The New York Times

May 15, 2005
The Premier Theater for Premieres
By Trey Graham
 
Correction Appended

WASHINGTON — Joyce Carol Oates's play "The Tattooed Girl" had its premiere there last year. Wendy Wasserstein introduced "Third," a one-act she has since expanded for Lincoln Center. Tony Kushner came for the initial reading of "Caroline, or Change." And next year Ariel Dorfman will present a new play, "Picasso's Closet," there, while Richard Greenberg, the author of "Take Me Out," will stage his new work "Bal Masque."

What theater could play host to all these well-connected productions? Of all places, Theater J, an intimate 236-seat space at the D.C. Jewish Community Center. Despite a staff of just seven and a yearly budget of less than $1 million, Theater J and Ari Roth, its artistic director, offer a rare mix of professional polish, thoughtful dramaturgy and nervy experimentation - all in a spot just far enough off the New York radar for a playwright to relax. "Ari wants work that is contemporary, political, different, experimental," Mr. Dorfman said. "He's not afraid of his audience not liking what they discover."

Mr. Dorfman's sprawling seven-character play about Picasso's time in occupied France is not every producer's dream material. The nonlinear work reflects the painter's prismatic style as it explores individual responses to political repression, military occupation and, yes, terror.

"Playwrights hear the word 'no' an awful lot," Mr. Roth said. "To be able to say 'yes' to the things that you most passionately and personally believe in is the extraordinary privilege here."

Ms. Oates, who worked closely with Mr. Roth on "The Tattooed Girl," was attracted by his dramaturgical instincts. As a coach, she said, "he's remarkable. Not just good or excellent, but outstanding. It was as if, in a way, it was his play, he cared so much, which is really unusual. And he's got a great sense of humor."

Brought up on the Chicago street David Mamet memorialized in "The Old Neighborhood," Mr. Roth taught playwriting at the University of Michigan before moving to Washington with his wife, Dr. Kate Schecter, who works at the World Bank. He calls himself an "unrequited playwright with Kushneresque ambition": he received praise for "Born Guilty" and "Love and Yearning in the Not-for-Profits," but he acknowledges that "I'm not universally beloved" among Washington's critics. And he worries that has had an effect on Theater J's backers and board. "They trust me more now as a producer than as a producer-playwright," he said ruefully. "I don't know what my fortunes hold as a playwright anymore."

His bruises may have helped him in his dealings with other writers, though. At a time when Ms. Wasserstein was inching back into a more public life after a health crisis and a professional dry spell, for instance, Mr. Roth was careful not to over-publicize her plays "Third" and "Welcome to My Rash." "We were able to offer Wendy a kind of sheltered space to work in," Mr. Roth said. "I guess you could say we specialize in artists with war wounds."

For Mr. Roth, who has been artistic director since 1997, Theater J is as much a mission as an artistic home. Its attempt to reclaim what he calls "the distinctive urban voice and social vision that are part of its Jewish cultural legacy" is rooted in his experience as the disillusioned child of progressive Zionists. That also inspired many meet-the-artist programs; "Peace Cafe" discussions about controversial plays are organized with a local Palestinian-born restaurateur who is on the theater's governing council.

"Ari doesn't see the play stopping in the theater itself," Mr. Dorfman said. "He's turned the lobby and the building itself into a place of exchange and interchange and discussion. As a playwright, you want people to take your dilemmas home with them. You don't want them leaving them behind in the seats."


Correction: May 22, 2005, Sunday:

An article last Sunday about Theater J at the District of Columbia Jewish Community Center and its artistic director, Ari Roth, misidentified the employer of Dr. Kate Schecter, Mr. Roth's wife. It is the American International Health Alliance; she no longer works for the World Bank. The article also misstated the heritage of a restaurateur, Andy Shallal, who helps organize discussions about controversial plays. He was born in Iraq; he is not Palestinian.


 

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