Don’t ask us why so many of New Jersey Rep’s shows wind up with the characters strangling each other — but when TWO JEWS WALK INTO A WAR, things get interactive for John Pietrowski (left) and Reathel Bean (right). (Photos courtesy SuzAnne Barabas)
By TOM CHESEK
His résumé groans beneath the weight of high-profile productions with some of the greatest “actor’s actors” in the business — Ed Asner and Jack Klugman, for instance. John Astin and Orson Bean; Paula Prentiss and Richard Benjamin; William Schallert and Len Cariou. To say nothing of Jay O. Sanders, Priscilla Lopez, Fred Savage, Vin Scelsa. Vin Scelsa?
Don’t call him a namedropper, though — at least not while the oRBit desk is still around to show how some truly skeevy namedropping is done. No, James Glossman sees himself as more of a matchmaker — a stage professional who mates performers with a bottomless passion for their craft to the kinds of projects that they’ll give their left Emmy to do.
The Montclair-based director remains one of the most sought-after on the theatrical landscape (not just the region but the entire map of the USA) — and this week finds him in Long Branch, where New Jersey Repertory Company is getting ready to open their latest mainstage offering; a duet entitled Two Jews Walk Into A War.
Glossman, who previously helmed two past productions at NJ Rep (and who brought his pal Stephen Colbert to town to play the part of a Nazi bureaucrat in a reading a few years back), directs actors Reathel Bean and John Pietrowski in a timely two-up set in Afghanistan during the final days of the Taliban regime — where, in the last remaining synagogue in Kabul, the last remaining Jews in the entire country hole up to survive, and to recreate the sacred texts of the Torah.
Sounds like these gentlemen of faith and courage have each other’s backs — but in the script by Seth Rozin (a “rolling world premiere” from the National New Play Network, an organization once headed by the playwright), these characters are more likely to have at each other’s throats. Nursing ancient grudges and refusing to cede an inch of philosophical turf to the other, Ishaq and Zeblyan carry on their own little war within the larger conflict that batters their besieged sanctuary from without.
As the Two Jews, Glossman has cast a couple of guys with whom he’s worked repeatedly in the past — Bean (who worked with the director in the Arthur Miller dramas Death of a Salesman and The Price) and Pietrowski, who starred in Glossman’s own Sedition at Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey (and who, as Artistic Director of Madison-based PTNJ, is co-producing this show with NJ Rep).
After the opening on Saturday night, Glossman wings out to L.A. to start working on a very rare revival of Noël Coward’s late play, A Song at Twilight. Red Bank oRBit managed to catch this busy matchmaker for a few moments; Continue Reading for best results.
RED BANK ORBIT: Welcome back down the Shore, James. Seems to me we’ve met before during one of the other shows you’ve done at NJ Rep.
JAMES GLOSSMAN: In Long Branch I did Circumference of a Squirrel, with Ames Adamson — we wound up doing that one together in five or six different places — and Tour de Farce, with Ames and Prentiss Benjamin. Also the reading of The Good German.
New Jersey Rep is such a congenial place to work — they really care about developing new plays. It’s such a happy partnership.
Well, a fightin’ little nonprofit theater has to do what it has to do to survive these days, and in this case we’re seeing anther partnership, between NJ Rep and Playwrights.
It gives a play twice the audience; it can run a month in one place and a month in the other. If it weren’t for these theaters, for places like NJ Rep and PTNJ, there’d be no place for playwrights to bring their work. I spend about 65 percent of my time working on new plays, writing and directing, and there are just a limited number of places where a non-musical play can be nurtured along and developed. It used to be that the New York producers would be looking for plays of any size to bring to town, and nowadays when something like August: Osage County makes it to Broadway, it’s because it was already a huge hit elsewhere.
So tell us about TWO JEWS, which I suppose passes for this year’s big holiday extravaganza at NJ Rep…
It’s an absolute alternative to all of the holiday stuff, all the Scrooges. It’s a great place in which to escape the holidays.
I didn’t expect there’d be anything in there about Christmas, but no Chanukah? No touching upon holidays of any kind?
Nope. This play is very traumatic, but very funny at the same time. It’s a little bit Waiting for Godot; a little bit Odd Couple. Anything that’s like oil and water — Laurel & Hardy, Abbot & Costello.
The characters have to rely on each other, but they can’t stand each other. There’s an upper class, working class thing going on — they haven’t liked each other their whole lives.
Now, you and John Pietrowski have worked together for years, but here you’re directing him as an actor; a context in which I’m not really familiar with him.
Oh, I’ve known John since we went to college together at Northwestern, since 1978, and he was always very much an actor. Still is. But I guess that when you’re a multi-talented sort of person as John is, some of those talents end up having less time devoted to them. It’s surprising to me that after a number of years away from acting, he’s even better now then he was when he was 20.
John was in Sedition, which I directed him in last year; about a stubborn idealist in the World War One era. He played the lead and I knew he’d be perfect for it. When it came time to cast Two Jews, Seth Rozin and I both thought of him at the same time.
And you’ve worked also with Reathel Bean in the past?
I’d seen Reathel in Inherit the Wind with George C. Scott, and when I found out he lived in New Jersey, we wound up doing Death of a Salesman, and then Flying Crows, which I adapted from the Jim Lehrer novel, and which also featured Prentiss Benjamin. And then we did The Price, with Orson Bean — which meant the two of them would have to explain continually how they were not related to each other. And now I’ll be getting on a plane to L.A. to work with Orson again, in Noel Coward’s A Song for Twilight, with his wife Alley Mills.
I’m sure there’s no mystery as to why the same actors keep showing up in your projects.
It’s because you’re giving them something that they’re always looking out for; the kind of work that relates back to why they became actors in the first place. When you work with somebody like Jack Klugman, who’s had this storied career, who could easily have just had a comfortable retirement — he wants to act, to take on those challenges the same way he approached them when he was a young up-and-coming actor.
Jay O. Sanders is another actor with whom I’ve been collaborating on different projects. We did this Jay O. Sanders piece, Unexplored Interior, with 14 people in it; it had Fritz Weaver as Mark Twain among the characters. Then Jay and my wife, Maryann Plunkett, did a reading of a new David Wiltse play — the playwright who did The Good German — it’s just this amazing comedy mystery sort of play, like a Sleuth or a Deathtrap.
You must have the most incredible Rolodex, or whatever your tech of preference, of people that you can call upon for your projects. People that will drop what they’re doing and answer the call.
You know, in 20 years I’ve never gotten a turn-down for a reading. It’s as simple as the fact that all the best actors are always wanting to do more interesting work. Ed Asner, if he has the choice between waiting for one more lovable grandpa role, or a chance to do something like Spread Eagle — a great, lost political thriller — will go where his actor’s instincts take him. Give them a chance, and they will find a way to make it happen.