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Borrowing for 'Blue' : The unlikely creator of a play about a Jewish family surviving a wedding is a Gentile from the deep South.

October 07, 1994|ROBERT KOEHLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Robert Koehler writes frequently about theater for The Times

SHERMAN OAKS — "Yeah, I know, I know, 'Write what you know,' " playwright Claudette Powell says back to a visitor when asked a basic question: How can a Gentile from Georgia write a comedy about a Jewish family?

The quick answer is "imagine it," but Powell isn't so glib. Although trained in the hard knocks of improv at New York University and in a year's stint with the Groundlings' Sunday company, Powell doesn't want to come up with an off-the-cuff response. Non-Jews depicting Jews comically, to be sure, isn't something to be taken lightly.

Powell hopes, though, that her new play, "Something Blue," at the Whitefire Theatre, will be taken in the spirit in which it was created: an affectionate look at how a family responds not only to a wedding but also to a rebellious love affair going on at the same time.

Thinking big, Powell, now 28, originally wrote "Something Blue" as a film with three acts, the centerpiece being the temple wedding and the party. She had been inspired by a college friend's 1989 wedding in New Jersey that was, she says, "like a comedy. It was laid out for me.

"But Johanna here," says Powell, pointing to co-star and fellow NYU alum Johanna Steinberg "suggested that I do it as a play."

At the time in 1992, Steinberg, now 26, had been developing theater projects, "and what Claudette had imagined seemed to easily fit on stage. I was also her Jewish consultant."

Squeezing a film script into a play is the reverse of the usual process, and Powell quickly found that she had to let things go--like the last two acts of her original story. "It's now located," Powell says in a deep-South drawl, "at the heart of a Jewish home--the kitchen. I've also found that setting the action before the wedding makes it less about the wedding and more about the family."

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Powell's fictional clan is the Katzens, whose daughter Joanne (Steinberg) is about to marry a nice Jewish man, while her sister Sandy (Tatiana Turan) is in love with an African American Buddhist. Both groom and lover remain offstage as three generations of Katzens battle over love, propriety--maybe even the brisket.

Director Jill Schwartz proudly notes that actor Dorothy Sinclair, who plays the Katzen grandmother, cooks her own brisket for each performance, and Lydia Weiss (as the mother) prepares the chicken. This is one well-stocked stage kitchen.

"Claudette really creates a roller coaster of emotions," says Schwartz, 29, "so you're catching yourself laughing just moments after you've cried." Powell blushes slightly from the compliment, but the highest praise may have come from the play's first audience at a workshop run at Beverly Hills' Roxbury Park. "They were shocked," Steinberg says, "that Claudette wasn't Jewish."

It's really not such a leap for Georgia-born, Baptist-reared Powell--not after she went to NYU and encountered "a lot of Jewish kids who immediately were taken aback by my Southern accent. . . . I had to reassure them that I wasn't anti-Semitic. I also have Native American blood on my dad's side, so I understand persecution."

At NYU, Powell also began to understand improv, especially when the Yale-based Purple Crayon improv group dropped by to see "our rag-tag improv show done in front of a bunch of drunk college students. They told us, 'You guys need some help.' "

Drawn to the Groundlings and its tradition as a lab for comedy writing, Powell says she learned the art of streamlining: "They taught me to drive the story forward and trim the fat. Which is why my play is short."

The only question for the "Something Blue" company now is whether the fresh brisket and chicken will keep coming as the show continues its open run. "That kind of problem," Schwartz says, "I don't mind."

Where and When

What: "Something Blue."

Location: Whitefire Theatre, 13500 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks.

Hours: 8 p.m. Mondays. Indefinitely.

Price: $8.

Call: (310) 451-1419.

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