A Fruitful Collaboration 

Two theater companies join forces to good effect.

When the nameless narrator of the Grace Paley story "Wants" takes back her overdue books to the library and learns that her fines are $32 and eighteen years old, we get the hint that this story might have some magical qualities. Undaunted, the narrator writes a check for the fines, and then checks the books right back out because she finds them more relevant than ever. Thus begins a wildly entertaining capsule version of one woman's life, where time moves in odd ways, marked not so much by years as by the growth of children, the length of a marriage, the duration of the war in Vietnam, and the inevitability of library fines. Surrounded by her ex-husband and a swirl of other characters cleverly suggested by just two actors, the narrator wishes she had been organized enough to return her books on time, or strong enough to stop a war. While it's a funny story to begin with, it's even better in the hands of Naomi Newman and Corey Fischer, founding members of A Traveling Jewish Theatre, who drew a laugh at the performance I saw simply by taking the stage as the audience settled in to be delighted.

"Wants" is the first of four short pieces that make up Windows and Mirrors, the new collaboration between the San Francisco companies Word for Word and A Traveling Jewish Theatre, which make an all-too-brief East Bay appearance this weekend at the Julia Morgan Center for the Arts. Like 2000's production of Goodbye and Good Luck and The Jewbird, Windows and Mirrors features short stories by Jewish-American writers Bernard Malamud and Grace Paley. And this time the two companies have thrown the postmodern German-Jewish writer Maxim Biller and his audacious "Finkelstein's Fingers" into the mix.

Bernard Malamud spent many years writing about men who have difficulty making themselves heard, whether it's the dueling writer Tenants of the novel of the same name; Cold War-era Russian writer Levitansky, who fears that his soul will die if his work never sees print, in "Man in the Drawer"; or Calvin Cohn from "God's Grace," as the only man to survive nuclear annihilation, who must now learn to communicate with a chimp. In "Spring Rain," written just before WWII, the protagonist, George (Fischer), can't tell his wife or daughter how he really feels about them. Whether having that ability would help his relationships is questionable. When he looks at his daughter, Florence, he thinks about what a disappointment she has been to him. Meanwhile, staging in which a hard post and an equally hard wall represent George and his wife's respective beds says much about the marriage. Tormented by sleeplessness, George muses on male loneliness, a concern that he learns he shares with Florence's introspective boyfriend Paul when the two men take a spontaneous walk through the revitalizing spring rain of the title. Sweet for Malamud and elegiac in tone, "Spring Rain" is primarily Fischer's vehicle, and he restrains his big physical presence to create an intimate, sad character. A Traveling Jewish Theatre newcomer Michael Smith plays Paul, and the weight of things unsaid between the two is palpable.

The staging on "A Conversation With My Father," the second Paley piece, is so well thought out that it's almost hard to imagine the work in its original form. Here the narrator and Paley double (Newman) wrangles with her bedridden father (Fischer) over a short story she has written at his request. She writes about a woman who has become a junkie to keep her similarly addicted son company, but no matter what angle the author takes, her father isn't pleased with it. Here, the fictional mother and son are exuberantly acted out by Karine Koret and Smith, who step out of the world of the story to hover around the sickbed, silently as anxious to please the old man as the protagonist. The conceit is funny and the payoff thought-provoking, and the lively movement of the story within the story contrasts well with the limited blocking of the writer and her father.

While all three writers are Jewish, the word doesn't even come up until well after the intermission, in "Finkelstein's Fingers." There, Maxim Biller gleefully tramples his way through a nothing-sacred take on the Holocaust that features three contemporary characters -- Anita, the grown German daughter of Nazi collaborators; her Jewish-American creative writing professor; and a young German-Jewish author she seduces into writing a story she plans to turn in as her own. Biller is described in the program notes as an enfant terrible, but given how unremittingly grim much of the Holocaust canon is, I found his writing refreshing and bold. In "Finkelstein's Fingers," it's as if someone has opened a door to let all that guilt- and grief-stained air flow out. There's humor and mystery and surpassing sexual attraction in the story, none of which usually make it into representations of the Holocaust or its aftermath.

Biller's audacity has resulted in him being compared to Philip Roth, which is amusing since he has Finkelstein write in an e-mail that a sexual moment in "Anita's" play is reminiscent of "Miller, Bukowski, and Roth -- all of whom, by the way, I consider impostors." Then Finkelstein pushes away from the computer and quips, in very Rothian fashion, that he's had enough masturbation lately and could use some real sex.

Newman and Fischer work at a fever pitch in this one, the former playing Anita as a slinky, predatory dame in an oversized leopard hat, the latter running his fingers through the air clownishly as he types. This time, Koret and Smith are the more stable presences. The film noirish story might make your head spin, since Professor Finkelstein, the young author, and the obscure Hungarian writer that Anita must profile may or may not be the same person. There's enough ambiguity that the audience is left guessing up to the very end.

The combination of A Traveling Jewish Theatre and Word for Word is an excellent one that builds upon each company's considerable strengths. The depth of A Traveling Jewish Theatre's quarter-century of experience and dedication to innovative movement techniques meshes well with Word for Word's love affair with text and its possibilities. While Word for Word occasionally stumbles because certain books simply resist adaptation, such as last season's Cannery Row, which did not hang together even with a lyrical text and talented actors, such is not the case with Windows and Mirrors, which belies the effort of its creation in its purity and perfect form. "Of course these stories were meant for the stage," this production seems to say. "And of course we were meant to play these foible-ridden characters," the actors respond. Both companies' missions -- A Traveling Jewish Theatre's commitment to warm, inclusive theater and Word for Word's sneaky plan to inspire us to read more of an author's work -- are well-served in this funny, whirling production.


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