Risk brings reward
D.C.'s Theater J lines up preems
By PAUL HARRIS
WASHINGTON -- It's fitting that D.C.'s Theater J launches its new season this month with a premiere by theater scholar-director-critic Robert Brustein. "Spring Forward, Fall Back" is billed as a partly autobiographical drama about cultural conflicts between a father and son that explores the changing identities of American Jews.
The play also demonstrates Theater J's raison d'etre: to reclaim the distinctive urban voice and social vision that are part of its Jewish cultural legacy. Under artistic director Ari Roth, the theater has gained national prominence as a home for edgy, politically charged plays -- and for nurturing risky new works.
That agenda will be on display throughout this season, the 10th anniversary of Roth's stewardship and the troupe's home at the 236-seat Goldman Theater at the D.C. Jewish Community Center.
In January, Theater J debuts "Sleeping Arrangements," a new comedy by Laura Shaine Cunningham based on her bestselling coming-of-age memoir of family rejuvenation.
In May, it will present "Either, Or," a new play by "Schindler's List" author Thomas Keneally, focusing on another tragic German figure from World War II. It's the true story of an evangelical Christian who joined the SS, only to watch in horror as his sister-in-law was exterminated. His personal efforts to battle Nazi atrocities were met with failure. Directed by Daniel DeRaey, the play offers a poignant commentary on how honorable people can be lured into evil situations.
The season ends with a festival called "Voices From a Changing Middle East." Sked includes the English-language preem of a drama by Motti Lerner that sets West Bank settlers in 2009, looking forward to discuss/predict the situation in the Middle East; and a solo piece by Aaron Davidman called "Chasing Justice/Seeking Truth."
The playwrights join an impressive roster of Theater J scribes. Recent seasons have hosted Richard Greenberg ("Bal Masque"), Ariel Dorfman ("Picasso's Closet"), Joyce Carol Oates ("The Tattooed Girl"), Wendy Wasserstein (one-acts "Welcome to My Rash" and the original version of "Third") and Neena Beber ("Jump/Cut"). In fact, Roth and company have produced more than 20 world premieres in the past decade.
How does it land such notable scribes? "We stumble onto many of our plays," admits Roth, who says Theater J has no formal literary department and conducts no regular meetings with agents. "The playwrights I choose to work with are often my friends," he says.
For example, writer-in-residence Brustein's new play was suggested in emails from colleagues, while the rights to "Either, Or" and last season's "Bal Masque" were obtained by following up solicitations from literary agencies.
The theater is not afraid to tackle controversial subjects head-on. In general, it seeks plays that have some Jewish context, ranging from oblique to explicit. "We look for social justice, melting-pot issues or plays that personify a Jewish urban sensibility," says Roth. Play readings and workshops help refine the selection process.
Since the fraternity of theaters eager to gamble on new works is small, and the ranks of Jewish theaters even smaller, Theater J is within the top tier of troupes committed to commissioning and developing them.
It's also viewed as a hospitable environment where playwrights can find shelter from the New York spotlight. That's why Wasserstein agreed in 2004 to write very personal plays about her illness.
And, with a total annual budget of around $1 million, failures don't exact serious financial pain, says Roth.
Yet another attraction is the 45-year-old Roth himself, a Chicago-born playwright and educator who knows first-hand the pains of creation. His dramaturgical instincts have earned him loyalty from writers with whom he has worked, yielding a study piled high with unsolicited scripts.
Bolstered by its progressive board of directors and sophisticated urban audience, much of which is not Jewish, Theater J continues its search for difficult and controversial themes, including a healthy dose of self-criticism. It also offers outreach projects, including its Peace Cafe forum and regular candid dialogues with Muslims, Christians and Jews about art and politics.
Upcoming projects include "Ali Salem Drives to Israel," a new play by Roth; "David the Musical," a tuner about King David with book and lyrics by Yehuda Hyman ("The Mad Dancers") and music by Daniel Hoffman; and staged concert readings of Brustein's new musical, "Shlemiel the First."