The king of Seventies comedy still reigns in Phoenix: Rare is the community theater company that each season doesn't feature one of Neil Simon's plays. What's baffling is that they're about as pertinent as a pet rock.
But even more perplexing than the popularity of Simon's shopworn comedies is the odd treatment one of them is getting from our local Jewish theater troupe. Arizona Jewish Theatre Company's current offering is the insanely popular They're Playing Our Song, a musical written by three Jews that in this version has nothing to do with Jewish anything. Purportedly, AJTC's mission is to present Jewish-themed plays that engage its Jewish audience or maybe enlighten non-Jews to Jewish theater traditions. With its all-singing, all-dancing, all-Gentile cast and crew, AJTC's They're Playing Our Song could easily be retitled The Goyim Girls Present a Night of Neil Simon. In any case, it doesn't do much for accomplishing AJTC's mission.
The show, with music by Marvin Hamlisch and lyrics by Carole Bayer Sager, opened on Broadway in 1979 and featured Lucie Arnaz and Robert Klein as songwriters who meet and fall in love and trade a lot of witty, neurotic Simonisms between some vaguely pleasant songs. Simon's book is tedious and amounts to little more than a lot of lead-ins to those tunes; his main contributions--a pair of running gags about the female lead's habitual tardiness and her penchant for theatrical costuming--are beaten to death early on.
Even so, audiences, Jewish or not, tend to love this show. And that seems to be the reason Our Song was selected. While AJTC producing director Janet Arnold has worked hard to create and promote local Jewish theater, she admits that occasionally she has to bow to audience demands. Her subscribers, she says, ask repeatedly for musicals, and it's her job to deliver.
"You can count on two fingers the number of Jewish musicals there are," Arnold says. "There's Fiddler on the Roof and Milk and Honey. You can't keep doing those two. In order to accommodate our audiences, we stretch our mission a little bit."
Arnold has tested the elasticity of her company's mission statement before. AJTC's production of Perfectly Frank, a revue of Frank Loesser songs, met a cacophony of kvetching a couple of seasons ago for not being Jewish enough. "My contention is that if the play is by a Jewish writer, you're celebrating their contribution to theater," Arnold says. Still, she's not hedging any bets: Her director's note in the Our Song program acknowledges that the show does not address Jewish issues.
There's no disclaimer regarding the non-Jewish cast and crew, however--and very little concern, it seems, in the Jewish theater community.
Michelle Gardner, a Jewish actress who works steadily in the Valley, told me flatly, "Man, lighten up," when I asked if Jews don't mind being portrayed by Gentiles. "Anyone who's worried about stuff like that is taking life way too seriously," she cautioned me. Gardner, who auditioned for the Simon musical, says co-directors Michael Barnard and Robyn Ferracane cast the most talented actors who auditioned, and is not offended that both of those actors happen to be Gentile. "Fat guys don't get cast as Romeo, and that's the nature of this business," she told me. "Casting directors are looking for the best actor for the part, not whether their religious affiliation is an exact match."
I thought Stefanie Pearson, the assistant editor of The Jewish News of Greater Phoenix and an AJTC board member, would take umbrage at this whole Gentiles-Jews thing. I was wrong. "Oy," she told me. "I would never take it upon myself to speak for the Jewish community. How does that saying go? 'Two Jews, three opinions?' But I will say this: If we don't complain about being portrayed by Gentiles, it's because we're used to it. Anyway, I'm less concerned with whether there are Jews playing Jews than I am in whether we're being played as stereotypes."
Jewish stereotypes abound in American theater, Pearson told me, and every Neil Simon play offers caricatures of what people imagine Jews to be like. "You usually see the bossy Jewish mother, or the overly intellectual, vaguely neurotic, sexually repressed Jewish man," she said. "It can get pretty awful."
Arnold insists that she does everything she can to prevent things from getting out of hand. "I keep an eye on our actors," she says. "If a Gentile actor were playing a character as stereotypically Jewish, the audience would jump on that."
Arnold might do better to patrol her directors. Actress Linda DeArmond, who plays one of the leads in Our Song, told me that she was asked to give her character "a Jewish twang," whatever that is. But DeArmond is quick to point out that both her directors were sensitive to potential Jewish stereotypes. "They just told me to play her broad and big," she reports. "I know a lot of Christians who gesture a lot, and we all know that Simon writes dialogue with that kind of rhythm."
I didn't. But what do I know? Before I started looking for Jewish people who were angry about the idea of an all-Gentile Jewish theater production, I thought I'd find some. I figured I'd at least find a Jewish actor who was pissed off about being passed over.
Gardner told me, "You'd have to be Jewish to understand that after a while you get desensitized to having your culture ignored. We live with a Christian calendar, a Christian workweek, a Christian ethic. So seeing a couple of Gentiles playing Jews really isn't that big a deal. Anyway, in this case, they're good actors."
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Gardner's largess is shared by others. "When we first started the theater, I thought we would pull all kinds of Jewish talent out of the woodwork," Arnold says. "But once we went Equity, we had to go with the best actor. At least now we get Gentiles to audition. Before, they were afraid to." Arnold thinks that working for a Jewish theater is enlightening for non-Jewish people, whether they realize it or not. "Michael and Robyn decided to stage the curtain call as a Jewish wedding," she says. "They came to me to ask for yarmulkes and a prayer shawl, and I told them about breaking the glass at the end of the ceremony. Those are things they were probably glad to learn about."
DeArmond was happy about something altogether different. "I was glad to find out that we didn't have to work on Christmas," she told me.
Arizona Jewish Theatre Company's production of They're Playing Our Song continues through Sunday, January 12, in Stage West at Herberger Theater Center, 222 East Monroe. For more details, see Theater listing in Thrills.