Post-Brighton Beach/Post-J Street, Yonkers Rolls On as TJ Gets Set for the G.A

So it’s been a blur of business as the blog-o-sphere puts the BROADWAY (mori)BOUND/BRIGHTON BEACH production to bed while we hunker down in DC to the Next Big Thing(s), keeping up with the rock’em sock’em box office that is LOST IN YONKERS. I check out our ticket sales on line about six times a day. That borders on obsessive, I think (but is better than six times an hour, which is how often I’m inclined to). But it’s been good news every click, and how often can you say that about an internet update? Yes, it’s a great gift to get a hit in this business and YONKERS is our biggest ever. So hallalujah and let the Hosannas cascade from our website — we’ve had TONS of compliments about this show, but haven’t really kept up with posting ’em. We will. It’s so important to take in the good will and moving reactions that have come from audiences young and old on this show.

Putting the Simon Fortunes of NYC and DC in context, I refer us to my Facebook wall, where the comments tumbled forth thusly:

Status Update:  “Ari Roth is pleased, grateful and feeling fortunate that LOST IN YONKERS shattered all previous post-Post review opening weekend box office records, while during the same weekend The Simon Plays abruptly, prematurely closed on Broadway.”

And then, in response to my posting: Neil Simon’s ‘Brighton Beach Memoirs’ Closes in a Week — “What Went Wrong?” – by Patrick Healy – NYTimes, I ask:

The lessons to be gleaned from this fiasco are…?

1) Broadway isn’t regional theater…

2) The play WAS and still is ubiquitous (so is Shakespeare, but then…)

3) A great and legendary producer did not price this play right; did not build the audience right; did not display the right patience right…

Arthur Hessel says…
4) Glitzy budgets (and big theaters) are for glitzy plays – Neil Simon in 2009 needs a more affordable and cozier venue. (If he succeeds, with reviews and audiences, in that type of venue, step up might be possible.

Laurence Maslon says…
5) But let’s be clear here: it ain’t AWAKE AND SING! (let alone LONG DAY’S JOURNEY); it was a (bad) feature film; and it simply may not speak to today’s audience. Why is everyone so shocked? He hasn’t really written a new play that’s connected with an audience for DECADES. Why is Neil Simon entitled to be a success?

Mark Gmazel says…
6) plus, you need a young Matthew Broderick…they don’t came along every day…

Richard Stein says…
7) There have always been hits & flops on Broadway–even from legendary talents. And no amount of Monday-morning quarterbacking can ever reveal the strange alchemy of the Great White Way.

So there you have it. The last of our post-mortems on the Broadway fiasco. And yet it also raised an interesting OPPORTUNITY for us in the future: What if we, Theater J, did what Broadway didn’t? That is, what if we did the diptych? Or better, the Brighton Beach Trilogy? Shirley maintains “that’s like having 4 scoops of ice cream!” I tell her, “No, it’s like have 3 scoops of ice cream!” (Trilogies generally coming in threes…) Well, we’re mulling and contemplating. For a theater regime that had never done a Neil Simon before, to contemplate turning over the rest of our repertoire to the man’s body of work, well, let’s just say I’ve had a profound transformation (only sorta joking here, folks).

And speaking of total transformations and shifting the ground and the terms of the debate in our community, here’s a follow up from our good friends at J Street, thanking us for our participation in the conference.

Dear Ari,

On behalf of myself and the entire J Street family, I want to express my appreciation for your multi-faceted involvement in the culture track of the J Street Conference last week.

The session on Selections from Theater J’s Voices from a Changing Middle East Festival added richness and depth to the conversations about Israel and the Middle East. I could tell that participants were moved and challenged by the excerpts, and it was a service to the community to bring these voices and resources forward. Please pass along our thanks to David Brian Jackson, Michael Tolaydo, Eliza Bell, and Delia Taylor for coming to perform on such short notice. And thank you for also putting together this session so quickly and responsively.

Thanks also for introducing Noa Baum’s storytelling session, and for being a steadfast partner through thick and thin.

We were overwhelmed by the positive response to the conference, so thank you for your part in making this a watershed moment for the pro-Israel, pro-peace movement. It will take all of us to continue this momentum and bring about change!

(Take a look at conference videos as we continue to post more footage, and feel free to share this link with others)

Looking forward to being in touch.

