Arts Beat

Just Her Cup of Tea: Life on Both Sides of the Pond

By Rachel Beckman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 20, 2008

American-born, English-bred writer Alison Larkin didn't know much about her birth parents as a child. The British family that adopted her in Washington did tell her that her mother gave her up so as not to ruin her father's career and marriage, but that was about it.

Her first hunch?

"Well, obviously I was a Kennedy," Larkin says.

At 28, Larkin met her birth mother not in Cape Cod, Mass., but at her home in Bald Mountain, Tenn. She feared her adoptive parents would feel hurt by this new relationship, especially after she moved to the United States permanently. Larkin has turned her story into a novel called "The English American."

Like Larkin, the novel's heroine, Pippa Dunn, becomes a performer in New York City, letting loose all of the exuberance and creativity that her prim adoptive family in England stifled. Despite such similarities, Larkin promises that "The English American" is a work of fiction.

"I felt a memoir would be so restricting and not nearly as much fun," she says.

Larkin, a classically trained actress, learned to mine her life story for material when she worked as a stand-up comic in New York. Her act evolved into a one-woman show also called "The English American," which premiered in 2000. She lives in New Jersey with her husband and two young children and maintains another career performing cartoon voices.

Publisher Simon & Schuster says Hollywood is already scoping out "The English American" for its film potential; Larkin says she already has two offers. For the main role of Pippa, she envisions Drew Barrymore or Emily Blunt, the cranky co-worker from "The Devil Wears Prada."

Much of the humor in "The English American" -- the book and the play -- comes from Larkin's cultural observations about the United States and the United Kingdom. Pippa cringes whenever an American says "I love you" or wants to talk about his or her feelings. And don't get her started on the way her birth mother brews tea.

"She sticks three coffee mugs half full of water in the microwave for thirty seconds. Then she dunks the same Lipton tea bag in all three mugs until a nasty brown swirl appears. . . . If you are English, you will know how I feel about this."

Pippa revels in yellow mustard on pretzels and riding in an SUV. She wonders, "Why does everything have to be the 'best' in America? Why can't it just be good enough?"

The culture clash between Larkin's birth parents and adoptive parents is apparent in how they are marketing "The English American."

Her adoptive parents are "forgetting" copies of the novel in hotel rooms and slipping the book jacket over whatever they read in public. Her birth mother is stopping people in the grocery store to show them blurbs about her daughter's book in Shape, Vogue and Redbook magazines, then telling them to buy it right away.

* * *

Meet Lior Liebling. He is a Philadelphia teen with Down syndrome and the subject of the documentary film "Praying With Lior," which opens March 28. Lior is the son of two rabbis and he loves to pray, sing and worship, so much so that people around him wonder if he is a "spiritual genius." The film follows Lior and his family as they prepare for his bar mitzvah.

"If there is a God, Lior is definitely closer to God than anyone else I know," says his older brother, Yoni, in the film.

"Praying With Lior" is the first film for 36-year-old Rockville native Ilana Trachtman, who produces children's television programs. Trachtman met Lior while she was in synagogue celebrating the Jewish new year. She was drawn to a joyful (and off-key) singing voice behind her.

"I turned around and I was surprised I was looking at a kid, and a kid with Down syndrome," she says. "Someone told me, 'Oh, that kid's going to be having his bar mitzvah.' I thought it would make a great movie."

Lior's family agreed to participate in the documentary and she filmed the Lieblings' lives for about six months in 2004. In a scene at Lior's private Jewish school, he tries to inspire his bored-looking classmates during prayer by roaming the aisles, clapping and singing. Trachtman weaves in footage of Lior's mother, Rabbi Devorah Bartnoff, who died of breast cancer in 1997.

The film played in December at the Washington Jewish Film Festival.

Alison Larkin will read from "The English American" tonight at 7 at Olsson's in Penn Quarter, 418 Seventh St. NW. Free. 202-638-7610.

Praying With Lior starts March 28 at the Avalon Theatre, 5612 Connecticut Ave. NW. $7-$9.75. 202-966-6000.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company