Wednesday, April 11th, 2012...12:31 pm

The Last Word tops MJTC season

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Final production of the 2011-2012 season explores the inspiration and struggle between two approaches to the same art

By DORIS RUBENSTEIN

Is there a mystical connection between St. Paul and Canada?

The Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company’s last production, My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding, was written by an Ottawa-based playwright; the author of its newest production, The Last Word, has roots in Montreal. If so, it’s a great collaboration between one of the United States’ northernmost cities and our good neighbors in equally cold climes.

Those who pay attention to goings-on in the world of architecture may recognize the name Safdie and connect it to the renowned Israeli architect Moshe Safdie. Indeed, The Last Word’s creator, Oren Safdie, is a scion of that creative family who was born and raised in Montreal. He now resides primarily in Malibu, Calif., and is artistic director of the Malibu Stage Company.

With such a background, Safdie has been able to draw on a wealth of material and has been highly successful. His plays and movies, such as You Can Thank Me Later and West Bank, UK, have won awards including the Newport Film Festival’s Grand Jury Prize; respected actors such as Ellen Burstyn, Daniel Travanti, Genevieve Bujold and Ed Asner have brought his characters to life.

Henry Grunwald (Raye Birk, left) is an aspiring playwright and Len Artz (Skyler Nowinski) interviews to be his assistant in Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company’s area premiere production of the comedy The Last Word by Oren Safdie. (Photo: Sarah Whiting)Henry Grunwald (Raye Birk, left) is an aspiring playwright and Len Artz (Skyler Nowinski) interviews to be his assistant in Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company’s area premiere production of the comedy The Last Word by Oren Safdie. (Photo: Sarah Whiting)

In fact, the Twin Cities’ own answer to Ed Asner, Raye Birk, is one of the stars who will enliven The Last Word at the MJTC, starting April 14. Birk is a staple for Guthrie Theater patrons, performing in productions such as Macbeth, Third, A Delicate Balance, Pride and Prejudice, and Pygmalion. As one of the elder statesmen of the Twin Cities theater world, he’s also been seen in productions at numerous Twin Cities stages and others across the country, not to mention his role in the Coen brothers’ locally shot film, A Serious Man. Yet, this is his first appearance on the MJTC stage at the Hillcrest Community Center.

“I’m not Jewish,” Birk admits, “but I’ve played a lot of Jews in my career.”

Birk has been in the audience at MJTC numerous times and met its artistic director, Barbara Brooks, at various community theater events.

“When this play came into her hands, Barbara put out some feelers to me and I was offered the part right after my first reading,” Birk said.

Birk’s character in The Last Word is Henry Grunwald, an 80-year-old Viennese Jew who fled the Nazis to become a successful advertising executive in New York. He still feels a sense of disappointment in himself; he still hopes — despite infirmities and decrepitude — and holds on to the dream of his youth: to write plays.

Henry’s youthful doppelgänger is Len Artz, himself an aspiring playwright, who comes into Henry’s world interviewing for a job as Henry’s assistant. What ensues is the inspiration and struggle between two approaches to the same art.

Is there any resemblance between Henry Grunwald and Raye Birk? Birk describes his character as highly eccentric, highly educated, and a stubborn, frustrated playwright.

As to any shared personality traits, Birk quips, “You’d have to ask my wife about that!”

Taking on the role of Len is Skyler Nowinski. Nowinski proves once again the excellence of the University of Minnesota/Guthrie Theater BFA Actor Training Program.

Director Hayley Finn finds it “exciting to work with two great players in a character-driven play.” And as the associate producer of the Playwrights’ Center in Minneapolis, Finn has seen a lot of plays. Her previous experience directing at the MJTC was the 2011 production of The Gospel According to Jerry.

The actors, the playwright and the director all point to what should be a memorable theater experience. It’s up to the audience, starting on April 14, to decide whether The Last Word will live up to the promise of the outstanding team that the MJTC has assembled for the final offering in its 2011-2012 season.

***

Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company will close its 17th season with an area premiere of the comedy The Last Word by Oren Safdie. Performances will take place 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays; 8 p.m. Saturdays; and 1 and 7 p.m. Sundays, April 14–May 6, at the Hillcrest Center Theater, 1978 Ford Pkwy., St. Paul.

For tickets and information, call 651-647-4315, e-mail info@mnjewishtheatre.org, or visit: www.mnjewishtheatre.org.

(American Jewish World, 4.13.12)

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