MARTIN SHERMAN: Dramatizing a Century of Jewish Memories

It’s hard to talk about Martin Sherman without using expressions like “anomalous” and “falls between the cracks.” Born and raised in Camden, N.J., the 61-year-old playwright moved to London 20 years ago, a month after his best-known play, “Bent,” opened on Broadway. His friend David Marshall Grant, who co-starred with Richard Gere in “Bent,” teases him by saying, “Martin, you’ve become a British playwright. How’d that happen?” And his unplaceable accent apparently confounds cabdrivers everywhere. In a recent interview, Mr. Sherman said with considerable amusement, “I get into a taxi in London, and they say, ‘How long are you here for?’ I get into a taxi in New York, and they say, ‘How long are you here for?’”

It’s not just his accent that’s all over the place. His plays vary enormously in style, setting, and subject matter. While “Bent” portrayed the persecution of homosexuals in Hitler’s Germany, his play “Messiah,” produced by Manhattan Theatre Club in 1984, was set in 17th century Poland and depicted a young girl who becomes a follower of a charismatic false prophet. “When She Danced,” his comedy about Isadora Duncan which starred Elizabaeth Ashley when it was produced at Playwrights Horizons in 1989, had characters speaking in five different languages. In “Some Sunny Day,” produced in London in 1996, a British journalist in Cairo turns into an orange blob and flies out the window.

And now for something completely different: his new play, “Rose,” has just one character, a twice-widowed 80-year-old woman who never budges from her wooden bench in Miami Beach. However, the story she tells takes the audience on the restless journey of 20th century Jewish life, from a Ukrainian shtetl to the Warsaw ghetto to Atlantic City and Florida, with side trips to a hippie commune in Connecticut and an Israeli settlement on the West Bank.

The play opened last summer at London’s Royal National Theatre in a production directed by Nancy Meckler and starring Olympia Dukakis. That production, which garnered rave reviews for Ms. Dukakis and an Olivier nomination for Best New Play, opens Wednesday at the Lyceum Theater for a limited Broadway run presented by Lincoln Center Theater.

“Rose” arose from a burst of millennial fever on the playwright’s part. “I wanted to tell the full story of this woman’s life,” said Mr. Sherman over Portobello mushrooms at a kosher French bistro in Times Square. “I wanted to present the experience of what it was like being a European Jew in this century. How else are you going to do it? Write a play that begins when she’s 20 and ends when she’s 80? You’d need three different actresses, and a cast of 400, and some kind of spectacle. It would be too overwhelming.”

Originally, Mr. Sherman had it in mind to write a companion piece to “Rose” in which an older gay man tells the story of his life in the 20th century. As a gay man himself, he thought it would be fascinating to note the contrast between a Yiddish culture that was dying out and a gay culture just being born. “But I think in order to capture much of what’s happened in the century for a gay man, I would get quite strained,” he said. “Whereas the life of a woman like Rose falls very naturally within key moments of the century that affect European Jewry.”

Mr. Sherman didn’t have to reach very far for certain details of Rose’s journey. He grew up an only child in a household of European Jewish immigrants who spoke Yiddish. His father was born in Russia, in the shtetl whose name appears in the play, Yultishka. His maternal grandparents were religious so it was a kosher house. He spent his early summers at the Pierpont Hotel in Atlantic City, which his aunt and uncle owned and where his grandmother worked.

“I use autobiographical elements in the play,” Mr. Sherman admitted, “but they get put in a blender. I can see my maternal grandmother in Rose, and I can see my paternal grandmother in her mother. Other things come from people I’ve met or from my imagination. But I do have all these childhood memories of a kind of life or society that disappeared. Which is evolution. As life is.”

He wrote the play holed up at a hotel in Paris. “I have to get away from London to write,” he said. “I don’t want to be able to open up a newspaper and see what’s playing. I have to get myself into a state where all practical considerations are abandoned. i can’t think about how it’ll be produced, will it be produced, where it will be produced, who will be in it. Because then I don’t dare do certain things.” Like write a play with characters who change shape, or speak five languages, or require a tour de force performance.

When it was done, Mr. Sherman sent the script directly to Trevor Nunn, who runs the National Theater. “I would have been shattered, really shattered, if they’d said no,” the playwright confessed. Luckily, Mr. Nunn not only rearranged the schedule so the play could premiere before the end of the century but programmed it to play in repertory with “The Merchant of Venice,” to give it further historical context.

Mr. Sherman chose as director Nancy Meckler, another transplanted American with whom he made the 1996 film “Alive and Kicking” about a dancer living with AIDS. To cast the play, they pondered the short list of actresses who could rivet an audience for two hours and abruptly ended their search when somebody mentioned Ms. Dukakis.

Best-known for her Academy Award-winning performance playing Cher’s mother in “Moonstruck,” Ms. Dukakis has spent most of her life acting onstage. She and her husband Louis Zorich ran their own theater company in Montclair, N.J., from 1971 to 1990. But Mr. Sherman knew her even before that.

“I had seen her onstage a great deal because when I was a freshman at Boston University, she was a graduate student,” said Sherman. “I was the chorus to her Clytemnestra in ‘Agamemnon.’ So I’ve been seeing her since I was 17.” The performance that stands out most for him, though, is Ms. Dukakis’ turn as Mrs. Madrigal in the PBS series based on Armistead Maupin’s “Tales of the City,” which he calls “one of the most beautiful and nuanced I’ve ever seen anywhere.”

A funny thing happened on the way to the National Theater. The playwright, director, and star discovered that their combined wealth of experience on the stage had not prepared them for some of the challenges of staging “Rose.” Ms. Meckler, who has been the artistic director of the Shared Experience theater company in London since 1988, said in a telephone interview, “With a one-person play, you don’t know where you are. Usually you rely on the ping-pong between players and the chemistry in the room to tell you how the act is moving forward. With one person telling stories that are both very emotional and very funny, there’s no way to gauge the attention span of the audience.”

For Ms. Dukakis, the full impact of “Rose” didn’t register until the first preview. “The audience taught me a lot about the play,” she said between rehearsals at the Lyceum Theater. “I thought the whole experience would be about the impact of the play and what it says not only about the century but also the way we process our personal history, how we reach for our place in the universe. I had no idea the kind of energy that would come from the audience. For one thing, they laughed wildly and loudly.” The actress said she was very curious to see how the play will be received by a New York audience. “The English were very eager to hear the story. They love to listen. But there were nights in London,” she added drily, “when I was very aware there were no Jews in the house.”

As for Mr. Sherman, he is somewhat bemused by the perception in New York of “Rose” as one of this season’s British imports alongside Michael Frayn’s “Copenhagen.” But, he said, “I can’t complain about it. I chose to live in another country.”

Oh, right. How did that happen?

“To this day I can’t give you a coherent and reasoned explanation. It was just instinctive,” he said. “Things happened that gave me logical reasons to want to live there. But the logical reasons followed the instinctive. In 1975, my play ‘Passing By’ was done by the Gay Sweatshop in London, which was the first good production I’d ever had of anything. It was very important for me not to move to England permanently until I had a success in America, so I would know that I wasn’t running away from something. I didn’t make the move until a month after ‘Bent’ opened on Broadway. I’m really glad I did. There was something about my writing that fit more into British theater. I was comfortable. It’s hard to explain. But like Rose, I’m comfortable being an outsider.”

New York Times, April 9, 2000

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