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Interview

Tim Sanford and Daniel Goldfarb

Tim Sanford: How did you become a playwright?

Daniel Goldfarb: I started writing short stories as soon as I could write, when I was seven or eight years old. I went to the school of the arts in high school, and I was a drama major. And there was a one act play festival of student written, acted, and produced plays, and I wrote a play in eleventh grade, and it got picked, and it was really a life changing moment. I knew immediately that I wasn’t an actor, that I was a writer. So I had three plays produced in a row, and I applied to NYU and came to New York to study playwriting. Then I went to grad school at Juilliard.

Who were your early influences?

Philip Roth, Woody Allen—the same influences I have now. John Irving. Oh, and John Guare. I was really influenced by Six Degrees of Separation and The House of Blue Leaves. Tony Kushner. Chris Durang. And musicals. I grew up going to see musicals. I wrote this crazy, outrageous play as an undergrad called Oedipus Jew, about
Jewish mothers that want to have sex with their sons. It’s like the most insane play I’ve ever written. It’s the play I got into Juilliard with. So when Marsha [Norman] and Chris [Durang] interviewed me, Marsha said to me, “You know, this isn’t really a play. It’s like the book of a musical, because you have a chorus of Jewish mothers and a chorus of Jewish sons, and every scene ends with a monologue, and there’s an A plot and a B plot…” And I guess growing up going to musicals, I was writing plays that were structured like them. And she accepted me into Juilliard as long as I promised that I would work on musicals. And then my first year at Juilliard I wrote Adam Baum and the Jew Movie, which in a way was a reaction to ‘night, Mother. The
plays I wrote as an undergrad were very cinematic, lots of short scenes, lots of locations. Then I read ‘night, Mother, and I wanted to do that—…

Write a two character, one set play?

No, but I wanted to be able to write like that. To tell a story in real time, while still getting a sense of the characters’ lives as a whole.

Most of your plays involve themes of Jewish identity…

Absolutely.

Probably more than in most Jewish writers of your generation. Can you think of anything that accounts for this?

It’s just something I’ve always been drawn to and fascinated by. You know my family’s not kosher, we didn’t have Shabbas dinner. We went to synagogue a couple times a year. But my parents were really involved in the temple. I went to Hebrew school and Sunday school, and I had a Bar Mitzvah, and I became a religious schoolteacher. I was always inspired by Jewish literature, Jewish art, Jewish comedy. I grew up watching Mel Brooks movies, and then as I got older I transitioned into Woody Allen and Philip Roth. And yeah, the first play I wrote at college was Oedipus Jew, and the second play I wrote was not Jewish. It was called Buried Treasure, and it took place in an ice cream parlor. And it wasn’t… good! So it’s such a cliché, to “write what you know.” But once you actually do write what you know, it’s hard to write anything else. As long as I tap into the world I come from and express what I’m confused about, what I’m angry about, what I’m inspired by within that world… Hopefully the themes in all my plays are universal. None of my plays have ever been produced at Jewish theaters per se, for solely Jewish audiences.

In New York, what’s the difference?!

Oh my God! I have to tell you. I did a reading of Adam Baum at South Coast Rep. I met Jerry Patch when I was at Sundance, and he became its first champion. So they do this reading series at South Coast before about five hundred people, then afterwards you get up on the stage and they can all talk to you, but you’re not supposed to talk back! And Jerry goes, “Does anyone have any questions? Is there
anything anyone wants to say?”

Oh God, I’m afraid.

And there was silence for a long time, and then someone goes, “They’ll love it in New York!” And then someone else said, “Write this down. You know what Gar should say when Sam calls him a Jew hater?” Because they just could not accept that Gar was anti-Semitic, they just didn’t see it, at all. “He should say, ‘Sam, I’m not a Jew hater, I’m a you hater.’”

But wait, isn’t this in the play?

It is in the play. Exactly.

The nifty thing about the play is that it sets up Gar as a champion of civil liberties and we think Sam is the self-hating Jew, too squeamish to represent his own people on film. But in the end, we have to consider him a pragmatist, operating within a system of subtle and notso-subtle anti-Semitism. And of course Gar probably leaves the office in a self-righteous huff, not getting Sam at all, really,

We did the play last summer in LA, and Hamish Linklater played Gar. And he was like Jimmy Stewart. And at the end, he was shattered, and it was heartbreaking,

Yeah. In a way it’s not even his anti-Semitism


Yeah.

