An inside look at NJT’s new season; St. Louis art notes

Edward Coffield

By Ellen Futterman, Editor

Play time

Few Monday mornings start off as chill as a coffee date with Eddie Coffield, artistic director of the New Jewish Theatre. We got together at Colleen’s in Clayton to talk about the new NJT season, the first one he officially put together. Of course being the Jewish (over)sharers we are, we talked about a lot of other things, too.

Although Coffield took the helm of NJT in July 2018, last year’s season (2018-2019) had already been decided by his predecessor, Kathleen Sitzer. Typically, theater seasons are booked a year or so in advance, he explained, adding that he’s now trying to figure out what to book for next season (2019-2020). 

Offering my two-cents, I threw out one of my favorites, “The Sisters Rosensweig,” by the incomparable Wendy Wasserstein. I felt hopeful when I saw him writing the suggestion down.

“People stop me all the time, at Schnucks, at the J, and tell me what play they are going to see and what they want me to do,” said the affable Coffield, who has been a behind-the-scenes part of the local theater scene for 30 years, including 16 at NJT. “I welcome that. I like that audiences let you know what they think and how they feel.”

Coffield admits putting together a theater season is a lot of fun. But simple? Not so much.

“It seems on the surface to be so easy and you can do whatever you want, but that’s not true,” said Coffield. “It becomes an interesting sort of game. Sometimes the rights (to a play) aren’t available or you just can’t afford to do it. There’s a whole list of plays I’d love to do but they are too big for us.”

By big Coffield means both in terms of cast size and expense to produce. He notes that the biggest play NJT ever staged was “Yentl,” with 14 cast members. “We can field 14 on stage but we can’t do that every year, budget-wise,” he said. 

Then there is the matter of securing a certain play in the first place. For example, Coffield would have liked to open the upcoming NJT season with Part One of “Angels in America,” but the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis already had the rights (and opened its season with it, along with Part Two. By the way, do not miss it.). 

While “Angels” is not inherently a “Jewish play,” its author, Tony Kushner, is, and several Jewish characters, including a rabbi, populate the proceedings. Part of the mission of NJT is to showcase works by Jewish playwrights as well as ones that are thematically Jewish.

Coffield grew up in New Mexico and West Texas loving theater (his favorite musical is “Hello Dolly,” which he first saw at age 5). He mentioned that he would like NJT to do a musical every season, tossing out “Cabaret” and “Fiddler on the Roof” as possibilities, but musicals “are not always financially available to us,” he notes. Still, a musical is among the five shows that make up NJT’s upcoming season, which kicks off Oct. 10, the day after Yom Kippur. But before I get too far ahead, let’s recap the plays for 2019-2020: 

• “Brighton Beach Memoirs,” Neil Simon’s semi-autobiographical coming-of-age dramedy set in 1937 Brooklyn, N.Y. (Oct. 10-27); 

• “Fully Committed,” by Becky Mode, a one-man comedy about an out-of-work actor who mans the reservation line at a highfalutin Manhattan restaurant (Dec. 5-22);

• “My Name is Asher Lev,” by Aaron Posner, adapted from the novel by Chaim Potok. It chronicles the journey of a young Jewish painter forced to choose between his art and faith (Jan. 23-Feb. 9);

• “We Are the Levinsons,” by Wendy Kout, a modern dramedy about the “sandwich generation,” or in this case a divorced, 50ish TV writer trying to balance an insufferable 21-year-old daughter with care for her aging father (March 19-April 5);

• “Stephen Sondheim’s Putting it Together,” a musical revue highlighting more than 30 tunes by Sondheim (May 7-24).

Both “Putting it Together” and “We Are the Levinsons” are making their St. Louis premiere. In addition, the directors of all five shows — three men and two women — are making their NJT directorial debut. 

“I really wanted five women directors, but the people I reached out to weren’t available,” Coffield said. “Theater has been male dominated for a long time, and I think it’s important to shift the voice of how these stories are being told.”

If, for some reason, you can’t make it to all of NJT’s plays this season, I asked Coffield to offer his suggestions based on the following criteria:

• Most accessible: “Brighton Beach Memoirs”

• Most thought provoking: “We Are the Levinsons”

• Funniest: “Fully Committed”

• Best for families: Tie between “Brighton Beach” and “Levinsons”

• Best for Gen Z and Millennials: “I Am Asher Lev”

• Most dramatic/contemplative: “Asher Lev”

• Most sophisticated: “Stephen Sondheim’s Putting it Together”

For tickets and more information, go to www.newjewishtheatre.org. 

Short-story art

Artist Barry Leibman is no stranger to books. He was one of the partners in a collective 50 years ago that founded Left Bank Books, now an iconic fixture in the Central West End. Today, Leibman is no longer involved in the business, but he continues to paint and have major exhibitions as he moves between residences in St. Louis and Washington State.

His latest show, “An Anthology of Sudden Fiction,” will open Friday, Oct. 4, with a reception from 6 to 10 p.m. at Hoffman LaChance Contemporary in Maplewood.  All of his 15 or so paintings are done in oils and/or oil stick on either canvas or wood panels and measure 24 by 24 inches. Leibman says he based the show on the idea of an anthology – in this case, stories in which writers pack a lot in terms of plot development, character changes, etc., into a very short form. 

“Instead of using a common theme and style as in previous shows I’ve done about music and composers, this exhibit uses the experience of reading an anthology of very short stories as its basis,” said Leibman. “Different writers, different styles. Not totally different, but enough so. The particular anthologies I’ve been drawn to contain very short stories, sometimes called flash fiction or sudden fiction. The size of these new paintings I hope reflects the length of those stories. There can actually be a lot of drama, or conversely subtlety in just one to three pages, the usual length of these stories.”

The exhibition will run through Oct. 26. For more information, visit hoffmanlachancefineart.com.

Picture this

Speaking of artists and shows, if you haven’t checked out the exhibit by photographer Stewart Halperin at the International Photography Hall of Fame and Museum (IPHF), you might want to get your tuchus in gear and go. Entitled “Stewart D. Halperin: One World – Five Decades and Six Continents,” it provides a retrospective of the 80 countries the St. Louis-based photog has traveled to with his camera over the past 35 years. 

Halperin will present a special lecture at the IPHF from 1:30 to 2:30 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 28 during which he will address a range of topics and questions — some ethical, some spiritual — that come up when traveling with a camera.

The cost for the lecture and the exhibit, which run through Oct. 19, is free for IPHF members and $10 for non-members. Seniors and students are $5. For more information, go to www.iphf.org.

Canine kibbitzing

In the “I’m not making this up” department, ABC Eyewitness News out of New York reports that a “Yiddish for Dogs” class was held on Sunday in Central Park. The news station reported the class was hosted by the non-profit Workmen’s Circle, which offers the largest Yiddish language program in the world, with more than 800 students annually (I’m assuming dogs were not counted in that number!).

Dogs and their owners learned how to respond to commands such as “sit” and “stay” in Yiddish.

All attendees also received goody bags for their pets.

News and Schmooze is a weekly column by Editor Ellen Futterman. Email 

Ellen at: [email protected]thejewishlight.com