Laurents Gives Potato a Raspberry, But New Play Opens at JRT Oct. 22

News   Laurents Gives Potato a Raspberry, But New Play Opens at JRT Oct. 22 Jewish Repertory Theatre artistic director Ran Avni confirmed Oct. 20 that his company's world-premiere staging of Big Potato, will indeed continue as planned — opening Oct. 22 — despite the fact that the playwright, Arthur Laurents, has told The New York Times and The New York Post that he thinks the production is "no good."

Jewish Repertory Theatre artistic director Ran Avni confirmed Oct. 20 that his company's world-premiere staging of Big Potato, will indeed continue as planned — opening Oct. 22 — despite the fact that the playwright, Arthur Laurents, has told The New York Times and The New York Post that he thinks the production is "no good."

Laurents is quoted in the Oct. 20 Post saying "I don't need the critics to tell me the production is no good." He added, "It is not ready to be seen, and will never be ready to be seen in this production."

Laurents cancelled a planned Oct. 20 interview with Playbill On-Line to avoid publicizing the show.

Director Richard Sabellico told The Post the production "doesn't serve the play and it is not an accurate reflection on my work as the director." In a piece written by Post scribe Michael Riedel, Sabellico is quoted as implicating his cast, saying, "They have worked incredibly hard" though some of them "are not connecting to their parts, to each other, to the director or to the language of the play." Laurents told The Post and The Times that he thinks his work is good, inviting readers to draw their own conclusions about who's at fault.

It was the 82-year-old Laurents' wish to not officially open the show Oct. 22, and his press office handling the run of the show said on Oct. 19 the opening would be delayed to an unspecified date, keeping critics at bay. Hours later, the JRT press office quickly countered, regained control of press coverage for the production, and said the opening was going ahead Oct. 22. JRT artistic director Avni said he read the articles and was disappointed, but said, "We're moving along and having a big opening night party on the 22nd. This is a terrific group of professional, talented actors and they've been in the business for awhile and they know sometimes things don't go as you'd like them to."

The staging began previews Oct. 10 at the 199-seat Duke Theatre on 42nd Street in Manhattan and is scheduled to run to Nov. 5. JRT's mission is presenting works that are Jewish themed, authored or of interest to a Jewish audience, and Friday nights are dark in observance of the sabbath.

Asked about Laurents and Sabellico badmouthing the show, Avni said, "I prefer to not discuss those things in public. Clearly, that part of the experience has not been the way I hoped it would be."

Asked if Laurents had the chance to simply pull his play rather than create such public embarrassment, Avni said he did not feel comfortable discussing legal and contractual matters. Others in the industry have said that a playwright cannot pull his play once a contract has been signed.

"What is most important to me is the response of the audience," Avni said.

Playbill On-Line phone calls to Sabellico were not returned, and Laurents was not immediately available. Director Sabellico's next project is staging a new version of Jerry Herman's Dear World for Goodspeed-at-Chester/The Norma Terris Theatre in Chester, CT.

The Laurents play in question is a dark comedy written by Laurents in the early 1970s but shelved until recently. The piece is set in 1975 and concerns a Polish-born Queens, NY, beautician and Nazi hunter who lures a suspected former Nazi to her apartment.

Paul Hecht and Polish actress Elzbieta Czyzewska star in the world premiere, opening JRT's new season in its new home, at the Duke, the new Off-Broadway-sized venue on 42nd Street.

Nessa (played by Czyzewska), the Queens beautician and Nazi hunter, is a concentration camp survivor who discovers a suspected Nazi (played by Paul Hecht) at a local travel office (they are both seeking information about travel to South America, where many Nazis fled after the war). She lures him to her apartment in Kew Gardens, Queens, where she and her husband (David Margulies) keep him handcuffed in a wheelchair while their Vietnam veteran son (Dylan Chalfy) looks on in numbed disbelief. Sabellico directed a reading of the play earlier this year, and helms the full JRT staging.

The title is a reference to beautician Nessa's nickname for Nazis — she calls them potatoes. The man she brings to her place is suspected to be a "big potato." The play concerns Nessa's wish to right past wrongs and is a portrait of her passionate monomania: To "remember" and to scream loudly, or you will never be heard.

"I've opened over 120 shows in New York and if I were to open [solely on the basis of] what the critical reaction would be, I would have given up on some hits," Avni said.

Avni called the work a "very important play dealing with important issues."

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JRT stages the production in association with Daryl Roth and Scott Rudin, who will take the show to a commercial next-step if such a move is warranted.

The cast also includes Joanna Glushak (Les Miserables, Sunday in the Park With George) as assimilated daughter Rachel (who wants her named pronounced "Rachelle").

Hecht (playing Julius, an apparent former Nazi) is a Tony Award nominee for the original Broadway staging of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and appeared in 1776, The Player, The Rothschilds and Noises Off, among many other New York and regional productions.

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Sabellico directed a private reading of a revised script of Big Potato at The Dramatists Guild May 19 with a cast including Czyzewska as Nessa, Brian Murray as Julius, David Margulies as Itzhak, Joanna Glushak as Rachel and Ryan Artzberger as Sonny.

Two by Two, the Richard Rodgers-Martin Charnin musical about Noah and the Ark, will play the JRT April 21-May 13, 2001. Two more productions are expected in 2000-2001.

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Laurents, of course, is the playwright and director who may be best known for the books of Gypsy and West Side Story, but who also penned the screenplay for "The Way We Were," libretti for Hallelujah, Baby!, Do I Hear a Waltz? and Anyone Can Whistle. His play, The Time of the Cuckoo, was revived this season by Lincoln Center Theater and his recent play, Jolson Sings Again, has been staged regionally and is expected to appear in Manhattan in the coming season.

Laurents' autobiography, "Original Story By," was released in early 2000.

For information about the JRT's 27th season, call (212) 831-2001.