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Drawn Back to Padua Hills

The founder of the noted L.A. festival returns to his roots for a new venture.

April 01, 2001|DON SHIRLEY | Don Shirley is The Times' theater writer

When playwright Murray Mednick was growing up in Woodridge, in the Catskill Mountains of New York, his small town was almost an American version of an Eastern European shtetl.

Most of the residents were Jewish. Yiddish as well as English was commonly heard. Mednick's family lived across the street from a synagogue.

Unlike the original shtetls, however, Woodridge's economy was heavily dependent on tourists. Every summer in that post-World War II period, the town was flooded by a wave of New York City Jews.

The most familiar image of those oft-celebrated Borscht Belt years is one of summer fun, stoked by the comics who performed in the hotels. That period in the Catskills is often considered the fountainhead of much of the American comedy that followed. Mednick himself worked in the hotels-as a busboy and waiter.

Underneath the joking, however, was a much harsher reality. Mednick evokes this world and its repercussions in three plays, all new to Los Angeles: "16 Routines," 'Joe and Betty" and "Mrs. Feuerstein." Beginning with "16 Routines" Friday, they will be produced in succession at 2100 Square Feet, a 65-seat theater on the fringe of the Fairfax District, the postwar Jewish heart of L.A.

The three plays mark the partial return of one of L.A.'s creative fountainheads-the Padua Hills Playwrights Workshop/Festival. From 1978 to 1995, Padua Hills was the summer home of a group of writers who worked with students and also saw their own plays produced-usually in site-specific, outdoor venues. Among the Padua participants were Sam Shepard, Maria Irene Fornes, Jon Robin Baitz, John Steppling, Kelly Stuart and John O'Keefe.

Mednick founded the festival and directed it for most of its existence. But the group never developed an administrative infrastructure that would keep it thriving. Perpetually desperate for funds and institutional support, the festival moved often-using 10 Los Angeles County sites for 15 workshops or festivals in 17 years.

Since the festival ended, some of the Padua writers continued to work in loosely formed groups with new, tantalizing names: the Steppling-sponsored Empire Red Lip (which folded when Steppling moved to Europe) and the Oxblood. These groups performed most often at Glaxa Studios in Silver Lake. Mednick occasionally contributed to these efforts.

The new Padua Playwrights Productions is Mednick's attempt to begin anew, but on different terms. Funded by previous Padua Hills donors whom Mednick declined to identify, the new company hired Guy Zimmerman, 38, as artistic director, allowing Mednick, 61, to concentrate on writing and teaching. Workshops may resume by next fall. Unlike Padua's previous incarnation, the group will present productions one at a time-not simultaneously as in the Padua Hills festivals. They'll take place inside sub-100-seat, rented theater spaces-although the group is looking for a home of its own.

"Since we stopped doing Padua Hills, I've written more than ever," Mednick said. In addition to the new company's productions, his play "Fedunn," set in a Catskills hotel, may be produced at the Coronet Theatre next fall.

The first three Padua plays may lead to speculation that the new company will be all-Mednick all the time, but Zimmerman pledged otherwise. "Murray has been very generous to other playwrights through the years, and it's appropriate that we start by redressing that balance a bit," he said. He likened the initial programming to that of the Signature Theatre in New York, which devotes each season to the work of only one writer. But Padua hopes to produce new work by Steppling and others in coming seasons.

The initial trio of plays will be L.A.'s first glimpse at Mednick's most autobiographical work yet-especially the second play, "Joe and Betty." Set in the Catskills in 1951, it's named after Mednick's parents, Joseph Saul and Betty Mednick. Many of the scenes, the playwright said, are "right out of my childhood."

Among the details that correspond to Mednick's own particulars: The play's Joe and Betty have six kids (Murray, here named Emile, was the oldest); Joe is a movie projectionist and truck driver; the family is on what was then called relief, now known as welfare; they left Brooklyn for the Catskills so Joe could be closer to his mother; Betty resented the move; Joe's best friend is a Gentile Polish American named Stan; one of Joe's brothers moved to California and sold cars.

"It's still fiction," Mednick said. "The sheer act of writing makes it fiction." But playgoers may be forgiven if they cluck in sympathy with Mednick after seeing "Joe and Betty': It's not a pretty picture.

"I had a difficult childhood, but I also was very happy sometimes," Mednick said. "I enjoyed being close to nature and playing sports. It wasn't all bleak."

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