Saturday, May 26, 2018
Stage

Jobsite Theater welcomes playwright Israel Horovitz for 'Lebensraum'

He was always one to favor tough issues. So the playwright Israel Horovitz struggled with an invitation by Warner Brothers in 1993 to write a remake of A Star is Born. It promised a big paycheck, Denzel Washington and Whitney Houston.

He thought of his mentor, the late playwright Samuel Beckett.

"I thought, 'Would Samuel Beckett ever write a remake of A Star is Born?'" Horovitz said. "Is this something that I really care about?'

What he does care about is generally more challenging. Horovitz, one of the world's best known living playwrights, is in Tampa for the opening night of his play at Jobsite Theater. Lebensraum is a potent mix of social issues, notably immigration.

Horovitz has written at least 70 plays and written and directed films. He will participate in a talk back with the audience after Friday's performance.

"I firmly believe that what interests the public isn't always in the public's interest," Horovitz said. "Sometimes you have to take people where they don't think they want to be."

Lebensraum starts with a German chancellor who resolves to attempt to right the wrongs of the Holocaust. In the "press conference of the century," the chancellor announces that Germany will become a safe haven for up to 6 million Jews. This "lebensraum" (German for "living space," and the term Hitler used to justify his expansion into Eastern Europe), will provide citizenship and jobs for Jewish immigrants.

It quickly shifts to the an unemployed dockworker from Gloucester, Mass., who takes a job away from a dockworker in Bremerhaven, Germany. In all, three actors play more than 60 characters.

"It's a great choice for our time," said Horovitz, 76. "It's remarkable that there is such a thing now as the German guilt, and that that led them to take thousands of Syrian refugees, something that never would've happened 50 years ago. And now they were really the first country to open their arms and say, 'Yes, come to us, we'll take you'... And a whole segment of the population is ready to take up arms and try to prevent it."

Horovitz also makes a habit of challenging himself. In 2014, he directed his first full-length film. My Old Lady, an adaptation of his 1996 play, starred Kevin Kline and Maggie Smith. It was co-produced Rachel Horovitz, his daughter who has also produced movies such as About Schmidt and Moneyball. (A son, Adam "Ad-Rock" Horovitz, is a member of the Beastie Boys.)

Horovitz was born in Wakefield, Mass., the son of a truck driver who became a lawyer at age 50. His first play, at 17, was produced by Suffolk University. He was mentored early by Thornton Wilder, who taught him to explain the world through the lens of one place; and especially by Beckett, whom he met in Paris in the 1960s.

Horovitz first visited Jobsite in January 2015 for a staged reading of his play Sins of the Mother. Winter in Florida has become the latest addition to a peripatetic lifestyle revolving around his work. Horovitz lists his address in Gloucester, Mass., where he founded a theater company. He also spends a few months of the year in New York's West village. His play, Line, has been running Off-Off-Broadway for 45 years, the longest running show in New York history.

You can also find Horovitz regularly in France, where he is the most produced playwright in that country's history; or in Spoleto, Italy, working with the Compagnia Horovitz Paciotto, which produces his work exclusively.

He has a soft spot for Jobsite in Tampa.

"Jobsite reminds me of my own little theater in Massachusetts," Horovitz said. "It's always living on the edge of disaster, of catastrophe, but trying always to do work that stretches the audience."

That's why he invited Jobsite to do a staged reading of Sins of the Mother. David Jenkins, Jobsite's producing artistic director, at first thought the call from Horovitz was a joke. He was thrilled to learn it was for real.

"He is an amazing man," said Jenkins, who is directing Lebensraum, "a walking encyclopedia and epic storyteller of all things about the modern theater."

More than being prolific, Horovitz wants his work to be about something.

"We're taking people's babysitter money and we're taking their time. You'd better have something to say about life."

That was the choice he made in 1993 in declining that payday from Warner Brothers. After a meeting to discuss A Star is Born, Horovitz was on a plane. He decided to console the elderly Jewish woman sitting next to him, who was nervous about the flight.

The passenger turned out to be Alma Singer, the widow of the Nobel-prize-winning author Isaac Singer. They struck up a friendship, and Mrs. Singer later gave Horovitz the rights to adapt some of her husband's short stories for the stage. That might be serendipity or karma, or just the kind of thing that happens when you're Israel Horovitz.

He turned down the remake of A Star is Born.

Contact Andrew Meacham at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.

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