Okay, It Wasn’t TONY Week, but What a Week it Was for Welcoming Super Cool Playwrights!

Washington is paying more attention to the Tony’s, which is great, as Arena board members, Signature fans of Eric, and Wendy Goldberg groupies from the O’Neill all send missives from Party Town Central in advance of tonight’s Awards Ceremony. Meanwhile, it’s been a week to make note of at our little “Playwrights Theater” as we got to rub shoulders with 4 amazing writers (Mona Monsour, Sam Forman, Athol Fugard, and David Ives) all in town this week on various projects.

On Monday (June 7), we concluded our hugely successful “Voices From a Changing Middle East” Festival with a packed, standing room only reading of Mona Monsour’s THE URGE FOR GOING. Mona made a long weekend of it coming down on Saturday to catch the final performance of MIKVEH, staying for our closing night cast party, before being with us all day for rehearsals on Monday. Her play is at once bracing (grabbing you by lapels from the get-go, shoving a Palestinian squabble about 1948 and Dir Yasin before that, arguing about numbers and who lost more) before, just as quickly, turning into a lovely family play, set in a Lebanese refugee camp, involving a 17 year old daughter intent on living out the thwarted intellectual dreams of her perpetually ambivalent father, cursed with feeling like he’s an exile where ever he may go, whether in Lebanon or London where he was a promising young (albeit displaced) scholar thirty years and where his daughter now yearns to return.

Mona was great to have around and her play may have been the most accomplished piece of literary drama that was presented during our festival. Of course it was the ONLY play proper written by an American author, everything else being less play than performance piece or written originally in Hebrew and then translated. Mona’s stagecraft was deft, subtle; her references to American cultural artifacts permeating Lebanese life (“The ‘Baywatch'” becomes the mythological narrative that unites the family around the television) shrewd and vivid. We hope to meet up with Mona’s sequel/prequel, THE HOUR OF FEELING, very soon.

Tuesday brought Sam Forman to town for auditions for THE MOSCOWS OF NANTUCKET (shall we remind ourselves of the gorgeous image of that show? Here it is:
We saw wonderful people — a few other wonderful people couldn’t make it in and so we’re holding until we figure out how to account for them, or put them on flipcam, as it were. Sam’s play is laugh-out-loud funny and that really was the great story coming out of auditions; that this new play keeps getting funnier from draft to draft and, after seeing some 75 people come in and out of the room, we still were in stitches. Good play.

On Wednesday I got the rare privilege to meet South African playwright Athol Fugard who was in town for a one night only presentation of his new play HAVE YOU SEEN US? at the Folger Theatre starring Sam Waterston. The play premiered at the Long Wharf Theatre last season and was brought down for a special reading sponsored by The Faith & Politics Institute and the Connecticut Congresswoman from the Long Wharf’s district, Representative Rosa LeLauro. Fugard read stage directions for his own play. It’s a confessional play about how an Afrikaner, who’s lived with hatred, racism, and prejudice stitched into his soul his whole life, and now adrift himself in Southern California, stumbles into one testy confrontation after another. He bickers rather endlessly, during the first hour of the one act play, with Adela in a sandwich sop in a strip mall. She’s Latina, he’s critical of brown skin and brown skin culture. Then in floats Solly and Rachel, Jewish refugees from another century it seems, nursing wounds and loss. Henry (the Sam Waterston role) is haughty at first and confesses to never forgetting the “Fuck You, Jew” epithet that was always near and dear to him growing up Afrikaner. But somehow, in this magical encounter–which we’re alerted to early on at the outset of the play and that only comes to pass at the very end–Henry is touched by Solly’s Yiddish singing–and in an instant the hateful encounter turns into a touching departure. As Henry says in the play’s most moving line, “The journey from Hate to Love is the shortest journey I’ve ever made.” Or as Fugard said in the post-show talk-back with NPR’s Nina Totenberg, “Henry walks out with all his dominos down.” And then this gem, “The central transaction of the universe is one person dealing with other; one person healing another…” “The hope and faith in the future is that of personal transformation.”

And so it was a singular honor to break bread with him after the reading at the home of Rep DeLauro and her pollster husband, Stanley Greenberg (whom I’d written about in the BORN GUILTY sequel for his work in the Vienna mayoral campaign earlier this decade). In short, a heady evening; triggered by another cool playwright coming to town.

