliant improvisers and wonderful physical comedians, and they really sink their teeth into his visceral, gutsy dialogue. As a director, my job is to create a playground and say, ‘Go to town, guys.’ They did! They made me laugh so hard I was forced to leave the rehearsal many times.”

Both actors have appeared at FST before. Kelly played the husband in “Sylvia” last summer, and Crowley has been seen in “Dinner With Friends,” “Gross Indecency,” “Ten Unknowns” and “Proof.”
Rozin is the author of several plays that have been presented in regional theaters across the country. He also is the founder and producing artistic director of InterAct Theatre Company in Philadelphia.

Alexander notes that scenic and costume designer Marcella Beckwith and lighting designer Robert Perry spent weeks to get a “very specific look and feel” for Afghanistan. “Our set is evocative, but there’s a lot of research behind it.”

She adds that the bombed-out synagogue suggests the relentless history outside.

“It’s a place of ancient stones, except for one electric blue plastic chair,” she says. “Western civilization is encroaching and you know it.”

Wednesday, April 13, 2011


Before Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker, there was Tartuffe -- the title character of Moliere's play, and the latest FSU/Asolo Conservatory production.

Le plot summary ...

Tartuffe (Geoff Knox) is an itinerant street preacher in 17th-century France. Like Bakker and Swaggart in centuries to come, Tartuffe is saintly on the outside and oversexed within. Beneath Tartuffe's hard candy shell of religiosity, there lurks a soft, gooey core of lust. Slick, manipulative bastard that he is, Tartuffe keeps it well-hidden.

In the course of Moliere's play, Tartuffe latches onto Orgon (Tony Stopperan), a dull man of means in 17th-century France who seems to think that Tartuffe is Jesus' kid brother. After insinuating himself as Orgon's perpetual house guest, Tartuffe gets Orgon to promise him his daughter's hand in marriage (Ashley Scallon), thus voiding Orgon's original consent to her true love (Benjamin Boucvalt); Orgon also gives Tartuffe a claim to his estate. Creep that he is, Tartuffe remains dissatisfied. He still wants to get into the pants (or patalons) of Orgon's wife (Summer Dawn Wallace). After Orgon hides under a table, Tartuffe's scheme is exposed. Happily, Orgon's wife isn't screwed. Sadly, Tartuffe has the deed to Orgon's estate. Orgon is screwed -- along with everyone else. Mais bien sur, Louis XIV appears like a deus ex machina from above and sets things straight. Moral order is restored and the charlatan punished. The music of Lady Gaga's Poker Face plays.

It's a fun ride. Beneath the pomp and ceremony, Richard Wilbur's rhymed couplet translation is smart -- though it can't disguise the artificiality of Moliere's original. (Basically, the characters make speeches, one at a time.) But that's OK. Director Wes Grantom's production zips along with the speed of a screwball comedy. (In a recent radio interview, Grantom said this pace is true to the productions of the time. Audiences were sharp back then.) The performances are great -- especially Megan DeLay as Dorine, the family maid, who functions as a human reality principle. She stands for common sense. Not heresy. The same can be said of the playwright, Moliere. His play makes that clear. Very clear.

Moliere seems to spend half his time saying, "My target is religious hypocrisy. Not religion. I love religion, especially Catholic religion. Let's be very clear on that point." The playwright spends the rest of his time kissing King Louis XIV's ass. It didn't help. Moliere got in trouble anyway. I can't help but think Moliere saw it coming -- but he wrote the play anyway. Why?

Because it mattered to him.

Moliere stuck his neck out to write this play. He took the risk of pissing the king off -- a king with absolute power. He knew the risks.

But he wrote it anyway.

I can't help but think that it was personal to Moliere. That he'd seen people burned by pseudo-saintly charlatans speaking in the name of God. His friends, people he cared about. Beneath Moliere's fine language, there's a white-hot anger. And a truth.

Tartuffe may be a fictional character. But Tartuffery is very real.

And bullshit is eternal.

In 1664, 1912 or 2011, the principle holds true: If someone tells you, "God commands you to give me money," that's the time to run for the hills.

