Theater J’s season reflects new artistic director’s tastes

Adam Immerwahr will make his D.C. directorial debut in the season opener, Deborah Zoe Laufer’s The Last Schwartz.

Adam Immerwahr will make his D.C. directorial debut in the season opener, Deborah Zoe Laufer’s The Last Schwartz.

In Theater J’s just-announced 2016-17 season, which closes with two American Jewish warhorse playwrights, and includes new works that deal with generational divides and women in science, there is, tucked somewhere in the middle, one play that stands out: The Christians. Not just for its title, but also its subject: a Christian megachurch and its preacher.

When asked about The Christians, Theater J’s new artistic director, Adam Immerwahr, responded, tongue in cheek, “What are you talking about?”

Immerwahr came aboard last November, when the current season was already underway. Next season’s play choices are the first inkling of his taste and goals for programming the most prolific and well-known Jewish theater in the country.

The Christians, he continued, is “about faith in America and how religion is involved in our lives. I can’t think of a place that is a better fit than here in Washington, D.C., at Theater J. To me this seems like our most Jewish play, perhaps.”

Written by Lucas Hnath, this provocative play, which was the hit of the 2015 New York season, is one of seven announced Sunday by Immerwahr, who sought out a diverse selection of classic, new and irreverent works.

“We are a Jewish theater, so at core that means that each of our plays should be engaged with a complex and nuanced sense of what it means to be Jewish in America,” Immerwahr said. To me, [that means] we do plays that are legibly Jewish, plays that are thematically Jewish and plays that are about Jewish values.”

Immerwahr will make his D.C. directorial debut in the season opener, a funny thoughtful dramedy that wrestles with the existential 21st century Jewish question of survival and continuity. Deborah Zoe Laufer’s The Last Schwartz follows an off-kilter family that comes together to observe the late patriarch’s yahrzeit. Zaniness and poignancy ensue.

The great 20th century moral questions surrounding the creation of the atomic bomb play out in Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen, which looks at a fateful meeting in 1941 between German physicist Werner Heisenberg and his Danish, half-Jewish colleague Niels Bohr. Once friends and colleagues, they find themselves at odds amid World War II and the moral underpinnings of the ultimate destructive weapon.

“The play is about morality itself on a global scale,” Immerwahr said of his selection, “and what it means to make a choice; what it means to make a scientific discovery; what it means to share it. And it asks among the biggest moral questions of our time. Based on the lives of these two Nobel laureates who debate the ethical obligations of scientists as they decide whether or how to proceed in developing the atomic bomb. It’s a smart play that asks hard questions,” he said.

Science also takes center stage in television and theater writer Sarah Treem’s The How and The Why, about two generations of female evolutionary biologists, who examine the scientific role of menopause. Shirley Serotsky, Theater J’s association artistic director, will direct.

“It’s about women in science,” said Immerwahr, “but it’s also a play about women and their role in society and the complicated relationship women of different generations have had to feminism and to fighting for the role of women in society.”

During the December holidays, baldly irreverent drag a cappella group The Kinsey Sicks return for a fourth time in a nod, Immerwahr said, to a now-beloved Theater J holiday tradition. Oy Vey in a Manger played to sold-out crowds in the past.

“Here we are in the heart of Dupont Circle, the center of D.C.’s gay and lesbian community … How can we not invite the ‘chicks with shticks’ back?” Immerwahr said. “This is a delightful send-up of Christmas and Chanukah, with a few new topical jokes thrown in. It’s fun, whimsical and completely irreverent.”

The season finishes with two 20th century icons of Jewish theater: Neil Simon and Arthur Miller. Simon’s bittersweet, autobiographical Brighton Beach Memoirs is not frequently produced, Immerwahr noted, although Theater J has successfully performed other Simon works, including Lost in Yonkers, The Odd Couple and I Oughta Be in Pictures.

“Neil Simon doesn’t get taken seriously by serious theaters nearly as much as he deserves,” said Immerwahr. “In Brighton Beach Memoirs he is writing in an unquestionably Yiddish voice and to try to capture that on our stage is important.”

With Simon and Miller returning to Theater J’s stage, Immerwahr is saying, here are two of our great American Jewish success stories who made it in the mainstream, “we should be able to celebrate that.”

The 2016-17 season closes with the little-seen Miller work Broken Glass, directed by Aaron Posner. The controversial drama looks at the mysterious paralysis of Sylvia, who lives in Brooklyn but is well aware of the 1938 events of Kristallnacht — the “night of broken glass” in Germany — unlike her husband, a self-denying Jew. The morality tale looks at the public and private principles of this perhaps mismatched couple coming to terms with their Jewish identity.

Immerwahr and Theater J’s staff and volunteer council read well over 100 plays in planning next season. While he didn’t find an Israeli play or playwright — typically one of Theater J’s strengths — he said he plans to bring Israeli voices to Theater J’s stage in coming years when he hits on the right play.

He hopes to launch a Yiddish theater initiative, which will introduce long-forgotten or little-known Yiddish works in translation to 21st century audiences.

“People are starting to pay attention to the Yiddish theater again,” Immerwahr said. “This is a body of Jewish works that is underperformed, underrepresented and under-translated on our stages so Theater J is trying to figure out how to … bring together a group of D.C. artists, playwrights, directors, dramaturgs, and designers and immerse ourselves in some of the great plays of the Yiddish theater.”

“The scope of Theater J’s programming has been enormous over the years,” Immerwahr noted. “That allows a lot of freedom for Theater J to continue to push the boundaries of what it means to be a Jewish theater.”

For information on Theater J and its 2016-17 season, visit theaterj.org.

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