The darkly comic playwright David Bar Katz turns the dysfunctional clan drama on its head in ‘The Atmosphere of Memory.’
If the generally liberal New York theater crowd has gotten a little tired of David Mamet, who with his acerbic wit and pugilistic mien now espouses mostly conservative views, it need not worry. There is another Jewish playwright with an equally dark and comic wit who is just breaking through. He is David Bar Katz, author of “The Atmosphere of Memory,” a play about a highly dysfunctional family, and he is one of the most watched mid-career playwrights in New York City.
“This one is kind of meta, a play within a play,” Katz, 45, said of his new play before a dress rehearsal at the Bank Street Theater last week. (The play is currently in previews). “There’s so many plays about dysfunctional families” — he highlighted Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie,” from which this play takes its title (the phrase “atmosphere of memory” is in the stage directions). “But this one is a kind of statement about those plays; it’s a send-up, in that they all seem to say, ‘Oh, my life is so important. Let me write about it!’”
Of course, Katz had many admiring things to say about Williams, and Arthur Miller, and a host of other iconic playwrights who have used their families for fodder. But Katz’s imagination is too dark, his work too unsentimental, to allow his own memory-excavation play to turn into a maudlin affair. Plus, his family past doesn’t lend itself easily to treacle.
Katz grew up in a posh Philadelphia superb; his parents split up when he was 3. Throughout his youth he was sent to prestigious Northeast private schools, which he said had a pronounced influence on his worldview. As a Jewish kid in a school of mostly white-bread Christians, he always felt different.
“I was definitely an outsider,” Katz said. “People who grow up in New York, like New York Jews with other Jews, they were used to being Jewish.” In contrast, he always felt he had to “pass,” if not by completely hiding his Jewishness, then certainly by downplaying it. “I always felt like a throwback,” he said, referring to the history of “passing” in America — that is, by the 1980s when he grew up, he didn’t think anyone else still had to do it.
The irony was that when he moved to New York and began writing commercial work — pilots for television series and movies, mainly — it was usually Jewish producers who told him to cut out the Jewish references. “I can’t tell you how many times I got notes from Jewish producers saying, ‘Hey, can you take the Jewish stuff out?’” Katz said.
After graduating Williams College in 1989, he moved to New York to work as a teacher. But ever since high school, he had been involved in theater, and he had a family past that provided something like familiarity with the stage: his great-grandfather produced Yiddish plays in the Lower East Side. And his grandparents, who spoke Yiddish at home and spoke to him fondly, are the main source of his Jewish identity.
Katz soon gave up teaching and gravitated toward theater, getting a job as a press representative for theater companies. It was in his role as a press rep that he met the man who would jump-start his career: John Leguizamo, the charismatic Latin comedian with an acerbic wit that was equal to his.
While doing P.R. for Leguizamo, the two became friendly and began collaborating on TV and theater projects. First there was their co-authorship of Fox Network’s “House of Buggin’” (1995), the first all-Latino show on network television. Then, in 1998, Katz helped write and direct Leguizamo’s Tony-nominated autobiographical play, “FREAK,” which was also nominated for an Emmy Award for the film version, directed by Spike Lee.
Not surprisingly, Katz’s résumé, chock full of Latino-centered work, raised a few eyebrows. “They were like, ‘How’s a Jewish kid from Philly writing all this Latin stuff?” Katz said. “I think that’s where the outsider influence comes in,” he added, noting that understanding what it was like to be a minority enabled him to write more easily about other non-Jewish groups.
The Leguizamo connection still looms large. The idea for “The Atmosphere of Memory,” Katz said, stemmed from his work on “FREAK,” a play about Leguizamo’s relationship with his father. Katz's parents had gone to see "FREAK" and noticed that some parts were actually about Katz's own family. They demanded changes afterwards, and a major family schism ensued.
So, he thought, why not go all the way and write a play about his family. But only recently did he find time to write a play with his family as its central plot device. The play pivots around a playwright who invites his divorced parents to a reading of his autobiographical play — and their subsequent demand for changes.
