"Things to Do in Munich" is a lot funnier than the play's subject matter might suggest.
Briefly put, it's the story of a Jewish man who made one final promise to his mother: He will take her ashes to Dachau so she can be reunited with his father, who died there.
The descendant of a Holocaust survivor himself, playwright Oren Safdie surrounds his hero -- and Sheldon is a hero, albeit an unlikely one -- with insanity, irony, chaos and farce of classical stature. Audiences at the dramedy's world premiere at Arkansas Public Theatre will laugh. But they'll also have a great deal to think about at the end of the evening.
"The [theatrical] love affair began when Rogers Little Theatre presented a reading of 'Private Jokes, Public Places' while I was in Bentonville for the opening of my father's museum," explains Safdie, whose father, Moshe Safdie, designed Crystal Bridges. "The subscribers and the entire community were so welcoming and appreciative of my work -- it's kind of a playwright's dream.
"This was only solidified," he adds, "when Ed McClure gave me the opportunity to direct my play 'Checks & Balances,' going out of his way to do it as an Equity production. Until this day, it remains one of my favorite productions. And when I sent Ed the script to 'Munich' -- he's one of my go-to first-read people for feedback -- and he said he wanted to direct it, I didn't hesitate."
Neither did McClure, one of the founders of the theater company now called APT.
"We want the audience to love it -- and they will," he says. "The challenge? If I disappoint Andrew Lloyd Webber, he's not going to know about it. Oren will know -- and I'll feel awful. But he's given us a great script and great business within the script. He worries about it moving too slowly, but the show flies by."
McClure is, of course, delighted by the attention the debut has captured, being written up in Broadway World and The Jerusalem Post.
"I'm excited for APT to be out there and mentioned in those publications," he says. "And I'm happy for Oren. For the last 20 years, I've been going to New York and seeing shows, and it mystifies me that his work is not done more than it is. I find his scripts to be as compelling as many, many things I've seen."
Kris Isham, an APT veteran who plays Sheldon, says Safdie's personal connection to the story lends authenticity to the script.
"You can tell a lot of this is personal to Oren," he speculates.
And it definitely is.
"It's hard to pinpoint an exact time in my life" that he realized his own connection to the Holocaust, Safdie says, "because information from my mother came as a trickle. In fact, only last year I learnt new details that were quite shocking and made me realize how strong of a woman my mother -- and my grandmother -- are and were. My mother told me early on how she and her sister had to hide for two years on a neighboring farm, underneath a staircase or in a hole in the ground, to evade the Nazis in Poland. But prior to that, I had no idea that they had all but given up, moving from place to place, ending up in the forest, eating berries, in the dead of winter. My grandmother even told her two daughters that maybe it would be best to turn themselves in and be shot, because at least they could die together, and it would be relatively painless. It's only because my 5-year-old mother cried and protested that 'she wanted to live' that my grandmother said, fine, but it wouldn't be easy. ... But there were also more tragic stories -- my great-grandparents taking poison and committing suicide together as they heard the Nazis coming up the path to their farm. ... It is human cruelty that takes the imagination to the limit, and a part of us wants to try and find out why.
"Growing up as a Jew, you always heard the term 'Never again,'" Safdie adds. "And you figured after the 20th century bloodbath of the Holocaust and Communism that the world would learn from these events. But I feel we are living in a time where the roots of such movements are rearing their heads. ... And so this play tries to highlight how quickly a political situation can change from benign to malignant. As a Jew -- and Israeli -- I always feel that line is lurking."
‘Things to Do in Munich’
WHEN — 8 p.m. Nov. 2-3; 2 p.m. Nov. 4; again Nov. 8-11
WHERE — Arkansas Public Theatre in Rogers
COST — $22-$29
INFO — 631-8988
BONUS — A champagne reception honoring playwright Oren Safdie will follow the Nov. 2 performance. He will speak and be available for questions. In addition, patrons may obtain autographed copies of his published play, “Checks and Balances,” which premiered at APT in November 2012.
In His Own Words: Oren Safdie
Q. When did a realization of the Holocaust and your mother’s part in it come into your consciousness? What do you remember about that revelation?