All the best,
Sarah Beller
Director of Programming and Education
J Street Education Fund

* * *

to which we respond…

Dear Sarah and Rachel,

Thank you for this warm note. We’re very proud of our involvement in the recent J Street Conference and look forward to continued partnership on cultural matters with your organization in the future. We’re thankful as well to the Theater J artists who participated in our presentation and we’ll be looking to make similar presentations at other important conferences to be held in our city where there’s an interest in Jewish culture and the ways in which a theater like ours reflects on the on-going dramas inside and around Israel.

The J Street conference marks something of a turning point for the American Jewish community in its dialogue about Israel, and it’s very much in keeping with the robust, candid, mature, and supportive dialogue that Theater J and so many of the other public affairs and arts programs at the Washington DCJCC have been having on the subject. That the candor of the arts is now finding its way into public discussions within our community–and as our community speaks to our political leaders–is a very important step and underscores the role of culture in reflecting and enriching public discourse.

We’ll be at the November 9th United Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly next, working with DC actors like Laura Giannarelli, David Harscheid, Norman Aronovic, Kate Wolf, and Rosemary Knower as we bring figures from modern Israeli history to life during their opening night reception.

Thanks again.

And so you can see, we’re moving on to our November 9th gig. I spent a good part of the last week and a half working on monologues for good actors that probably won’t get fully heard over the din of 3,000 reception goers at the Omni-Shoreham. These are decidedly pitched to the center, so to speak. Wanna read one, as a kind of sample? Here goes.

Material for Avital Sharansky

played by Laura Giannarelli

I want to tell you a story about a marriage. It’s a Love Story. And a Protest Story. A Political Story. And in the end, a Very Jewish Story. It’s about the people who helped me to achieve my freedom, and eventually, that of my husband’s. The two of us became strong in our separation. But our wills were fused in faith from the start.

My name is Avital Sharansky. I married Natan on the 4th of July, 1974. We lived in a 6th floor apartment in Moscow on Gorky Street. Natan was under surveillance by the KGB at the time. He had been the press spokesman for Andrei Sakharov, the physicist who helped invent the Soviet H-Bomb. Sakharov had renounced the bomb and had become a peace activist and a champion of civil rights in the Soviet Union. Natan stayed loyal to Andrei. And that loyalty put Natan at the heart of controversy in our very repressive Soviet state.

We wanted to leave Russia. To emigrate to Israel. And live freely as Jews as we could not in Moscow. But we were not given permission. Like millions of others, we were refused. “Refuseniks,” we were called.

For our wedding day, the Soviets gave us a present; a visa to Israel, but for only one of us, and only if we exercised it in 24 hours. We were faced with a terrible, impossible choice. Natan urged me to go. I told him I could not leave him behind. But he said I could do more for the other Jews of Russia from outside the Soviet Union than from within. And so, with a heavy heart, I went, committed to the struggle of winning our people’s freedom from repression.

On the two year anniversary of our wedding, July 4, 1976, America’s 200th birthday, Israel gave us a present of its own. It rescued hostages from a hijacked Air France jetliner in Entebbe, Uganda. The liberation of the hostages was a very good omen for Natan. IF the hostages could be free to come to Israel, why wouldn’t Natan soon be free as well?

But Natan’s persecution persisted, under arrest for three agonizing years and not given a trial until 1977, when he was finally and formally charged and then convicted of being a spy. For the CIA. The insanity!

I became more determined than ever in my fight to make a Jewish home in Israel with my husband. That was my simple goal for the length of our ordeal… To build our Jewish Home.

Two years later, on another 4th of July, I met George and Barbara Bush in Jerusalem. We talked and I told them what I was living for; the release of my husband. But here I was saying this to a Vice Presidential Candidate in the King David Hotel while Natan was still in Vladimir Prison doing hard labor in the Gulag.

Mr. and Mrs. Bush had tears in their eyes.

It was two years after that, through the help of friends in America continuing to press for our case in Congress and in the White House, that we were able to make our case before the President himself, the honorable Ronald Wilson Reagan and once again, Vice President Bush.

This is exactly what I told the President on that day in May, 1981:

Natan and I met outside of a synagogue. We were in a class learning Hebrew together. Here, you would call it a JCC, Mr. President. My brother Misha had just been arrested. He was part of a demonstration of Soviet Jews wanting to emigrate. Natan was one of the “regulars” rounded up by the KGB. I thought Natan could give me and our family helpful advice on what to expect. As soon as I began to hear him speak, I fell in love… And he, apparently, with me. Right there on the spot, you might say.

