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Not Just Any Old 'Shlemiel'

Robert Brustein speaks his mind and stages what he believes in--even something as uncharacteristically mainstream as the new musical 'Shlemiel the First.'

May 04, 1997|Jan Breslauer | Jan Breslauer is a regular contributor to Calendar

As a playwright, actor, director, teacher, artistic director, critic and author of 11 books, Robert Brustein for three decades has been one of the most versatile men in the American theater. He also is one of the most influential--and controversial. Brustein, the 1995 recipient of the American Academy of Arts and Letters award for distinguished service to the arts, most recently made news with his debate with playwright August Wilson over issues of black separatism and multiculturalism in the theater.

Writing for the New Republic, Brustein criticized Wilson for a speech in which he declared that blacks should not participate in colorblind casting--in which blacks play roles traditionally considered white--and should form their own separatist companies. The pair then aired their differences in January in a high-profile confrontation at New York's Town Hall.

Never one to back down from public faceoffs--he sometimes even seems to revel in them--Brustein is passionate in his conviction that the theater should be first and foremost an art form, not just a political platform.

Born in 1927 in New York, Brustein began his professional life as a stage and television actor before taking up his current post in 1959 as drama critic for the New

Republic. From 1966 to 1979, he was dean of the Yale School of Drama; in '66, he also founded the Yale Repertory Theatre. Those were turbulent years for Brustein and the school, and in 1980, after a clash with Yale President A. Bartlett Giamatti, Brustein moved to Harvard University, where he founded the American Repertory Theatre, taking the company members with him.

Brustein currently is a professor of English at Harvard and director of the Loeb Drama Center. He also continues to work both sides of the proscenium: Among his recent projects is the klezmer musical "Shlemiel the First," which he conceived and adapted from a script by Isaac Bashevis Singer based on the author's own stories. "Shlemiel," which was choreographed and directed by David Gordon, opens at the Geffen Playhouse on May 14.

Brustein's writings are diverse--the current American Repertory Theatre season included his new adaptation of Ibsen's "The Wild Duck" and the theater is also reviving his version of Pirandello's "Six Characters in Search of an Author." Brustein is also at work on a play about noted acting teacher Lee Strasberg. The piece, based on Strasberg family memoirs, may be produced at American Repertory next year.

Known to be as volatile as he is indefatigable, Brustein can also be as charming as he is acerbic. In a wide-ranging conversation from his office in Cambridge, Mass., he spoke of his current projects and his thoughts on American theater today.

Question: You've gained a reputation as a man with a taste for edgy, often-confrontational work. What made you decide to do a kinder, gentler musical like "Shlemiel"?

Answer: I had been invited by Joel Grey to a benefit--he introduced an evening of jazz and the Klezmer Conservatory Band. They began to play, Joel Grey began to sing along with them, and I was so transported by the quality of the music. I never knew it was a form that had so much integrity, with the brilliance of both jazz and classical music. Whenever something like that happens to me, I instinctively try to figure out how I can get this on my stage.

We had done a play at Yale in the '70s that Singer wrote, based on his "Shlemiel" stories, but it was top-heavy. It ran out of plot after 20 minutes, then it was a series of anecdotes. But the idea behind it [was strong]--that a man would go away to tell the world about [the fictional village of] Chelm and end up coming back to it and falling in love with his own wife again. So I proceeded to call [composer] Hankus Netsky, David Gordon and [lyricist] Arnold Weinstein, an old associate of mine from the Yale days.

"Shlemiel" does have a powerful point to make. It opens up all kinds of questions about marriage. In fact, it's been a source of considerable anger for certain older Jews in Florida. The younger Jews love it; the older Jews really feel offended by it. It reminds a lot of people of what they'd rather forget--the shtetl.

My father came from Poland when he was 7. I remember when he would see one of these Chasids, he would spit. I never would understand. But Chasids are Jews full-blown; you can't miss it.

Q: Were you drawn to the material because you're Jewish?

A: I think it's one of the reasons I'm doing it.

Q: But does "Shlemiel" fit your profile as a man of the avant-garde, or is it a departure?

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