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

Las Vegas Night with Sister Maripat

Many Southern Californians periodically drive up to Las Vegas to play games, gamble, watch the shows, enjoy the lounge acts, and sometimes a magician!

Well, for the next couple of weeks you can enjoy all that at an elegant venue much closer to home: La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts.

And just who is providing this bountiful evening of laughter and fun? Sister Maripat Donovan, that’s who. And her long-time director Marc Silvia.

Additionally, who is assisting her in her hilarious efforts to explain the Catholic Church to a decidedly lay audience? You and the rest of the 1500 people who have come to hear her take on the inscrutable mysteries of the Church. You are all her captive students in this theater/classroom. Participants whom she cajoles into accepting her pronouncements without once deploying her disciplinary ruler.

But be warned: she has a wicked wit which she does not hesitate to dump on her audience. It’s mainly ad lib, unexpected and hilarious, and not at all like the disparaging jibes of Don Rickles.

Sister Maripat has perfected her solo performance as a nun since her first show, Late Night Catechism in Chicago in 1992. Since then she has written six other Catechisms and performed them for audiences around the world.

The current one in La Mirada, Late Night Catechism Las Vegas: Sister Rolls the Dice, is built around Sister’s mission to raise funds for a struggling parish church. For this effort she has devised a prospective Vegas Night with a program of sure-fire hits for her parishioners, including a mechanical bull, karaoke, magic, board games, and bingo, for which she provides prizes such as laminated cards depicting saints and glow-in-the-dark rosaries.

And there’s no reason to pray for a win at bingo, she advises. “God invented bingo, but he doesn’t micromanage it.” she says.

And she explains the hierarchy of angels and the roles of saints, noting that St. Augustine was virtually obsessed with angels, gathering information and writing about them incessantly. “He was a man who had way too much time on his hands,” she asserts.

In all this she engages the audience, asking them questions and incorporating them into her magic act. She plays blackjack with them and turns a white dove into a black dog. And she answers questions. “Do you think priests should marry?” someone asks, and she replies “Well, if they love each other very much.”

“Do you think women will ever be able to become priests?” she is asked. “Don’t hold your breath,” Sister responds. “For one thing, you have to look like Christ, and you have to be a Jewish carpenter.”

And she explains, succinctly, the difference between a venial sin and a mortal one. “If I steal a candy bar from a 711, that’s a venial sin,” she says. “But it’s a mortal sin if I shoot the clerk.”

Finally, she identifies behavioral rights and wrongs as stipulated by Catholic doctrine. It often depends on your intention, she observes, but if you’re in doubt, just remember “If you BELIEVE it’s wrong, it IS wrong.”

Sister Maripat and her Late Night Catechism will run through November 16th, with performances Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2 and 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2.

La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts is located at 14900 La Mirada Blvd. in La Mirada, near where the 91 and 5 freeways meet. Call (562) 944-9801 for tickets.

And for a special treat at Christmastime, plan to see Sister’s Christmas Catechism at the Laguna Playhouse.

A Witch in Time With a Halloween Rhyme

The play begins as the story of Hansel and Gretel—as told from the witch’s point of view. You just wouldn’t believe what a naughty little girl that Gretel is! As is the witch, because cooking a little boy is a naughty thing to do, even if you are a really good cook.

The play is Broomstick by New Orleans author and playwright John Biguenet, and his star is the always delicious and delightful Jenny O’Hara. (You may remember her cajoling her actor/husband, Nick Ullett, to authenticate a Jackson Pollock painting in the long-running megahit Bakersfield Mist.)

In Broomstick O’Hara is the unrecognizable, unnamed witch who beguiles the audience with an 80-minute monologue about the events in her life, the evils in the world, and her abiding malevolence toward men. She is equivocal and defensive about her witchiness, however, condemning her neighbors for seeing things around her that are not as they seem. Or are they?

She tells of an incident in the woods where a group of her male Appalachian neighbors beat three “Negroes” to death for taking, without permission, some fruit and pie from a demented old woman. Outraged, the witch inflicts punishment on the killers, not unlike the punishments meted out to the Pharaoh in biblical times. “Large animals are not the best,” she advises. “It’s better to kill with bugs.”

Playwright Biguenet apparently has a special thing for old crones. “To me, witches aren’t something exotic,” he says. “They are always old women, independent and unsentimental, and they really have no use for men.” Moreover, he continues, “You can’t fool a witch. That’s why they frighten people.”

