Semyon and Katia Take the Z Train

If you wanted to write a play to honor your father, it might be a bit inappropriate to portray him as a scoundrel. But that’s what Henry Jaglom has done in his new play Train to Zakopane, now having its World Premiere at the Edgemar Center for the Arts in Santa Monica.

The play starts off as what seems to be a simple love story in a “strangers-on-a-train” sort of way. But, as my friend pointed out, because I didn’t get it at first, it soon reveals a sinister subplot that deals with hate and revenge.

The year is 1928 and Poland, still traumatized by the First World War, is becoming trepidatious about the Bolsheviks, Stalin, and “that madman” Hitler. So quite naturally the four passengers sharing a sleeping compartment on their way to Warsaw fall into a conversation that soon underscores their political predilections.

For example, when the otherwise benign priest makes some disparaging comments about Stalin, someone else reminds him that Stalin had studied for the priesthood. “Yes,” the priest responds scornfully, “but that was for the Russian Orthodox Church, not the Catholic!”

In addition to the priest (gracefully played by Stephen Howard), the four travelers include a lively actress (Cathy Arden), a rather sour nurse (Tanna Frederick), and a well-spoken gentleman from the Ukraine (Mike Falkow) who happens to be a Jew and Henry Jaglom’s father.

Almost immediately in the conversation the nurse, Katia, begins making vile anti-Semitic remarks, running through all the stereotypical prejudices that many Europeans, and especially the Poles, held at that time. Her comments are delivered with deep sincerity and make her appear to be quite unpleasant. She warms up quickly, however, to the attentions of Semyon, the Ukrainian gentleman, and soon begins to flirt and become quite coquettish.

Semyon, for his part, responds with warm attention, even while berating her for her vociferous anti-Semitism. He doesn’t reveal the fact that he is Jewish, he explains later, because he feels that he can make a more credible argument if she is under the impression that he is gentile.

After a while he has so beguiled her that he is able to persuade her to disembark from the train with him for a “getting-to-know-each-other” weekend at the next stop—a posh resort town named Zakopane. Both of them had had unhappy experiences in this town, but they don’t let that dissuade them.

Eventually he seduces her and she becomes giddy with love. And he is hoist on his own petard, for he has fallen in love, too. Or is this just a tale of revenge and spite? For, as Semyon had remarked earlier, “Everyone lies to get what he wants.”

Jaglom claims that this is a true story, and that he has written it just as his father told it to him. But there are some inconsistencies. For example, even if Katia were a 32-year-old virgin, as she claimed, she had been a nurse for a long time. Moreover, she had grown up with three brothers. Wouldn’t Semyon’s circumcised penis have given her a clue to his identity as a Jew?

At any rate, this romantic encounter remained with both of them for the rest of their lives, Jaglom says.

Moreover, the acting alone makes this play worth seeing. Director Gary Imhoff has orchestrated a powerful range of emotions in his cast, most notably in the case of Tanna Frederick, the uptight nurse, and Jeff Elam, a Jewish doctor who has a wonderful scene explaining to Semyon why he has been living as a gentile for the past 15 years.

The element in this play that doesn’t work is Chris Stone’s set design. A great deal of effort was put into the design of the train. It has wheels and a track, and makes you think that it’s supposed to move, but it doesn’t. Further, a train compartment, even in first class, is usually a tight fit for four persons, and it would have made the verbal confrontations a lot more intense if the principals were a little cramped and argued face to face instead of declaiming individually to the audience.

As for the rest of the set design, it’s all gunmetal gray and gloomy. Not a spot of color except for some boring pastel scenery in the background. If this was supposed to depict a lush resort for the aristocracy, it missed by many kilometers.

Train to Zakopane was postponed twice because of technical difficulties with the set, but it opened on November 21st and is scheduled to run through March 29th. There will be a hiatus from December 21st to January 8th, and the theater will also be dark on March 8th.

The play will run Thursday through Saturday at 7:30 pm and Sundays at 5. The Edgemar Center for the Arts is located at 2437 Main Street in Santa Monica. For reservations, call (310) 392-7327 or visit

Photo: Tanna Frederick and Mike Falkow
Photo by Ron Vignone

DysFUNCtion can be Funky

Okay, so we all have dysfunctional families. And their doppelgangers have been running rampant, loving and hating one another, as in August–Osage County, or attempting to provide hilarity onstage a la Kaufman and Hart’s You Can’t Take It With You. So enough already!

The latest entry in the “whimsical family” category is a heavy-handed attempt at merriment, but the actors, unfortunately, come off as just trying too hard. It’s a play by Meryl Cohn called Reasons to Live, and it’s a joint production of the Skylight Theatre Company and Open Fist Theatre Company, both of which have a history of presenting well-received plays.

In this one, the central character is The Mother, a high-spirited, self-absorbed ditz who breaks into song at the top of her lungs from time to time to sing out of sync with the singers on her CDs. Played by Judith Scarpone, she does a good job of outbouncing the rest of the cast, as if she were aspiring to be the Auntie Mame of Great Neck, Long Island. She makes the rest of the cast look downright dreary.

