CUT FROM THE SAME CLOTH Theater: 'The Shawl' opens after long labor by New York writer, Baltimore producer and Hollywood director.


NEW YORK -- They look like an unlikely pair -- the Baltimore producer and the New York playwright.

The producer, Kathy Levin, is tall, blond and bristling with energy. The playwright, Cynthia Ozick, is short, gray, bespectacled and, as she puts it, "older than Kathy's mother."

But they've been working together a long time. After seven years and 18 drafts, "The Shawl," the first play by Ozick -- a distinguished novelist and essayist -- opens off-Broadway at Playhouse 91 on Thursday. And it probably wouldn't have happened without Levin's persistence.

There's a third figure in this picture, as well. Sidney Lumet -- director of such acclaimed movies as "The Pawnbroker," "Serpico" and "Dog Day Afternoon" -- was lured back to the stage after 30 years by the opportunity to direct "The Shawl."

Yet it was Levin who kept the fire burning, even when hope seemed thin -- when one production failed to materialize and when Lumet's movie schedule made it necessary to delay the off-Broadway opening, originally announced for last fall.

"I never thought it was over. That's because the journey was with Kathy, and she was always optimistic," Ozick says. "Kathy makes things happen."

Levin, 39, is best known for founding Magic Me, a nonprofit program that brings children together with elderly nursing-home residents. In recent years, however, the Baltimore native has been more active as a producer, with credits including the stage and film versions of "A Few Good Men" and the Broadway revival of "Gypsy" that starred Tyne Daly.

She became involved with "The Shawl" in 1989 when a friend, Alan Udoff, a philosophy professor and Holocaust-studies specialist at Baltimore Hebrew University, asked if she'd like to read a play by Cynthia Ozick.

Levin, who says " 'fan' is an understatement" to describe her admiration of Ozick's work, was thrilled. The script that arrived a few days later turned out to be a sequel to one of Levin's favorite Ozick works, "The Shawl."

First published as a New Yorker short story in 1980, "The Shawl" is a chilling account of Rosa, a Polish Jew who gives birth to a daughter in a concentration camp and hides the baby under a shawl. One day in the camp, Rosa's 14-year-old niece, Stella, steals the shawl, which leads to the baby's discovery and almost immediate murder by a Nazi guard.

The characters of Rosa and Stella also appear in Ozick's 1983 novella, "Rosa," which is set in a run-down residential Florida hotel three decades later.

The script Levin received was yet another sequel, also set primarily in Florida, but with an important new character -- a Holocaust researcher who turned out to have an ominous agenda.

Though Ozick, 68, may not be a household name, she is a writer's writer, a master craftsman. Newsweek book critic Peter S. Prescott has written about her: "When the chroniclers of our literary age catch up to what has been going on (may Ozick live to see it!), some of her stories will be reckoned among the best written in our time."

Last month, a New Yorker profile was keyed to the publication of her latest collection of essays, "Fame and Folly." And, in the recently released "Cynthia Ozick Reader," editor Elaine M. Kauvar proclaims: "Cynthia Ozick is on anybody's list of the 10 most important writers in North America today."

Looking back on her role in encouraging Ozick's first foray into playwriting, Levin says, "What I didn't realize then is the bravery and trust it took for Cynthia, at this place in her career, to throw her hat into the ring and become a novice. She's like a schoolgirl now in the playwriting program, and she suddenly asked me to teach her this craft. If I'd thought about it, I wouldn't have done it. Who am I to teach Cynthia Ozick how to write plays?"

"Fame and Folly" includes a chapter on Ozick's playwriting called "Old Hand as Novice." But in person, Ozick amends this, saying, "I'm not a novice anymore." And, she adds, "If I had known how long the road was, I would not have done it."

She was spurred to begin this long road after several years of receiving screenplays of "The Shawl" from Hollywood.

"I was appalled by the ignorance and lack of sensibility," she says of those efforts. "So I thought, well, I'll just do it myself."

To become accustomed to the form, Ozick spent months reading scripts -- contemporary as well as those by Shaw and Ibsen. She expected the script she sent Levin to be her first and only draft.

'Stuck in rage'

Levin's initial reaction to the play was that "the situation was unbelievably powerful." But she also felt, "At the end of the day, there wasn't the drama there that I had fantasized."

That night she and Ozick spoke for several hours over the phone. Levin worked up the nerve to suggest that Ozick consider making the new, ominous character seductive, attractive -- even sexy.

Ozick balked.

"I declined to show a Nazi as a good guy, in any seductive fashion whatever. Of course, I was dead wrong," she admits. "I was stuck in rage and would not apply aesthetic rules to historical rage."

At Playhouse 91, that character, whose name is Globalis, is played by Boyd Gaines, a handsome, boyish-looking actor Center Stage audiences will remember as Hamlet and as the romantic lead in "She Loves Me" (the same role that won him a Tony Award in the 1994 Broadway revival). The actor agrees that seductiveness, or as he also puts it, "charm" and "personal magnetism," are among Globalis' most effective tools.

Ozick credits Levin with giving Globalis "one of the most chilling visual moments in the play" -- as he is literally seducing Stella, he licks the numbers tattooed on her arm. It is, Ozick says, a "symbolically important" detail -- using the tongue, "the source of eloquence and persuasion," to erase the tattooed numbers.

Director needed

Levin and Ozick honed the script for a year and a half -- over the phone, through the mail and in person. Then Levin decided, "I'd gone so far with her, and I needed to get her in the company of a director who could shape it for the stage."

The producer took the play to the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Mass., where British director Ron Daniels worked with Ozick, reducing the number of characters and focusing on their relationship. But plans for a 1994 production never materialized.

Levin then contacted Don Scardino, who had directed her production of "A Few Good Men" and was, at the time, artistic director of the off-Broadway theater, Playwrights Horizons. Scardino directed two readings, and for the first time, Ozick heard real actors -- including Estelle Parsons and Tim Robbins -- speak the lines she had written.

"I had to pull her off the ceiling," Levin says. "She was like a %% balloon. She was full of helium, she was so excited."

The next step was to actually get the play produced. Levin sent the script, then titled "Blue Light," to David Brown, her co-producer on "A Few Good Men" and on this play as well. A major Hollywood producer whose credits include Sidney Lumet's movie, "The Verdict," Brown sent the script to Lumet.

The director -- who, as Ozick points out, was among the first "to touch on" the subject of Holocaust survivors in his movie "The Pawnbroker" -- had what he has described as an "extraordinary personal response" to Ozick's script.

Eager to produce the fledgling play near New York, but to avoid that city's sink-or-swim theatrical atmosphere, he chose the Bay Street Theater Festival in Sag Harbor, Long Island.

That was two summers ago. The role of Rosa was played by Dianne Wiest, who is still with the production; Stella, her niece, was played by Mercedes Ruehl, who has been replaced by Wendy Makkenna.

The Long Island edition of the New York Times described "Blue Light" as "a scary, completely provocative play," albeit "uneven" and "overlong." Variety also gave it a mixed positive review, calling it flawed but "pulsing with humanity and passion."

The schedule for Lumet's yet-to-be released movie, "Night Falls Over Manhattan," delayed last fall's New York opening. But now that long-awaited off-Broadway premiere is a reality. Retitled "The Shawl," the play began previews last Tuesday at Playhouse 91, where its limited run ends June 30.

Ozick attended almost all of the rehearsals. (An Orthodox Jew, she stayed away on Saturdays).

"Cynthia's very good about understanding the needs of the actors, and she and Sidney, I think, are terrific collaborators," says actor Gaines of the rapport in rehearsals. At the same time, in terms of rewrites, he says, "She, of course, fights tooth and nail, as every playwright does."

Changeable text

Even this is a concession for Ozick, who has a reputation for not allowing an editor to change a single word in her novels and essays. But she has learned, as she puts it, "that the text isn't stable" in the theater.

Still, she adds: "I need to argue everything out because I have not done anything unmotivated or careless. I have to hear the arguments, and when it hits me logically, then I instantly surrender."

Rewriting isn't the only aspect of "The Shawl" that has troubled Ozick, who is known for her intense integrity.

"I don't believe -- and I'm in a state of great contradiction here -- that this material should be mythopoeticized," she says of the Holocaust. "I've done it again and again, because I couldn't help myself.

"But I don't believe that fiction should be made out of it, and particularly now, when there are people who say it is fiction -- that's the theme of the play."

It's an issue about which Ozick and Lumet both feel strongly.

Before rehearsals began in Sag Harbor, Ozick wrote to Levin, quoting Lumet: "The Holocaust should not and cannot be 'theater.' This is not a Holocaust play. I would not do a Holocaust play. This is a play about what is going on in the world now."

Somewhat surprisingly, another aspect of playwriting has not proved troubling to Ozick. An avowed admirer of Henry James, she writes in an essay in "Fame and Folly" that the failure of "Guy Domville," his one and only theatrical effort, "led him into an inescapable darkness." But Ozick, who has identified closely with James in the past, insists she is not afraid of suffering a similar fate.

"No, I'm not Henry James," she says unequivocally. "If this fails, I will not have a nervous breakdown."

Ozick's enthusiastic attitude reinforces the term she chooses to describe her theatrical experience thus far -- "enthralling."

For Levin, "The Shawl" has bolstered her credo as a producer.

"If you start with what you care about, it's amazing what you might find yourself doing in the journey toward making it real," she says. "I didn't know where I was going to end up with this thing. I didn't think Sidney Lumet was going to direct it. I certainly didn't think that it would be seven years later.

"What I knew was I really cared about 'The Shawl.' Then one thing leads to another. That's really what I've found is so wonderful about producing. If you endure, if you stay on it, you'll make things happen."

Pub Date: 6/16/96


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