For witches, he believes, the source of their power is language. “She can cast spells and curse us, and when she cackles it raises the hair on your neck.”

The source of Biguenet’s power is language as well. And O’Hara delivers it with just the right blend of anger, indignation, and sly humor. And it takes a while for the audience to discover that the dialogue is all in rhyme. Iambic pentameter, unevenly spaced so that sometimes the listener must wait for half a paragraph for the rhyme to show up. It’s a fascinating way to tell a story.

Saving the best for last, I must tell you about Andrew Hammer’s extraordinary set design. One of the best ever. It’s the inner room of the witch’s house, complete with big stone fireplace, lit candles everywhere, and a lifetime’s worth of clutter. Every nook and cranny is crammed with empty Mason jars, cauldrons, various places to sit, and witchy accoutrements. But no gumdrops, cupcakes, or gingerbread men.

The setting is enhanced by Jennifer Edwards’ spooky lighting design: the stage goes dark and bluish when the witch is telling one of her “clarifying” fantasies.

Stephen Sachs, who directed this phantasmagorical epic, has done his usual magic, but the play is for grownups, not for kids. The language and the references are esoteric and need to be vigorously listened to—like getting into the rhythm of Shakespeare. Further, O’Hara, who does a masterful job of ranting and raving, sometimes descends into a whisper that swallows the point she is trying to make.

So just look at Broomstick as a Halloween treat from the fabulous Fountain Theatre. And think, it’s better than toilet paper all over your lawn!

Broomstick will run Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8 pm and Sundays at 2 through November 30th, with a 6 pm curtain on October 31st (Halloween) and playgoers invited to come in costume.

The Fountain Theatre is located at 5060 Fountain Avenue (at Normandie) in Los Angeles. Call (323) 663-1525 for tickets or go online to

Photo: Jenny O’Hara as the Witch
Photo by Ed Krieger

Promises for the Future, If There Is One

By the second weekend of the run the leading male role had been taken over permanently by the understudy. And another of the actors had “taken off for the evening” and her role was being executed by an alternate. Not an auspicious second weekend for award-winning director Elina de Santos.

The play is Vince Melocchi’s Nice Things, which is currently having its rocky World Premiere with the usually excellent Rogue Machine. The title is meant to be ironic, I guess, because there is nothing “nice” about the play. Obliquely, it refers to the “nice things” that ordinary working-class people strive to acquire. And that soldiers give their lives for.

Nice Things deals with the after-effects of the death of a soldier, Danny, in Afghanistan. His fiancée, Amy (Connor Kelly-Eiding), is suffering not only from his loss but also from guilt, since it was she who persuaded him to enlist in the National Guard.

The two of them had believed the sales pitch of recruiter Bobbie Jo Gunning (Rebekah Tripp), who told them about the paychecks that would be coming in, the college tuition and books that he would be eligible to receive, and the limited duty required by the Guard. Moreover, she assured him that he would not have to go overseas.

After Danny’s death Amy becomes obsessed with exposing Bobbie Jo’s “recruiting lies,” and engages a young radio reporter, Justin Dumont (Michael Hanson) to help her. She gets his attention by seducing him in a clunky sort of way.

Another almost-seduction scene, which is pretty much irrelevant, takes place between Bobbie Jo and her lover, Sandy (Amy K. Harmon).

This play, had it been mounted better and if it had a better cast, might have provided a provocative evening. As it is, however, the cast mostly mumbles their lines and delivers them as if they were still learning them.

The best of the bunch is Rebekah Tripp, who delivered her recruiting pitch articulately, with conviction and clarity.

Another element that doesn’t quite make it is Stephanie Kerley Schwartz’s scenic design, which consists mainly of large screens on which various unidentified scenery is projected over and over. One repeated scene is of a train rushing through a farm-like countryside. Another is of a dilapidated house in a forest. And then there’s a grainy image of part of an American flag that periodically pops up. This background imagery might have worked better if the audience were seated perpendicularly to the screens. But in this particular theater the main aisle is right down the center of the auditorium and the seats fan out at an angle, so the audience‘s view of the screens is unavoidably skewed.

Playwright Vince Melocchi confesses that his aim with Nice Things is to acknowledge that there is a cost for everything we do, everything we have and want. “Nothin’ costs nothin’,” he says. “Our small towns are being destroyed by poverty because so many jobs are going overseas. These towns are filled with nothing but memories of better days,” and, he adds, young people have no alternative but the military. So, he concludes, “Hopefully, after seeing this play, when people hear about a soldier dying in the war, they’ll take a moment and think… That person gave their life for our freedom, and that needs to be acknowledged, recognized, and honored.”