You know, in a way it’s just a cultural reflection.

Right, right.

When I think about it, this kind of reversal appears throughout your work. In Adam Baum, Sam is the Jewish movie mogul reluctant to depict Jewish stories who actually is savvier than we thought. In Modern Orthodox you seem to pit a totally secular young Jewish couple against a vulgar, orthodox young Jewish man, but find much more sympathy with the latter than we would have thought, and in Sarah, Sarah, the eponymous, status-conscious mother turns out herself to have been a poor orphan. It seems tome in all of these examples, one can glean a younger generation’s suspicion of empty or simplistic convention as well as an underlying respect for the tradition that feeds it.

You know, I think the reason why Modern Orthodox has been successful
is because I really felt when I started to write the play I was going to write a play exposing the hypocrisy of the Orthodox, and then as I wrote it I fell in love with the Orthodox guy. And I think this discovery about myself happens in the play, too, and it’s what keeps the audience on their toes. They’re not ahead of it. And the play actually ends up becoming really hopeful and optimistic in a way that I don’t think
people are expecting at the top of the play.

And did that change your own relationship to Judaism?

I think in a sense it forced me to be less cynical about religion in general. Although, I’m not sure it actually affected my relationship to Judaism on a day-to-day level. The other thing about the reversal we were talking about in Adam Baum is that it’s just good playwriting, especially in comedies. You’re known for your comedies, although stylistically they’re all quite different. The Retributionists is clearly a departure for you. Knowing your previous work, I was quite surprised to find you writing about the Holocaust. Talk about its genesis. My plays have dealt with the Holocaust as just part of our history. In Adam Baum, Samuel is trying to find his family. And Dulce de Leche is about the child of a Holocaust survivor who marries a gentile and his feelings of guilt about it. It’s sort of about my generation and the Holocaust. But I never thought that I’d write a play that took place during the Holocaust. And even The Retributionists takes place just after the Holocaust. In the first draft of it, there was no scene in the forest. I went back and forth about that scene. I just felt, what could I write that would do it justice? But I think it’s a really important scene in the play, to see them in the middle of it, to see them as a trio.

And I think theatrically it’s so inspired. How they’re dressed, the feel of the surroundings, it’s such a huge contrast. And there’s an intuitive logic of starting the second act with the foundation of their cause. Jascha’s scenes in the bakery work beautifully coming out of it, especially as he’s not in it.

I had also been a little nervous that it would get in the way of the
thriller aspect of the play. But then I remembered the Paris sequence in Casablanca. They go back, and it actually adds more. So I thought I could do that too.

Let’s back up to how the play actually came to you as an idea.

The play came to me when I was hired to write this movie that never got made called Revenge: A Story of Hope for HBO. It’s based on a book about a woman who becomes obsessed after someone tries to kill her father, and she decides she’s going to get revenge. And she travels the world—to Africa, to Sicily, to Albania—to research different ideas of revenge. And one of the anecdotes in the book was this
one page account of this story I didn’t know anything about. She interviewed the Anika character who now lives on a Kibbutz and is an art therapist, and as soon as I read it I felt, “That’s a play!” I don’t quite understand how these things happen, but you find a moment just hits you. And I also knew, without trying to psychoanalyze it, that it was my way of writing about 9/11.

How’d you know that so early?

Because I knew it was a story about terrorism, where my heart was with the terrorists. And I just thought that if I could just get into their minds and get everyone behind them and with them, I could have a really provocative, interesting play.

It sounds like a subject you must have already given a lot of thought to.

Well, it is. Having been here during 9/11, it’s something that I always wanted to write about, but it’s a little like I said about writing a scene that takes place in the Holocaust – it would be hard to do it justice.

What were your thoughts about terrorism that clicked in, that you had been thinking about that?

Well I remember when ABC pulled Bill Maher off the air because he made that comment about suicide bombers. At the time, it was customary to describe suicide bombers as cowards, and Bill Maher made the comment, “I don’t think they’re cowards. We bomb people from 100 miles away. That’s cowardly. The suicide bombers aren’t cowards.” And they pulled the show off the air. And I just remember
thinking about that, and that has definitely found its way into this play. Jascha has the line talking about Dov, “Dov’s a coward. Oh he’ll poison their water from a distance but he won’t put himself on the front.”