The occasion for the family get-together is the scheduled wedding of oldest daughter Jane (Jessica Ires Morris), who, at 43 is marrying for the second time. She appears in her wedding dress to discover that her intended husband doesn’t intend to show up.

Then there is Emily (Amanda Weier), who comes to the wedding with her latest lover, Heather (Jordana Berliner), all huggy and kissy. This is only their second date, but Heather decides that the two of them should get married. (After all, they’ve got the food right there!)

And, rounding out this cozy little group is Andrew (Scott Speiser), Emily’s twin brother. At 33, he lives in his pajamas at his mother’s house and conducts all his clandestine business dealings on the telephone. What he is selling, however, is not drugs.

Andrew is sullen and anti-social until a customer, Tara (Jennifer Schoch), shows up. She is as awkward and shy as he, and watching the two of them get together is the relative high point of the play.

(Apropos of nothing, it’s fun to know that Speiser has performed all over the world as one of the Blue Men in the Blue Man Group.)

And finally there is Helen (Katherine Griffith), an aunt or something, who is presumably on hand to provide comic relief.

Members of the family occasionally drop a Yiddishism into their conversation, and by this you’re supposed to understand that they’re Jewish, although this has nothing to do with anything else in the play. (The rabbi they keep referring to could just as easily be a priest or a minister.) But there is at least one funny ethnic line. As Heather begins a convoluted answer to a speculative question, Emily interrupts to explain, “Most questions don’t require answers if you’re Jewish.”

And so it goes. Susan Morgenstern, who directs this production, is known locally for her work at many of the most respected small theaters in the area. She also co-taught a course in American musical comedy with Tom Lehrer at U.C. Santa Cruz.

Jeff McLaughlin, who designed the set and lighting, is a multiple-award winner. The traditional living room he designed for “Reasons to Live”, however, while pleasant enough and serviceable, is largely underwhelming.

Reasons to Live will continue at the Skylight Theatre, 1816½ N. Vermont Ave. in L.A. on Fridays and Saturdays at 8 and Sundays at 3 through December 14th. Call 213-761-7061 for tickets or visit

Photo: The Cast, left to right, Heather, Emily, Tara, Andrew, Jane, the Aunt or something, The Mother

Computers and Proteins Make a Lovely Pair

The set is absolutely brilliant. And so is Itamar Moses.

His play is called “Completeness”, and once again he takes us into an esoteric world and explains it so convincingly that we almost think we understand it.

In his earlier masterpiece, “Bach at Leipzig”, he submerged us in music, explaining the intricacies of composing a five-voice fugue, as well as having the eight intensely earnest musicians debating the state of the religious conflicts prevalent at the time and the nature of destiny and inevitability.

In “Completeness” Moses has the two protagonists “meet cute” in a computer lab. She, Molly, (Emily Swallow) is a graduate student in molecular biology trying to separate and identify the specific functions of individual proteins. He, Elliot, (Steven Klein) is a computer and mathematics geek who offers to create a logarithm for her that will condense her research from thousands of years of molecular activity and endless generations of evolutionary development to completion in a reasonable period of time.

They have much in common. In addition to being compulsive about their work, they are both commitment-phobic. They engage in long, hysterical discussions about relationships and how to determine if the person you’re with is “the right person for you” and not someone who will ultimately bore you to death.

They get together, and break up, and go off with other people. She keeps working with his logarithm and he keeps developing and refining it. And explaining it.

This all may sound like a bottomless discourse, but Moses continually laces the monologues with erratic silliness and very human quirkiness. Lots of fun and lots of laughs.

Especially the scene in which Elliot’s previous girlfriend (Nicole Erb) berates him for not knowing instinctively what it is she wants, even when she denies wanting it.

And another well-wrought scene: the confrontation between Molly and her professor/lover (Rob Nagle) as he belittles her work and tries to persuade her to pursue a different research track.

Each of these four principal actors, under the solid direction of Matt Pfeiffer, is absolutely pluperfect. Their certainty, their indignation, their intensity, carries the conversation along at just the right speed, and each of them is consistently believable and likeable.

As absorbing and creative as Moses’ script is, however, it is spectacularly equaled by Darcy Scanlin’s extraordinary scenic design. To counteract the dimensions of the theater, with its long, very narrow stage, Scanlin has left it bare and latched a series of attractively shaped panels into the walls that open, fold out, and deliver the appropriate furnishings for each scene, and then close up again when that scene is done. When was the last time you saw two Murphy beds onstage?

Also pleasing is Tom Ontiveros’ lighting design. Bright but unobtrusive. An encomium you might apply to the play as a whole. It’s bright, but certainly not unobtrusive.

“Completeness”, which opened on November 7th, will run Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 pm and Sundays at 2, through December 7th. A co-production of VS. Theatre Company and Firefly Theater & Films, it will run at the VS. Theatre, 5453 W. Pico Blvd. in Los Angeles. Call 323-739-4411 or visit for tickets.

Photo: Emily Swallow and Steven Klein

Photo by Ed Krieger