This fall, the Arkansas Public Theater in Rogers, Arkansas, is staging three productions. Andrew Lloyd Webber's Sunset Boulevard, Barbara Robinson's The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, and the world premiere of a play by Canadian-American-Israeli playwright Oren Safdie about antisemitism in Germany in the 1970s.
Safdie, born in Montreal to famed Israeli architect Moshe Safdie, is aware that Rogers, Arkansas - population 65,000 - is an unlikely locale for the premiere of Things To Do in Munich. But for him it was the right decision. "It's nice to come to a town where a play opening feels like a happening of the whole region," said Safdie in a recent interview with The Jerusalem Post. In somewhere like New York or London, "you're one of a thousand plays opening there." Plus, he said, the theater community there has been very welcoming and open-minded. In 2012, he premiered his play Checks and Balances, a comedy about a music student, at the very same theater.
"I'm really astounded by the sophistication there," he said. "They're building up their arts scene."
Things to Do in Munich will open on November 2 at the 250-seat historic Victory Theater. The play, set in 1974, follows the story of Sheldon, a middle aged Jewish accountant who tries to fulfill his mother's last wishes, and brings her ashes to Munich to be reunited with his father, who was killed in the Holocaust. But at every step of the way, Sheldon encounters obstacles and absurdist misdirections.
"When I write something I feel like I have to have this direct feeling for it," said Safdie, whose mother was a Polish Holocaust survivor. "For me, Germany and Poland were places my mother would never go and I felt the same way, and I grew up with this feeling."
But in 2000, Safdie visited Germany for the first time, in part due to an unending curiosity about the place.
"The normalcy of everything struck me," he said. "Whether I was looking for it or not, it was a little odd, the whole experience of being on the train - and somebody said 'oh, this was the same train [to Dachau], the same train tracks, the same everything.' You walk and it's just a town."
Safdie combined his experiences in Germany with a few stories he heard from friends over the years - including one who visited Germany to trace the story of his Holocaust survivor mother. The municipality had a block on giving out any information because "they had still been sending out notices from an electric bill that wasn't paid for 60 years ago" - when his family was forced out of their home in the Holocaust. Another story involved somebody stopped at border customs "trying to bring in the ashes of their parents," said Safdie. He first penned the story that became Things to Do in Munich as a film script, many years ago when "the emotions were sort of raw, and I felt I wanted to write something about that." More recently he turned it into a play, and is excited to see it premiere in Arkansas next month.
Over the years, Safdie has seen many of his plays gain both critical and commercial success. Private Jokes, Public Places deals with the insider world of architecture, and Safdie was surprised to see how much attention it received. He was less surprised at the buzz around 2014's Unseamly - the thinly veiled story of workplace sexual harassment allegations against American Apparel CEO Dov Charney - Safdie's first cousin. The play opened a few years before the #MeToo movement hit its stride, but Safdie thinks it played a role nevertheless.
"I think it played its moment, I think it had an impact," he said. But he's not the sure the play would still get staged today. "In the play I try to lay out both sides and that's not very popular to do right now," he said. "It's hard to write something in this environment and not be accused of taking the right side."
Safdie never shies away from tackling controversial topics. Last year his play, Mr. Goldberg Goes to Tel Aviv saw its world premiere in Montreal. The satire tells the story of a gay Jewish Canadian man who travels to Tel Aviv to offer a blistering criticism of the Israeli government. But he never quite gets out of his hotel room, as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict comes straight to him. Safdie said he's setting his sites on producing on a movie version of Mr. Goldberg Goes to Tel Aviv, filmed in the Jewish state, which should have a small budget since "it's all set in one hotel in Tel Aviv."
While he writes a lot about Israel and the Jewish Diaspora, "I've always had some difficulty having my plays produced in so-called Jewish theaters," he said, noting why he sometimes turns to more surprising locations, including Arkansas.
"I see myself as a neutral writer," he said. "But many theaters - not just Jewish - if you write about contemporary Israel, things that are even-handed have a hard time getting produced."