I think I first thought of it as a 9/11 play, as I mentioned to you, towards the end of the play. I think what you were saying is true, we do start to sympathize with themand when their plans fall through we feel ambivalent. And then we feel their impotence and disappointment. You see the cost of living on hate, on a thirst for revenge. And hasn’t that been true for many Americans since 9/11?

If you go through the script there are references all through it, like “I have to follow orders,” or “did the children kill? I say yes. It’s what they learn in school, it’s how they make believe in the back yards, it’s how they play”…

The other night, a huge bell went off forme when Dov talks to Dinchka about being displaced. He has that line about the strangers living in their homes “who after years of living for free on our property actually think it’s theirs.” And it struck me how closely that echoes the Palestinians’ cause.

It’s very complicated. I do believe in Israel’s right to exist, and that speech is a reminder that there was a reason for Israel, that there really was nowhere for them to go. There were all of these refugees that were sickly and emaciated who had nothing, and no one wanted them except for the United States, basically. No one else would take them. So part of the play is a reminder that there was a time where
we needed an Israel, we needed a place after the atrocities of the Holocaust, and yet at the same time the monologue parallels what happened to the Palestinians, and I think shows the duality of the play.

Dinchka is the primary voice of this aspiration in the play.

Yes, but when she says “Palestine, that’s the best revenge of all,” I hope it’s a provocative statement and that people in the audience will have different reactions to it.

I think this ambiguity especially registers in Dinchka’s speech in the end. We used to have a round of gunfire towards the end, perhaps to remind us of the violence to come in Israel. But it seemed unnecessary.

And also confusing. But it is important to me to acknowledge the complexity of Israel, and I do not want people to think, “See, the Retributionists were wrong, and the Zionists were right.” I want us to be hopeful for her, but I want to acknowledge that she’s gone from one mess to another mess, and that’s just the reality.

Dov’s plan is so horrendous and radical, but at the same time, his speech is very compelling, persuasive even.

His argument is basically taken from this really terrific book called Hitler’s Willing Executioners by Eric Goldhagen. I think there was a certain consensus that the German people weren’t really to blame. “The Germans didn’t kill Jews, Hitler killed Jews!” Basically, the “I was just following orders” argument. But I think that’s a simplistic view.

Dov also fulminates repeatedly about the Zionists. We don’t hear the word “Zionist” much anymore except by Israel’s enemies as a codeword for the occupation. Did the Zionists have opponents like Dov?

From my research I know that theman Dov was inspired by was arrested with two cylinders of cyanide on the train, and there are rumors that it was David Ben-Gurion who betrayed him, because David Ben-Gurion understood that if the Avengers succeeded, there would be no Israel.

Were the Avengers aboveboard? If David Ben-Gurion knew about them, they must have been somewhat visible.

I don’t think they were aboveboard, but I think they traveled in similar circles. They were intellectuals that were trying to define what it
would mean to be a Jew in the Twentieth Century. In 1948 they basically put the nail in the coffin of Yiddish; they changed the definition of Jewish masculinity; they invented a language.

They invented a language?

Hebrew.

Is invented?

Modern Hebrew is invented. Yiddish was considered a language of oppression. We have a new homeland and we have a new language. And although Yiddish was this rich language that existed for hundreds of years, it’s gone.

How many books did you read in preparation for this play, by the way, besides the one you’ve mentioned?

Well I’ve read a lot about the Holocaust. I took a Holocaust literature class in college, I started reading Holocaust Literature when I was probably too young to read Holocaust Literature, I’ve always had a fascination with Holocaust literature and Holocaust stories, and when I found this story, I had never heard it. And that was almost as interesting as the story itself. I know now with Defiance and Inglorious Basterds there are all of a sudden all of these stories of Jews who
fought back, but I really hadn’t heard it before. I think one of the reasons we didn’t know the story is that Abba Kovner, who is the inspiration for Dov, later rejected the idea of the plan and basically took it to his grave. He became a folk singer and a poet and went to Israel where he became sort of like the Woody Guthrie of Israel. And he created the Diaspora museum. It was only after he died that his wife started telling the story.

But there’s not that much written about it. So the event of the poisoning of the bread was in fact reported, right?

Yes, it was reported in The New York Times, but, for a story reported in the Times, there’s very little written about it. There’s one book called The Avengers, by a man named Rich Cohen. Then I found those New York Times articles, and I found a few interviews with the woman who’s the inspiration for Anika.

I heard that someone suggested the news reports may have hidden the fact that people did die?