And after that… yesterday’s visit from our NEW JERUSALEM playwright. Was great to have David Ives in rehearsal with us yesterday, after Friday night’s wonderful presentation at Tifereth Israel Congregation, of the first 40 minutes of the play, which are holding up rather brilliantly. Very excited. David was being introduced to our company for the first time since a death in the family kept him, at the last minute, from being with us for the first days of rehearsal. David was full of appreciation for the cast, and had notes for Jeremy (Skidmore, our director) after, as well as at least one word change — with perhaps other tweaks and cuts and enhancements coming in the days to follow; we shall see about that. Suffice to say, his incredibly rich play was all the more nourishing to experience with him in the room, taking notes. And how he loved the artwork hung all over the walls of our community hall/rehearsal room; the huge poster art of illustrator David Polonsky. David’s wife is a graphic designer and the two of them couldn’t get over David’s drawings for Theater J. And then I showed David the new renderings on my computer, and all the different iterations for almost each image on my laptop. “You got him to make revisions?”

Let’s just say every artistic director has a proudest moment every day. That was mine. Being able to say, “yes. He did 8 iterations of THE ODD COUPLE. And it’s brilliant now, isn’t it?”


One thought on “Okay, It Wasn’t TONY Week, but What a Week it Was for Welcoming Super Cool Playwrights!

  1. This play is such a rich meal, it’s hard to know where to begin. I have always admired the phrase (I think it was Voltaire who coined it) “liberty is the luxury of self-discipline.” It makes me think of the balance of powers in our constitution as a prudent response by the Founding Fathers to the dangerous impulses in human nature. What this play shows, though, is that self-discipline, when imposed through fear, can be tragic. New Jerusalem raises the question, what is the nature of freedom? It explores this on both a social and individual level. And it is a deeply Jewish story.

    Socially, the Jewish community in 17th century Amsterdam is sacrificing liberty for security. It is giving up a piece of its heart, in the form of an unorthodox but valued member and his very Jewish proclivity for robust debate and exploring an argument wherever it leads. This fear-based reaction, or Faustian bargain, as the playwright more eloquently put it in the discussion after the show, is something we all recognize. As I recall, he mentioned media self-censorship after the uproar over the publication of the Danish cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammad. He may have also mentioned the Patriot Act and the new Arizona immigration law. What wasn’t mentioned is the specifically Jewish form of this reaction: the refusal by some powerful groups in today’s Jewish community to tolerate criticism of Israel . They fear such debate will make Israel less secure, and the world less safe for Jews. Many members of the community who dare to break this silence are figuratively excommunicated as “self-hating Jews.”

    On an individual level – the emotional core of the play – the rabbi must turn his back on his beloved pupil. He must close his heart for the sake of his community’s safety. This final scene is all the more poignant because we have heard the old man say he was present at Spinoza’s birth; he mentored him, and the youth is like a son to him, since he has no son of his own. We also know that Spinoza’s own father has died. Spinoza, who speaks of having no choice but to follow his thoughts, is the only one who is really free. He reasons that since all that is, is God, including the mind, he is compelled to pursue its logic. He feels compassion for his mentor, for the young woman who loves him, and even for the friend who betrayed him, but unlike them, he is not emotionally attached. He beautifully sums up the illusions people succumb to: wealth, honor, and pleasure. (I don’t know if Spinoza actually said this or if it is a dramatic flourish; if it is the latter, I would add power as a fourth illusion. I also suspect that he would consider romantic love another, ultimately fleeting illusion.) Such equanimity does seem like true freedom in a Buddhist sense. I think someone even mentioned Buddhism in the post-show discussion. Spinoza lets the drama play out, and seems almost relieved when the final judgment is rendered, allowing him to go forth, completely unencumbered, on his path.

    But wait – haven’t we heard this story before? It is a very Jewish one. Abraham smashed his father’s idols and left his family, his home, everything he knew, and struck out in a new direction. Moses’ true identity was hidden so that he could be raised in a safe environment – until he had to confront who he really was and leave the familiar, protected confines of Pharaoh’s palace and lead his people out of bondage into new territory and a new relationship with the Creator. The Children of Israel may not have lived the high life as slaves in Egypt – “the narrow place” in Hebrew – but the constricted lives they lived there were in many ways less terrifying than the wide open wilderness that lay beyond. There is a link between slavery and security, and this chain had to be broken in order for the Jewish People to become who they are. By forsaking the emotional comfort and acceptance of the world he knew to pursue his apprehension of the divine – and evolving our understanding of reality in the process – Spinoza was not rejecting his heritage. He was emulating it.

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