PLAYBILL ON-LINE'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER with John Tillinger

Brief Encounter   PLAYBILL ON-LINE'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER with John Tillinger The director who gave New York audiences the serious drama Judgment at Nuremberg and the complex chronology of House and Garden, now lends his hand to a farce on the topic of cultural cliches — Jewtopia.
John Tillinger
John Tillinger Photo by Aubrey Reuben

After the Broadway staging of Syncopation fell through, producer William Franzblau — who worked with John Tillinger on Say Goodnight Gracie — asked if he would helm the transfer of Bryan Fogel and Sam Wolfson's Jewtopia from Los Angeles to New York. The Iran-born, Jewish director caught the show and accepted the task.

The comedy about two childhood friends — one Jewish and one gentile — in love with women of the other's religion is set to open Oct. 21 at Off-Broadway's Westside Theatre.

PBOL: The show ran in Los Angeles for over a year. Other than the geographic references in the show, what has been changed?
John Tillinger: In L.A., it was these two smart guys who put on this show, frankly for peanuts — that's how I did my first show in New York, Entertaining Mr. Sloane: I put it on for very little money. But, they didn't have the resources to do sets and costumes the way it should be done. So, initially the idea was to upgrade it. From that point of view, that was some of the thrust of my work. Then, I felt needed some trimming and editing and restaging so I've restaged most of it.

PBOL: Was having a lot of the original players difficult when it came to restaging?
JT: Most of the cast, in fact all but one, came from Los Angeles which was harder than if you start with a fresh cast. What you're doing is saying, "This was okay, but now let's rethink this." So, you've got to break their old habits and put in new ones.

PBOL: What drew you to the work?
JT: I just felt that [Jewtopia] pokes fun at a community that likes to have — I mean, "Is my grandmother spinning in her grave?" Yes, probably, but — that enjoys having that kind of fun poked at it and actually welcomes it. The audience has absolutely screamed with laughter every night I've seen the show. PBOL: There is a scene where the Jewish friend quizzes his gentile cohort about proper Jewish etiquette in preparation for his dinner date. Did any of the references hit home?
JT: That whole scene [with] ordering food and all that is what we all do. When I was watching it at first, I thought "Jesus, I'm like this!" and that was sort of unnerving, but wonderful. [And references to] constant buying of Pepto Bismol and this, that and the other [medication]... Now, I'm not saying others don't do that as well, but we embrace it with such fervor. [Jewtopia] is fun and a much larger challenge than some of the other things I've done.

PBOL: They say comedy is harder to direct than drama...
JT: Agony, agony. And this comedy goes from comedy to out-and-out farce with the Purim scene. [Laughs.] I'm afraid I've contributed some really obscene things in the show. And I think that in the end, he says some things that are very valid "It doesn't matter who we are or what we are. You'll get through life somehow, embrace what works for you and go forward." I think that's the only way we're going to survive. I'm against the "tribalism" of all of us, I don't mean [just] Jews. Tribalism is going to be our undoing.

PBOL: You are also set to direct the upcoming Off-Broadway run of A Picasso, for Manhattan Theatre Club. Is it imagined or based on real events?
JT: It was a real story of an event that happened in 1942. Picasso was arrested. Well, exactly as it is in the play, he was brought forward and interrogated and what happened was they asked him to authenticate some of his paintings. And two months later, they burned them [as] part of the whole "degenerate art" burning in Paris. We approached Jeffrey [Hatcher] — it was a commission play — and said to just liven things up that instead of being interrogated by a man, he should be interogated by a woman. So that's the main untruth, so that there might be sexual tension. The odd thing was that we then discovered some paintings that he did at that time which really describes what she looks like. It's going through some rewrites right now, but it's about "Does an artist have any accountability on the political scene?" Obviously writers do, but do painters and musicians and so on have to address themselves to the political world that is around them? Picasso certainly, when he was commissioned to do Guernica, he didn't want to do it because he felt artists should not be involved. And by the end of his life, it was, of course, the painting he was proudest of.