Well, to this day the woman the Anika character was based on feels that they succeeded. She’s in total denial that they failed. To her, they killed 3,000 S.S. Officers. Now if they really killed 3,000 people, there would be 3,000 families that would have something to say about it, so…

So you believe the reportage is correct, that no one died.

I do, yes. But it’s also a piece of history that’s sort of bad for everybody. Like it’s bad for Israel, it’s bad for the United States because someone could infiltrate Nuremburg prison, it’s bad for Germany because Germans didn’t want to prosecute Jews. So, for whatever reason, it’s a story that had its flash in the newspaper and then just disappeared. And only in the last fifteen years have people started
writing about it.

Let’s go back. After your “ah-ha” moment when you knew there was a play there, what was the process of writing it?

It took me a while to crack the play. I rewrote the first three scenes like twenty times over about a year’s time. Then once I cracked them, I wrote the first draft of the rest of the play in about ten days.

Was it the characters or the story?

It was more about how they spoke. I think when I started the play I thought it was going to be a black comedy. There was something about the premise of a guy and two girls with cylinders of cyanide killing six million Germans. It just seems so insane to me that I felt there would be comedy in the madness of it. And then I started writing it and it felt very spare and sad. And it was just hard for me, tonally.
It didn’t feel like me, it didn’t feel like my voice. And then I sort of had this revelation. I always knew that Anika seduces Jascha. That was always in the play. Then I realized, it’s the 40’s, it’s the war, and I felt like Anika on some level could be like a film noir femme fatale. It could be sort of like a European Jewish filmnoir. And I realized, “Oh my God she’s the one that betrayed Dov.” Then tonally and structurally all of the pieces came into place, that we could build to Jascha banging on the door and that he did all of this for this girl in a slip. Now, in the next draft of it, they felt old. Something I love about the story is that they’re so young, and I think it’s their youth that actually allows them to have this plan, and it’s why I’m so happy that we cast young people in this production. And that was sort of tricky, because
you’re writing Holocaust survivors that have seen all of these atrocities, but they’re also young people and they’re idealists. So it took awhile to find the right balance in the language.

So the two girls with one guy is inspired…

Oh, right. When I started doing research, I found this interesting piece of information that really helped me figure out how to write this story. In the Vilna Ghetto where Abba Kovner lived, he shared a room with these two girls. That’s all it says. And one of them was sort of pretty and soft-spoken and kind, and one of themwas sort of dark and strange and complicated, and at the end of the war he married her. And they were the three leaders of the Avengers in the forest. They
were a trio. Then after the war, he didn’t marry the pretty nice one, he married the screwed up, complicated one. And then I knew how to begin the play, like,“Oh, it’s her play.”

Let’s talk a little about Anika as femme fatale. How have you made
the choice to make Anika Dov’s betrayer rather than the Zionists work for you?

First of all, it’s just more dramatic and personal. But also, I read this New York Times Magazine article about terrorist cells in the Middle East, and I found it really interesting. History is made out of our personal interactions. The Anglican Church was created because Henry VIII wanted to get a divorce. History can be made from, “I don’t like the way you’re looking at her.” It’s not just the forces of history or idealism or politics. Our humanity is part of it too.

So why does Anika betray him? Is there a personal reason?

I think it’s part of the dynamic, the way she plays Jascha, her relationship
with Dinchka. I think in her heart she knows that Dov loves Dinchka more than he loves her. But I think the main thing is that she doesn’t believe in Plan A.

Why not?

When I was first writing the play, it was all about the structure. Act One is plan A and Act Two is Plan B. I wasn’t even thinking about their repercussions. Then I started bringing the play into my writers group. And it was interesting to see the reaction between the Jews in the writers group and the Gentiles in the group. Because the gentiles were like, “They’re insane. They’re crazy. This is a crazy plan.” And the Jews in the writers group were like, “Really? I’m into it.” You know, like, “Killing six million Germans, that sounds good to me!” Then Karen Hartman said, “You know, I think Plan A is crazy, but I think Plan B is great. I’m with Plan B.” And so I realized, as I rewrote the play, I could give each of them a different point of view. And I felt like there was something really strong and intelligent and pragmatic about Plan B, and I felt like that would be Anika’s plan.

You’ve spoken tome about how the filmnoir went very far at one point and then you kind of pulled it back a little bit. Can you talk about that process a little bit?

