Backstage: For director Serge Seiden, new production involved a crash course in religion


“The Heir Apparent” just ended a successful run on Broadway after getting its start in Washington. (Richard Termine)
May 13

Director Serge Seiden can talk about the Pentateuch now when he attends his family’s Shabbat dinners, and he has the Christian writer C.S. Lewis to thank for it.

Seiden is the producing director at Studio Theatre, but at the moment he’s guest-directing “Freud’s Last Session,” which will begin previews Wednesday at Theater J. The play stars Rick Foucheux as Sigmund Freud, a Jewish atheist, and Todd Scofield as Lewis in an 85-minute imagined debate about faith and reason. It may sound like a show that would attract a fan of either the famous psychoanalyst or “The Chronicles of Narnia,” but Seiden said he accepted the gig not knowing much beyond Aslan the lion and that line about cigars.

“You kind of have to feel like you’re the expert when you take over the play,” Seiden said this week, sitting in a chair borrowed from Theater J Artistic Director Ari Roth. “If you are doing a play with a lot of ideas, and you haven’t really studied those ideas, you have to spend time getting ready, and it occurred to me that I didn’t know enough about Christianity or Judaism to work on the play.

“I had a bar mitzvah, but I grew up in Maine. There was one rabbi who would travel around to the different communities on High Holy Days. You know, it was ‘Have Torah, will travel.’ ”

When he was 12, Seiden received a tape from his grandfather’s cantor. “I just memorized the entire thing, having rarely set foot in a synagogue.” After a weekend trip to a temple in the Bronx, he had little contact with organized Judaism until his sister married into an Orthodox family. And that’s where Lewis and Freud come in.

To prepare for the play, Seiden tried reading both the Hebrew and Christian bibles. “I couldn’t make heads or tails of it,” he said. “The images were beautiful, and the stories seemed compelling, but I knew I was missing too much.”

So he registered for two online classes offered by Yale University: “Introduction to the Old Testament” and “Introduction to the New Testament History and Literature.”

“They were wonderful, and I’ve learned more than in all my years before. Now I can go to my sister’s house, and for the first time I can carry on a conversation about the Hebrew Bible. I can talk about Deuteronomy.”

Which is not to say he’s a convert, but he’s become more sympathetic to religion. “It would be nice to believe, but that’s something I’ve never been able to do,” Seiden said. “It’s like I’ve been having the same conversation with myself that the characters are having in the play. I’m asking myself, ‘Why not?’ ”

New York success, via D.C.

Given the relatively lackluster track record of plays that have left Washington for Broadway recently, it’s worth pointing out that the Shakespeare Theatre Company birthed an off-Broadway hit this spring. David Ives’s adaptation of “The Heir Apparent,” an 18th-century French comedy by Jean-François Regnard, closed Sunday at Classic Stage after an extended run. The Shakespeare-commissioned work from the “Venus in Fur” playwright was well received when it premiered in Washington in 2011. Ives then sent the script to Classic Stage.

Executive Director Greg Reiner is still a little surprised by how warmly the show was welcomed by critics and audiences in New York.

“You just never know, but we knew we all loved it,” Reiner said. “People in the room were laughing out loud at our very first reading.”

Actor Carson Elrod reprised his role as a scheming valet, although the rest of the cast was new. The show ran for 45 performances and drew nearly 8,000 patrons. Ian McKellen, Susan Sarandon and Stephen Sondheim were among the celebrities who came to the Union Square theater to see it, lured in part by a gushing New York Times review.

“This boisterous, bawdy and endlessly funny production, written entirely in rhymed verse and directed with meticulous abandon by John Rando, should put a spring in the step of even those of us beginning to dodder and wilt under the annual end-of-season theater blitz. It is indeed excessively good,” critic Charles Isherwood wrote.

For the 2014-2015 season, Shakespeare Theatre has commissioned another adaptation of a French classic from Ives: a new translation of Alexis Piron’s “The Metromaniacs,” which will run in repertory with Molière’s “Tartuffe.”

‘Why don’t we just ask?’

This month, Round House Theatre quietly posted casting for its spring 2015 production of Anton Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya.” Then one actor’s kid made a big deal out of it.

“After half a century away from acting, my mom’s playing Vanya’s mom in Annie Baker’s adaptation. Crazy, gutsy move,” tweeted Jason Zinoman, a New York Times culture writer and son of former longtime Studio Theatre artistic director Joy Zinoman.

Ryan Rilette, producing artistic director at Round House, said the casting coup began when he had a casual conversation with John Vreeke, who will direct the play. Mitchell Hébert had signed on to play Vanya, and given that Hébert is slightly older than the 47 years Chekhov calls for, Vreeke and Rilette realized that they would need a mature actress to play Vanya’s mother, and they started thinking about who in D.C. would qualify.

“We were just making a big list,” Rilette said. “We said, ‘We need somebody like Joy Zinoman.’ And then we said: ‘Why don’t we just ask her if she’s interested? She’s a Chekhov expert; why would we try to find someone just like her when we could get her?’ ”

They also cast former Round House director Jerry Whiddon to play the professor, and Rilette nominated himself to play Astrov in what will be his first appearance onstage in a decade. That means there will be three current or former artistic directors acting in this “Uncle Vanya” — which has been translated by Baker, the 2014 Pulitzer Prize winner for drama.

Ritzel is a freelance writer.

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