Playwrights in NY bring Israel, Jewish themes to the edge of the stage.
By NATHAN BURSTEIN
More than a decade into its history, the New York Fringe Festival boasts a name that is by now an anachronism. Filling more than 75,000 seats at some 200 performances, the Fringe Festival, kicking off Friday, has become a central part of the Big Apple's summer theater season, and this year offers a varied selection of Jewish- and Israel-themed productions.
For playwrights and also actors, the festival's name is a misnomer: involvement in a Fringe production has become a significant achievement.
That was certainly the feeling for one of the festival's younger playwrights, Melanie Zoey Weinstein, who will present her debut comedy, Sex and the Holy Land, five times at the Players Theatre, beginning August 15.
"I was screaming my head off," the 23-year-old says of the moment she learned her show had been accepted. "My doorman almost called 911."
Described by Weinstein as a coming-of-age story "largely inspired" by her own visits to Israel, Sex and the Holy Land is, as its name suggests, one of the more irreverent of the Jewish-themed plays on the schedule. Following a trio of young Jewish Americans as they travel through Israel, the show sets its tone during an early scene on a flight to Tel Aviv, when a pair of Arab and Jewish characters get into an argument in the line for the bathroom. ("I was here first," the Jewish character informs her fellow Semite.)
A sex romp that explores issues of identity, recent Jewish history and cultural differences between Israelis and Americans, the production received its initial reading last year at the University of Miami, where Weinstein submitted the script as her senior thesis in theater arts and creative writing. But the play's roots stretch back much further, Weinstein says, noting that many of its characters were drawn from study programs she completed in Israel in high school and college, and even from trips dating back earlier. "I feel like I've been writing this my whole life," she says.
For writer and director Ben Goldstein, surprise at his play's selection came not because of his newness to the entertainment industry, but because of a scheduling demand. "We never thought we would get into the Fringe Festival because we wrote that we wouldn't perform on Shabbat," says Goldstein. "We thought that would exclude us automatically."
INSTEAD, FESTIVAL organizers embraced Goldstein's request, giving a slot to The Secret of Our Souls: A Kabbalistic Love Story, which recounts the life of the founder of hassidic Judaism, the Baal Shem Tov, in musical form.
"It's a beautiful, spiritually uplifting story about a man who basically saves his people during a period of tremendous oppression," says Goldstein, who wrote the book and set the show's lyrics to the music of Phillip Namanworth, his professional partner of 40 years.
Best known in the entertainment world for their contributions to Sesame Street - the pair has written 20 songs for the show - Goldstein and Namanworth have worked on various forms of The Secret of Our Souls for 18 years, and will distinguish themselves from their Fringe Festival colleagues by offering a show tailored specifically for religious audiences. In contrast to its other stagings, the play's third show (August 17) will feature singing only by its male cast members - another condition cleared with festival organizers in advance.
A fully contemporary scenario stands at the heart of Union Squared, a romantic comedy involving a philandering Wall Street executive, an errant text message and a disapproving Jewish mother. "Sophie's values are long-lived and at her core," says writer David Singer, who based the character on a group of his mother's friends. "These women are unbelievable - funny, fun and so alive with energy."
A playwright in the morning and an entertainment lawyer in the afternoon, Singer, 60, began working on Union Squared a year ago and says he was pleasantly surprised to have his show selected for the Fringe Festival, where it will run five times at the Players Theatre beginning August 22. "I sometimes have to pinch myself, that in this relatively short time I'm here," Singer says.
For all three playwrights - and their Fringe Festival peers - the two-week showcase is both its own reward and an opportunity to attract investors and producers for future productions.
A full schedule and ticket information are available at fringenyc.org.
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