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Two Jewish Experiences : Playwright is credited with crafting a message of spiritual awakening and blistering rage over historic injustices.

August 21, 1992|JANICE ARKATOV | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Janice Arkatov is a regular contributor to Valley Life.

What does it mean to be a Jew?

Playwright Rich Orloff offers up two different takes on contemporary Jewish identity in his one-acts "Kurt Was My Buddy" and "Where I Came From," opening Tuesday at Van Nuys' West End Playhouse under the umbrella title "Judgment Days."

The production had a successful run earlier this year at the Hudson Theatre in Hollywood and is traveling largely intact for this new staging.

"People say, 'This is a Jewish play, these are Jewish themes,' but I see it as much more universal," said Mary Ruberry, who is directing and co-starring in "Kurt."

The story centers on the spiritual awakening of Dan Foster-- nee Daniel Finkelstein, a TV reporter who's made every effort to bury his Judaism.

Over the course of the play, his disgust over Austria's presidential election of Kurt Waldheim turns to rage when he learns that an elderly worker at the TV station actually knew Waldheim in Germany several decades earlier.

"The issue relates to everyone, especially Americans," Ruberry said. "We're not just a country of white people anymore--although everyone is trying to hold onto that archaic ideal. The character thinks, 'I'm Jewish, I'm not good enough.' He's heading into middle age, dissatisfied with his career. The German man in his office knew Waldheim, so it's guilt by association: Since he can't punish Waldheim, he'll punish this man instead. On another level, it's like killing off that part of himself again."

Ruberry acknowledges that not being Jewish originally made her a tough sell with the play's producers.

"They were skeptical because I wasn't Jewish," she said. "But I lived in New York City for seven years, I've known Jewish people all my life."

Reared in New Jersey and Virginia, Ruberry spent seven years in Washington, D.C., "leading an idealized young artist's life--painting, singing, doing performance art," before moving to New York, then to Los Angeles in 1989.

Last year, she formed her own group, Theatre Plexus, which will present its first full production, an out-of-doors staging of Aristophanes' "Lysistrata," in September.

The second one-act, "Where I Came From," is an alternately funny and tender story of three generations of Jewish women dealing with the Yiddish-speaking grandmother's growing incapacity.

"I was born in a displaced persons' camp in Germany and came to America when I was four, so Yiddish is my first language," said director Larry Eisenberg, who initially came on board to retranslate the work. "I really liked the piece: that searching for a whole culture that had evaporated after World War II. I had no family, no grandparents to find out that stuff, so I felt a kinship with the girl in the story--and the idea of passage from one generation to the other."

The Brooklyn-reared director worked in regional theater, as a high school teacher, newspaperman and puppeteer before arriving in Los Angeles in 1975.

His play "Nautilus" closed last weekend at Group Repertory Theatre, where he's been board president since 1990.

"I consider myself mostly an actor, but lately I've found more of a voice as a writer and director," said Eisenberg, who'll be in the cast of "Hunger" next month at the Beverly Hills Playhouse. "The only reason to do this material is because it's so special."

Where and When

What: "Judgment Days"

Location: West End Playhouse, 7446 Van Nuys Blvd., Van Nuys

Times: 8 p.m., Tuesdays and Wednesdays, indefinitely

Price: $8-$10

Call: (818) 904-0444.

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