“It’s really about adult children finding their place within a family,” said Pam MacKinnon, the play’s director, who recently directed this year’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, “Clybourne Park.” When asked what struck her about Katz’s play, MacKinnon replied: “First off, it’s immediately funny. Reading it for the first time, I laughed out loud; that’s rare. But then I recognized how dark it got, especially in the second act.”
The main character, Joe Stone, isn’t necessarily Jewish, but he very well could be, said Katz. “I imagine they’re Jewish,” Katz said of the fictional family, the Stones. “There’s a couple of Holocaust references, but otherwise, there’s not much Jewish material.” Still, he said, a certain kind of Jewish sensibility — urban, cynical, hyper-intellectual and liberal — is evident throughout the play.
Many of Katz’s other plays wear their Jewishness on their sleeves. Most well known is “The History of Invulnerability” (2010), which was nominated for the prestigious Harold and Mimi Steinberg/American Theater Critics Association New Play Award this April. It was a fictionalized account of the real life of Jerry Siegel, the American Jewish creator of “Superman,” which was created, in part, in response to the Nazis’ rise in Europe.
“The play dealt with the American Jew feeling a sublimated powerlessness,” Katz said, noting that he was himself enthralled by comics such as “Superman”? Perhaps unconsciously, he added, he was drawn to comic-book heroes because of his own sense of vulnerability as a Jew in predominately non-Jewish schools.
After a reading at The Public Theater, “The History of Invulnerability” had its premiere at Cincinnati’s Tony Award-winning Playhouse in the Park theater, and will be re-staged by Theater J in Washington D.C. this spring. Ari Roth, Theater J’s artistic director, said in an interview that he met Katz a year ago at an annual national Jewish arts conference in Manhattan called “The Shmooze,” and was immediately impressed by his work.
“He struck me as the type of Jew who’s cut from the same cloth as David Mamet — a strong Jew,” Roth said. “He writes with real muscular prose and a strong sense of Jewish identity, [and] he’s really well informed Jewishly.”
Roth had also read another Katz play, “Philip Roth in Khartoum,” which debuted at The Public Theater in 2008, and found its biting critique of well-to-do liberal New York Jews equally exacting. “It’s not for the faint-hearted,” Roth said. “It’s not schmaltzy. But he has a gift of language and a joyful embrace of American vernacular.”
The last of Katz’s Jewish-themed plays, “Burning Burning Burning Burning,” which was produced by The Public Theater in 2008, was based on the life of Sabbatai Zevi, the 17th-century rabbi who claimed to be the messiah. Katz remembered learning about Zevi through reading Isaac Bashevis Singer’s novel “Satan in Goray.”
Like “The History of Invulnerability,” “Burning” took a fantastical history and plumbed it for deeper human insights. The moral dilemma posed by Zevi, Katz explained, “was that you have to break all the rules in order to be redeemed.” Katz liked that conceit, and built a whole play around it. But Katz said that, unlike “The History of Invulnerability,” “there’s not a Jewish theater that will do [‘Burning’]. It’s very sexually explicit, and there’s lots of homosexuality.”
Unlike in his commercial work — he still writes for television — Katz feels liberated by Off-Broadway theater and its willingness to embrace racy, controversial work. When it comes to including challenging Jewish subject matter in his work for mass appeal, he said, “You just can’t do it; I’ve come to terms with that.”
By contrast, most of Katz’s plays, including “The Atmosphere of Memory,” are written for the LAByrinth Theater Company, whose members include Philip Seymour Hoffman and Stephen Adly Guirgus. The company not only accepts but embraces playwrights who highlight their ethnic backgrounds. The company has been a boon for Katz, and he for them. Now, he feels no compunction to infuse his plays with Jewish references. “I don’t care [anymore],” he said. “I feel like you write what you want to write.”
“The Atmosphere of Memory” is currently in previews at the Bank Street Theatre, at 155 Bank St., Oct. 30 through Nov. 13. (212) 513-1080. $40 to $45. Visit www.labtheater.org for more information.