Or hit them.

Through May 1
FSU/Asolo Conservatory production
Historic Asolo Theatre
5401 Bay Shore Road, Sarasota

Friday, April 8, 2011

I ain't afraid of no 'Ghost-Writer'

Once upon a time in the early 20th century, Franklin Woolsey (Colin Lane), a celebrated writer in the prolix Henry James mode, started dictating his novels to a typist. As in: a cute, young, female typist named Myra (Amy Tribbey). Franklin's pushy wife Vivian (Hollis McCarthy) wasn’t thrilled, but his literary output exploded. Over time, Myra became more of a collaborator than a passive secretary. Then, one day, Woolsey had a fatal heart attack in mid-sentence. Eventually, Myra heard his voice again and resumed typing, determined to finish his last novel.

OK. Such are the bare facts of Michael Hollinger's play, now hitting the stage at Florida Studio Theatre. Beyond these facts, the play poses a multiple choice question: Is Myra (A) nuts (B) committing a conscious fraud (C) continuing her collaboration (D) actually hearing his voice or (E) all of the above …?

For most of the play, an unseen investigator challenges Myra with these questions. That investigator (who represents Woolsey’s unhappy widow who’s trying to quash Myra's posthumous collaboration) seems to lean toward either the nuts or fraud theories. I have my own theory — but damned if Hollinger's play spells it out.

Whose authorial voice is it anyway?

That isn't the point — or the point that Hollinger cares about. Ghost-Writer isn’t a ghost story — or an anti-ghost story. It’s a love story — and an obvious metaphor for the writing process. Myra and Franklin romance the blank page. Their collaboration is better than sex. Granted the reticence of these Ragtime-era characters, it's a slow burn. That smoldering sensibility is what he cares about.

Like James Joyce, Hollinger loves the music of writing — not the words on the page, but the physical act of writing. Ghost-Writer jumps into that music with both feet: the back-and-forth rhythm of dictation and typing; the counterpoint of voice and typewriter. It's a love affair. Maybe with words, maybe between two people, alive or dead, creating words together. The boundary remains fuzzy, but the music is compelling.

Director Kate Alexander gets the music right — the slow, hypnotic, seductive pace Hollinger was going for. Tribbey is fine as the emotional center of the whirlwind: a woman desperately in love with a man who isn't there; the voice of sanity who knows her words sound crazy. Fine performances also from Lane and McCarthy. His dead author character is more like an open question: Is he there or not? Her wounded widow character is an accusation: Are you for real?

A thousand puns rise up like shades. A haunting production. A spirited performance. But let's run like hell past the graveyard and speak plainly ...

Great theater.

See it.

Through June 4
Florida Studio Theatre
1241 North Palm Ave., Sarasota

Friday, April 1, 2011

Ride the "Death Trap"!!!!

OK, a few words about the Asolo Rep production of Death Trap. But first, a few words about the thriller genre ...

As a dramatic genre, thrillers have the staying power of, say, Jacobean revenge tragedy. Which is to say, the genre isn't dead, but it's been eaten by other genres. A contemporary play may have thriller elements, but we want more psychological depth. A contemporary movie may have thriller elements, but we want more stuff blowing up. There are very few pure thrillers anymore.

Which is another way of saying: Ira Lavin's Death Trap is of its time. Lavin was a brilliant novelist and screenwriter -- at his best, on a par with William Goldman. Lavin wrote "Rosemary's Baby," "The Boys from Brazil" and a few other things. He knew what he was doing.

So, on the subject of thrillers, Lavin saw the bloody handwriting on the wall. He knew the thriller genre was dying. "Death Trap" is as much an epitaph as a love letter as a parody. I could tell you the plot, but thrillers don't work if you know what happens. So let's put it this way.

Lavin made a great roller coaster ride, full of exciting twists and turns. It's a fun ride. For contemporary writers, that ride is pretty much closed -- except as a technical exercise. For contemporary audiences, the ride is still a hoot.

Death Trap
Through May 14
An Asolo Rep production
FSU Center for the Arts
5555 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota