Theater In Conversation
A Studio in the Domestic Strip: Oren Safdie with Roger Babb
West Bank, UK
Oren Safdie’s newest piece, West Bank, UK, a musical on which he collaborated with composer/lyricist Robbie Cohen, is about an Israeli ex-patriot who returns to a rent-controlled apartment in London to find it occupied by a Palestinian refugee. The American landlord, unable to decide between them, suggests they try to learn to live with each other. It opens in New York at La Mama, with a three week run through December 16. Safdie is the author of Private Jokes, Public Places, the critically acclaimed 2004 comedy about architecture that has been regularly produced around the U.S. and in London, Toronto and Romania. Terry Teachout of the Wall Street Journal proclaimed it one of the funniest plays of the season, ”an unpretentiously witty play about some of the most pretentious ideas known to man.” Safdie returns to New York from California where he is the Artistic Director of Malibu Stage Company.
Roger Babb (Rail): You are an American who was born in Montreal, grew up in Israel and went to Columbia University. Why do you set your play in London?
Safdie: The whole play is an allegory, and Palestine, before it was divided, was occupied by the British. In the play, the British landlord has died and left the flat to her American daughter. I tried to keep it very domestic: two roommates, a landlord, a girlfriend, an uncle, a French neighbor. I let the politics dictate how the situation unfolds—the history of the last fifty years. But its not spelt out. All the squabbles are domestic. If it’s successful, it’s something that you would look back on and say “Oh right, that was there because...” I felt that these two could be friends and good roommates, but it was these outside forces that were pulling them apart.
Rail: So there is no explicit political language?
Safdie: The songs are where the politics come in. It’s almost as if the characters are performing their country’s history. The French neighbor comes in and complains about all this racket going on next door and he just wants peace and quiet. The rich uncle can’t help his nephew after the apartment has been divided by a wall of furniture. He says he’d like to help, but he has to go shopping with Arafat’s wife. So there’s a song “Shopping with Arafat’s Wife”.
Rail: Do you identify as an American/Israeli playwright?
Safdie: No, but this was an issue I wanted to write about. I was born in Montreal, but I grew up and spent a lot of time in Israel. My father still has a house in the old city in Jerusalem. My father’s family is Sephardic of Syrian descent. So my family’s culture is closer to Arab culture than Ashkenazic or European culture. My grandmother cooked Arabic food. They all spoke Arabic. My uncle still calls himself Palestinian. There was a short period of time after 1967 when I was in Israel and it seemed like there was hope, because in many ways these people are very close.
Rail: You wrote the book but you are also directing. How does that work?
Safdie: I sometimes direct my own pieces because I am mostly afraid of someone else ruining it. I have a musical director and a choreographer, and I trust their eyes. But you never really know…until there is an audience. I know that this is a big issue to try and put into a musical comedy. I’m not trying to draw any conclusions, but I’m trying to have the psychology of the characters reflect the psychology of the countries. One of the Israeli’s song is “I’m Hardwired For Paranoia,” and the songs are important in that they allow the characters to speak about the history.
Rail: A song is very different from speech, what does that difference allow you to do?
Safdie: Ronnie writes both the music and the lyrics. There are some things you can’t pull off in dialogue. When I was writing, I knew when a song would come in when I felt I couldn’t write the subject matter in dialog anymore, and I would ask Ronnie to write it in song. He and I have a similar background. I feel very comfortable with him. His father is also Sephardic, and Ronnie had a Fulbright to study Yemenite music in Yemen. So there is a lot of Middle-Eastern influence in this play. The piece is about half book and half music.
Rail: How do the politics work between you?
Safdie: I think the playwright should try hard not to let their point of view come into the piece. I have my own beliefs and so does the composer. Ronnie is more left than I am. So sometimes you don’t like to have a character say something, but you have to leave it in because it’s true for the character. The truth is, there is no one answer. It’s much more confused. So all you can do is show each character’s point of view.
Rail: How did you write the Palestinian?
Safdie: I have sympathies on both sides. In the end, they are basically facing each other off and circling each other, which I think reflects the way it is. Mike Mosallum, who plays the Palestinian, I would say, considers himself an activist in the Muslim community. He was eager to do this part. He was into it, and that was my approval. It made me feel that I had written the character fairly. There are things in the play which will offend both sides, but I think its equal. Still, I find myself being moved. I never started out to write a play about peace. I don’t think a work of art is going to bring about peace. The issues are too complicated.
West Bank, UK runs Nov. 29- Dec. 16 at La Mama E.T.C. (74A East 4th Street, between Second Avenue and Bowery); Thursdays-Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 2:30pm and 8pm. Tickets: 2120-475-7710 or www.lamama.org.
ROGER BABB was for many years a playwright / director with Otrabanda Company. He worked as an actor for Joseph Chaikin, Jim Neu, Julie Taymor, Merideth Monk and many others. He taught at Princeton, NYU, Swarthmore and most recently at Mt Holyoke College.
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