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Perfect Strangers

Though they've barely met, director Hope Alexander-Willis and playwright Israel Horovitz make a good team.

October 04, 1998|Daryl H. Miller | Daryl H. Miller is a Los Angeles-based theater writer

They know each other thoroughly--and yet not at all.

Los Angeles director Hope Alexander-Willis and East Coast playwright Israel Horovitz have turned out hit after hit, having been paired for productions of "Park Your Car in Harvard Yard" (which logged an extended run of six months at the Fountain Theatre in Hollywood), "Fighting Over Beverley" (which ran for four months at the Fountain) and "Unexpected Tenderness" (which played for 2 1/2 months at the Lee Strasberg Creative Center in West Hollywood).

Yet Horovitz--who interacts with Alexander-Willis primarily through electronic messages--is reduced to mere speculation when he talks about her. "I imagine she is quite a colorful personality from her e-mail," he says.

Playwright and director have met briefly each time Horovitz traveled to Los Angeles to see a finished show, but what they know about each other is gleaned mostly from the work itself.

"We've never gone out for dinner together," Alexander-Willis says. "We've never had coffee together. We've never socialized in that way. And yet I feel very close to him--I think because I've lived in the world of his plays."

In a separate conversation a short time later, Horovitz echoes her almost word for word. "I don't know her so well," he says by telephone from New York. "I don't know where she lives; I don't know what her place looks like. I only know her through her work on my plays, and I think her approach has been honest and effective. She's helped the plays to communicate to people, and that's all I need to know about her."

In her e-mails to Horovitz, Alexander-Willis may ask him to share the personal history that he has threaded through a play; she may ask him to clarify a line of dialogue; or she may ask to edit or otherwise revise the text (these latter requests have been known to spark some, shall we say, spirited exchanges).

She sent messages almost every day while at work on the semiautobiographical "Unexpected Tenderness," since she wanted to make sure she had her facts straight. As she prepares the next project, she feels she knows him better. The messages have slowed to about one a week.

That project is actually their fourth, fifth and sixth pairings, rolled into one. The Fountain has hired Alexander-Willis to stage a trio of Horovitz plays known as his "Growing Up Jewish" cycle. Inspired by the memories of Toronto lawyer Morley Torgov in his book "A Good Place to Come From" as well as Horovitz's own reminiscences, the plays chronicle the coming of age of two Jewish boys in Sault Ste. Marie, Canada, during World War II. "Today, I Am a Fountain Pen," "A Rosen by Any Other Name" and "The Chopin Playoffs" open back to back next weekend and will continue on alternating days.

Irving Yanover and Stanley Rosen, the central characters, age from 10 to 16 in the plays. Both are the sons of middle-class shop owners, and their parents are friends. The boys probably would be friends, too, if their parents weren't always pitting them against each other. Engaged in a never-ending game of one-upmanship, the parents are always bragging about their sons' grades or piano-playing proficiency--and then the boys have to live up to the boasts.

As World War II breaks out, however, the boys end up with more on their minds than homework and piano practice. With anxiety mounting over both the war and the Great Depression, North Americans begin looking for scapegoats, and, as in Europe, Jews are targeted for blame.

Both Horovitz and Alexander-Willis experienced this discrimination.

Horovitz was a member of one of the few Jewish families in the small New England town of Wakefield, Mass. His father, Julius, worked as a truck driver until age 50, then went to law school and became a lawyer. That made him a hero in the younger Horovitz's eyes, but, apparently, it didn't mean much to some people in town.

When Israel was in his early teens, his father ran for selectman--the equivalent of a city councilman. "I was handing out leaflets, and somebody came up to me and said, 'Why are you handing out leaflets for the Jew lawyer?' [They were talking about] my dad, who had just gone from truck driver to lawyer, and I was so proud of him. For him to be perceived that way was disgusting.

"At age 59, I can say without a doubt that the dumbest thing I've seen is racism," Horovitz continues. "I just don't get it, on any level."

Alexander-Willis, 51, relates a similar incident from her girlhood in San Francisco. Her actress mother, Mara Alexander, was blacklisted at the height of anti-communist feeling in the '50s, and a vigilante group stormed their home, throwing rocks through windows and yelling, "Jew Commie bitch."

Though the "Growing Up Jewish" plays address tough topics, they are, as often as not, funny. "I feel responsible to entertain an audience, to draw an audience in," Horovitz says. "Humor is important to me in life, so why wouldn't it be important to me in my work?"

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