It’s a nice thought, but unfortunately the actions and the dialogue of the players don’t convey that lofty message.

Nice Things will run Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 3 through November 23rd at Rogue Machine, 5041 W. Pico Blvd. in Los Angeles. Call 855-585-5185 for reservations.

Photo: Michael Hanson and Connor Kelly-Eiding
Photo by Jon Perrin Flynn

A “Decent” Life According to Heinrich Himmler

As a young man, he was convinced that nobody liked him. But by the time he was in his early 20s Heinrich Himmler had become the Chief Sycophant of the most popular man in Germany: Adolf Hitler. There he was, always at Hitler’s right elbow and just a step behind. You might say he was Hitler’s Dick Cheney. And he no longer craved affection. What he was after was respect.

In a stunning new documentary by writer/director Vanessa Lapa and the Israeli Film Council, the history of Germany’s rise and fall is told through the eyes of Himmler, as recorded in his private diaries, letters, documents, and photographs. The film is called The Decent One.

Heinrich Himmler was born in 1900 to a Royal Bavarian teacher who apparently had enough clout to be able to invite an unnamed Royal Highness to be his son’s godfather. And Heinrich, as a young boy, recorded that the Princes Heinrich and Arnulf had come to tea.

Too young to participate in the First World War, he spent his time playing piano, collecting stamps, and deploying his toy soldiers to assuage his dismay that he couldn’t “join the brawl.”

Still a student at war’s end, he entered Munich University and wrote, “I study because it is my duty.” He also noted in his diary “I never reveal my troubled thoughts and my struggling soul,” and ruminated on the fact that “People don’t like me because I talk too much. Because I am such a chatterbox I have a terrible feeling of dissatisfaction and disgust. I can never shut my mouth. I am thoughtless and immature. When will I get a grip on myself? If only there was a war again! If only I could put my life on the line. It would be a pleasure.”

In 1922 he wrote “The young, undisciplined generation is a serious threat to Germany,” and the following year he joined the Nazi party. “It is an act of selflessness serving a great idea, a great cause,” he wrote.

By 1924 he was writing, “I had an inhuman amount of work today—I had to lead and restructure all of Lower Bavaria.”

In 1927 he met Margarete Boden on a train. She was seven years older than he, but they married the following year, even after he explained his philosophy of love. “A woman is loved by a real man in three ways,” he said. “As a beloved child that one must argue with, or even punish; as a wife who shares your struggles without shackling you; and as a goddess whose feet one must kiss.”

The following year they had a daughter, Gudrun, and because Himmler believed that “a good, racially pure nation that is short of children is doomed to extinction, and a nation that has many children has the benefit of world power and world domination,” they adopted a foster child, Gerhard von der Ahe.

Meanwhile Himmler was rising up the ranks. He became the head of the SS, the Police Commissioner, and the Minister of the Interior. He built and managed the first concentration camp, at Dachau, and then was responsible for building and managing all the concentration and extermination camps and forming the country’s death squads. As Chief of Police for all Germany he also ensured that half a million citizens were convicted in German courts. That included some 5,000 Communists and “other Social Democrat nuisances.”

In the decade between 1929 and 1939 he built the SS from 300 “mercenaries fighting for liberty” to an elite paramilitary unit of 250,000, and was given the job of Settlement Commissioner.

“How the Russians feel, how the Czechs feel, does not concern me at all,” he wrote. “Whether other nations live in prosperity or die from hunger interests me only insofar as we need them as slaves for our culture.”

As for the Jews, he decreed, “Out of the 10 million Jews living in Europe, two to three million should be sterilized and kept alive for labor.”

Most of the still photographs are from Himmler’s personal archives, but the grainy war footage was collected from sources around the world. The film ends with soldiers clearing out the piles of bodies from Auschwitz and a row of skeletal men waiting to be liberated. And then Himmler, who by this time had committed suicide, is heard saying, “I think you know that I am not a bloodthirsty man, and not someone who takes pleasure in difficult duties. But on the other hand, I have such strong nerves and such a great sense of duty that when I recognize something as being essential I execute it without compromise.”

But the last word belongs to Hitler. “We can have but one desire as to what is said about us,” he declared. “These German officers, these German soldiers, these German generals—they were Decent.”

This extraordinary film, The Decent One, opens in Los Angeles at the Laemmle Theaters on October 10th.

Photo by Kino Lorber