Jewish Theater Breaks a Leg
By Ted Merwin
Plastering the walls of Ari Roth’s tiny office at the Jewish Community Center in Washington, D.C., are photos of past productions that he has directed for Theater J, the resident Jewish theater company he has helmed for the last nine years. But one would never guess, in looking at the images of costumed actors playing rabbis and refugees, that Roth is a powerhouse in American theater. Dubbed by The New York Times as the “premier theater for premieres,” Theater J has been the first to showcase the works of world-class playwrights, including Richard Greenberg, Wendy Wasserstein, Joyce Carol Oates and Ariel Dorfman. The Times also lauded Roth for bringing a “rare mix of professional polish, thoughtful dramaturgy and nervy experimentation.”
Yet the success of Theater J is atypical. In general, Jewish theater finds itself at a crossroads. Compared to a generation ago, increasing numbers of playwrights incorporate Jewish themes into their work; however, the number of Jewish repertory companies is on the decline, and plays about Jewish life are now being produced by mainstream theater companies throughout the country.
At the same time, theater no longer holds the cultural power it once did, with recorded entertainment of so many kinds relentlessly piped into American homes. National surveys of arts audiences show that baby boomers are disproportionately represented in theater seats, with younger people more interested in concerts and films.
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