We decided to get married. I was just a 23 year old student. We ran around Moscow buying wedding bands as fast as we could. We knew Natan was about to be arrested himself.

On the day we were married, I got the visa to go to Israel. It was issued in my name only. It said I had to leave the next day or the visa would be invalid. It was awful. But we decided that I should leave. It’s seven years later now, Mr. President, and I still haven’t spent more than one night with my husband!

Of course I miss him. But more than that, I worry about his health. He has been in Siberian work camps for 4 years. Punishment cell. Solitary confinement. To stay sane, he reads The Book of Psalms that I gave him the day we married, or he plays chess games in his head. He’s quite brilliant. His mother and brother can visit him once a year. If either mentions my name, the guard forces them to change the subject. Natan gets no care from a doctor. He has angina. The pain doesn’t stop. I am so afraid he will die. He has rubbed a hole through his shirt at the spot where he tries to massage his heart. Mr. President: I want my husband back.”

The President seemed to change. When the meeting began, he seemed tired. This was the 4 month anniversary of his taking the oath of office. He was still recuperating from the assassination attempt on his life. But I was told that what I shared with him was “his kind of story. A Human Story.” I could see… He had tears in his eyes.

“Avital,” he told me, grasping my hand, “I promise you that no meeting will take place between the Soviet Union and the United States on any topic, any place in the world in which the subject of the plight of Soviet Jewry in general, and the specific issue of your husband’s release will not be on the agenda. I will not rest until your husband is free.”

In an instant, Natan had become a national priority for US diplomacy. His statement stunned and excited me; as much as it probably shocked most of the others in the Oval Office.

Ronald Reagan kept his promise. Like reciting the blessing before every meal, Soviet Jewry and Natan Sharansky became ritual invocations. No matter if the session was about SALT talks, grain sales, or Soviet submarines lost in the Baltic, my husband came first.

In July 1981, we went to visit Ambassador Max Kampelman. He was close to negotiating the release of my Natan, but there was one small catch; the Soviet’s required Natan to write a letter of confession; or at least acceptance of the jail sentence that had been issued.

“Natan will never sign this” I said. “The letter implies his guilt. He will never admit this. They’re keeping him in prison illegally. He cannot say “I request early commutation of my sentence.” He must say. “I demand immediate release because I am ill. I am very, very ill!”

But Natan refused to sign any letter.

Years went by. Then came the Reagan/Gorbachev Summit in Geneva in 1985. November. I was planning to go and demonstrate in front of the chateau where the summit was to take place. I received a call from the US Department of State. They said:

“We have reason to believe that your husband is going to be released soon. The summit is important for both the Americans and the Soviets. We are concerned that the consequences of your demonstrating in Geneva will be counterproductive. It will embarrass Gorbachev and could sour negotiations. The Soviets may change their mind about Natan’s release. We advise you not to go to Geneva.”

To protest or not to protest? I had never NOT protested before!

I called my friend in Columbus, Ohio, Gordon Zacks. “Avital,” he told me, “the only reason Natan has a chance of getting out is because of all the noise you’ve made. Go to Geneva and make MORE NOISE and KEEP MAKING NOISE until he’s out. Don’t let your leverage disappear!”

And so I went to Geneva. I made noise. I waved signs. Reagan and Gorbachev met. The president gave his counterpart his message:

“You can say again and again that Sharanksy’s a spy. But the world believes this lady, and you won’t be able to change your image until you let him go. You can say anything you want, but until you release all the Jews who want to emigrate, and all your political prisoners, you won’t be able to change your image in the West.”

And it worked. Natan was released on February 11, 1986. We were reunited. We quickly had two daughters. We made the Jewish home we so fervently dreamed of. And I returned to being a private person. I didn’t need NIGHTLINE or THE TODAY SHOW anymore. My message had always been a simple one: I WANT MY HUSBAND BACK.

Let him be the political one. Let him be the leader. Let him be the one walking around this wonderful conference this week. I helped him to get here. And that was activism enough for a lifetime!

(with acknowledgments to “Defining Moments: Stories of Character, Courage and Leadership” by Gordon Zacks)

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