Before rehearsal started I focused mainly on tightening. Then in the rehearsal room, we worked on the truth of the characters and telling their story. In some ways we let the design elements take care of the style. So we still see Anika in a slip and a trench coat, and we still see Jascha standing under a lamp with a cigarette, and we have those film noir images…

One of my favorite images is Dov’s hat silhouetted in the train window.

But we also learned that you can’t play the language too naturalistically or it can come off as a little wooden, and if we just acknowledge that it is a little wooden, I think it might actually help.

I don’t like that word, “wooden,” in conjunction with the 40s. You’re right that the language can be a little formalistic. It has a certain syntactical complexity you have to embrace. If you think of the movies of the 30’s and 40’s, like Casablanca, or the plays, like Awake and Sing, they use language to dance around their subject. Deep emotions have to stay submerged and revealed only though this dance.

That’s exactly right.

But they still come out. And we’ve really worked in this process of identifying these moments and really maximizing their truth.

That’s right and I think Leigh [Silverman] and I went on the right path with it. There are moments in the play that just kill me, like when Adam Driver right at the top of his first scene says, “Don’t you see Dinchka, we made it, we survived. To see you in a tailored dress and me in a suit,” and his eyes well up, and it’s just this quiet, simple moment. And I love that he’s playing it for real.

Yeah, and I love that moment where Jascha says, “Have you found anyone?” and she says, “No, you?” And you see how they can’t even touch the devastation there.

But I also love when she grabs Jascha and starts making out with him. It can also be fun, or fun in the way a thriller is fun. And it should deliver the way a thriller delivers.

I always thought the sexuality in the play was as much a function of
their age as the style. Isn’t their behavior right out of the 21-and under handbook?

Absolutely.

And when they were living in the forest, they were living from moment
to moment, kill or be killed, “living like animals,” as they say. All bets were off morally.

That’s exactly right.

You said before that it’s their youth that allows them to have that
plan. And that’s one thing I always loved about your play. Idealism and impulsivity and violence and the id are all tangled up in the young. It’s no surprise that terrorists and soldiers are usually young. But then the war is over and they re-enter civilization and we see
forces exerting on them to play by the rules. I always loved that you put Notre Dame cathedral right outside Anika’s window. Yes it’s a reminder of the dominant religion that persecuted them, but it’s also a symbol of moral authority and just beauty.

Totally.

And pleasure. The pleasure of a woman’s neck and the pleasures of
taste…

The macaroons.

To me, the end of the first scene was when I said, “Oh I’ve got to do
this play.” This simple, exquisite, particular explosion of flavor just seemed to stand in for all the life that had been taken from them and that they were determined to take back. How did that occur to you?

I swapped apartments with someone who lives in Paris for two weeks once, and I had this tiny little studio apartment off the Place des Vosges, and I found Ladurée, which is where Proust wrote Remembrance of Things Past. I had one of their macaroons, and it was the most delicious thing I’d ever eaten. And from my two weeks in Paris I wanted to write a play that took place in Paris. And so when
I found out she was living in a hotel in Paris, I knew I had my chance.

Dinchka seems the first one to hear the call to return to normality as
she tries to talk Dov out of Plan A. But in the end her love for him overrules her. He says, “I want to get you pregnant on this train heading into Germany,” and she succumbs, and assumedly would have gone through with Plan A had Anika not betrayed him.

That’s true. And Dinchka has that speech in act two when she says, “I almost wish we could go back to the forest where it was normal to love you both.” “The war ended and I woke up, and there were rules that we had broken.” And she’s not just talking about bombing the train tracks, she’s talking about the trio.

And what becomes of Jascha?

Part of me wants to be hopeful that he gets away. That on some level he’s not going to be devoured by Anika. That he’ll disappear and have a quiet life.

You know, we see the cost of retribution on Dov and Anika; they’ve
lived for revenge and now that their plans are dead they have nothing. Dinchka plans to start over in Palestine, but we know that’s no easy row to hoe. But ironically, Jascha is the one who has a real burden to carry. He’s the one who wanted revenge by getting on with his life, by falling in love and running away with Anika. And he’s the one who actually carried out a plan. And I love the change you made, to have Ute come back inside and take a poisoned loaf for her family. Before, you had Jascha struggle to remember which loaves he had poisoned and then choose a safe one for her. This way, the new version, is much cleaner and much more personal and devastating for
Jascha. And even though she presumably survives, we can see what it costs him.

I know. It was the simplest change, but it really brought out the notion of consequences, which we hear about all through the play.

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