A. It’s hard to pinpoint an exact time in my life that I made this realization, because information from my mother came as a trickle. In fact, only last year I learnt new details that were quite shocking and made me realize how strong of a woman my mother — and my grandmother — are and were. My mother told me early on how she and her sister had to hide for two years on a neighboring farm, underneath a staircase or in a hole in the ground, to evade the Nazis in Poland. But prior to that, I had no idea that they had all but given up, moving from place to place, ending up in the forest, eating berries, in the dead of winter. My grandmother even told her two daughters that maybe it would be best to turn themselves in and be shot, because at least they could die together, and it would be relatively painless. It’s only because my 5-year-old mother cried and protested that “she wanted to live” that my grandmother said, fine, but it wouldn’t be easy. There are stories of my grandmother and mother being on a train and the Nazis boarding to check I.D., and just by chance my grandmother found someone else’s passport, rushed to the bathroom, made herself look like the person in the picture, and passed as the person. But there were also more tragic stories — my great-grandparents taking poison and committing suicide together as they heard the Nazis coming up the path to their farm. More directly, I was affected by seeing how my mother reacted to hearing the German language when we were out at a restaurant, or how she traveling to Poland or Germany were not on the agenda — although she has traveled Lufthansa more recently. I also remember as a young boy watching the PBS Series “The World At War,” narrated by Lawrence Olivier, and being enraptured. After that, I tried to get my hands on any literature about the Holocaust. I think many people go through this as if they somehow will understand it better. It is human cruelty that takes the imagination to the limit, and a part of us wants to try and find out why,
Q. Were you raised in a traditional Jewish household? If so or if not, how did that inform who you grew up to be?
A. I actually was not raised in a traditional Jewish home. I would say my grandparents were more traditional, and we always celebrated the holidays with them, also going to synagogue, but my own parents were Israeli (my mother first emigrated to Israel before coming to Canada where she met my father, also originally from Israel). Israeli in those days meant secular, as a lot of the founding of the country had its roots in Socialism. (Think the Kibbutz.) So even though there was a strong and vibrant Jewish community in Montreal, we didn’t live within it. I did not go to Jewish school or live in a Jewish neighborhood. I remember at my Bar Mitzvah, my parents had so many non-Jewish friends in attendance that the rabbi had to remind everyone that with the Jewish prayer books, you have to turn the pages left to right instead of right to left. My connection to Israel, however, was very strong as my parents had a house in the old city in Jerusalem, and we went almost every summer, visiting my mother’s mother, cousins and many friends.
Q. What surprised you/moved you most about your own visit to Germany? Did any of that experience make it into Sheldon’s story?
A. I found Berlin to be a truly international city, and I enjoyed it. Equally fascinating about that city is demarcation between Communist East Germany and West Germany. I think my trip down to Munich was less inspiring, and felt uncomfortable. The people seemed more provincial, and I guess it annoyed my how Dachau was treated just like any other place, with fast food restaurants just outside the gates and everything appearing so normal. The real shocker for me came when I visited Dachau concentration camp, and was amazed that they had a plaque to honor the Dachau Massacre. What is the Dachau Massacre? It’s when the concentration camp was liberated and a dozen or so SS officers were rounded up and killed by the prisoners and allied soldiers. Enough said. I left Munich a day earlier than planned. I would say it’s the emotion I felt that made its way into the play rather than anything specific.
Q. Considering the current political climate, what message in “Munich” is absolutely the most important right now?
A. Growing up as a Jew, you always heard the term “Never again.” And you figured after the 20th century bloodbath of the Holocaust and Communism that the world would learn from these events. But I feel we are living in a time where the roots of such movements are rearing their heads. Regarding the Holocaust, Israel has become a country that is held to a double standard like no other. And what so disconcerting to me is how many American Jews are siding against Israel. I’m actually an Israeli citizen, but I don’t live there, so I trust Israelis’ judgment because they are the ones fighting daily for their survival. In truth, it is the American Christian and Christian Evangelicals who have come to Israel’s defense. How crazy of a scenario is that? And so this play tries to highlight how quickly a political situation can change from benign to malignant. As a Jew — and Israeli — I always feel that line is lurking.
Q. When you turn a script over to a director, what are your greatest hopes and worst fears?
A. This is a hard question to answer. Obviously, every writer has a vision of what they put down on paper, so your hopes are that it comes out something like or that or even better — showing you things you never saw in the play yourself. And, yes, this does not always happen, but that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy it. But the one fear I do carry is that the pace will be slow, because I know my work, and it always needs to move. Some directors fear that an audience “won’t get it” so they slow the pace down, which I feel is “imminent death” in theater speak.
Q. What do you want audiences to remember from “Munich”?
A. Well, I know we’ve been talking about some pretty serious and heavy topics, but this is a comedy and I think people will laugh a lot. I don’t really have a preconceived notion of what people will take away, but I hope it will give them insight into a unique psyche and world.
Q. What’s next for you? Is there a future in the works for “Munich”?
A. I’m actually directing a new play of mine in Montreal called “Gratitude” right after this. It’s billed as the story of an innocent high school crush that snowballs into a life-changing moment for three coming-of-age boys and one girl. I also have a couple of film scripts that are hopefully inching toward production. And I’m writing a new architecture play called “Color Blind” that takes us inside a jury to select a design for an African-American Museum of History in Washington, D.C. (It’s a fictional take on the actual event.) As for “Munich,” this is the first step, and it’s anyone’s guess what will happen with a play in the future.
— Becca Martin-Brown
NAN What's Up on 10/28/2018
Print Headline: Laughter Through Tears