Local actress Sara Dabney Tisdale is accustomed to auditioning and sitting around waiting for a callback. But what’s so unusual about the call she got from Studio Theatre last week is that it came nine months after she saw the casting notice for “Bad Jews” and nearly two months after the show opened. Yet there was director Serge Seiden on the phone, officially offering her the part of Melody, the sweet-but-superficial shiksa girlfriend in Studio’s runaway hit. Now Tisdale is hastily preparing to take over the role.
The theater has just extended Joshua Harmon’s comedy for a third time; the show will run through Feb. 1. But even without the latest extension, “Bad Jews” has rung up enough ticket sales to become Studio’s highest-grossing show ever, surpassing Neil LaBute’s “Fat Pig” and the musicals “Caroline, or Change” and “Grey Gardens.” Not bad at all for a comedy about squabbling college-age Jewish cousins written by a playwright in graduate school. And not a bad gig at all for Tisdale, who begins performances Tuesday.
“There’s no denying that it is kind of weird and surreal for everybody,” said Tisdale, sitting in the empty Mead Theatre after running lines with assistant director Nathan Norcross. “It is hard, because you can see a performance and really admire it, and then you have to actually believe that you can bring something to it.”
Tisdale is wrapping up a run of “The T Party” at Forum Theatre and is holding down a temp job at the National Endowment for the Arts. All three employers have been supportive, she said, of this game of musical theaters. Maggie Erwin, who originated the role of Melody, is moving on to “Rapture, Blister, Burn” at Round House Theatre, but not before mentoring Tisdale. Like a sorority sister, Erwin has imparted such wisdom as how to politely demur (when yelled at onstage), curl her blond hair and generally act like every Jewish family’s nightmare of a WASP girlfriend.
Okay, maybe characterizing these bitterly divided New Yorkers as “every Jewish family” isn’t fair, but the popularity of “Bad Jews” (the third-most-produced non-Shakespeare play in the country this season) speaks to the resonance of its central theme: What does it mean to be a young Jewish American as the last of the Holocaust survivors pass on?
When “Bad Jews” opens, the Feygenbaum family has just buried its patriarch, and black sheep Liam (Alex Mandell) shows up late to sit shiva (he and Melody have been out West skiing). Uber-Jew Daphna immediately pounces on Melody, who doesn’t understand why being a Dutch Irish girl from Delaware is such a big deal. The dramatic arc of the play includes screaming fits, a proposal and Melody’s impromptu performance of “Summertime.”
“So much of this play is about the timing and speed and banter,” Tisdale said. “I actually view my primary role as making sure the other actors feel safe and comfortable. Once I do that, then I can start trying to find my own Melody voice.”
While Tisdale is making her “Bad Jews” debut downstairs at Studio Theatre, a coalition of local playwrights will be upstairs in the Milton Theatre, putting on a show of its own to try to sort through a complex issue. “Out of Silence: Abortion Stories From the 1 in 3 Campaign” is a series of vignettes adapted from 400 testimonies collected by Advocates for Youth, a national organization that lobbies for progressive policies and programs related to sexual health. Jacqueline E. Lawton, a former D.C.-based dramaturge now on the faculty of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, spearheaded the effort.
“What these plays really bring home are the personal interactions of women who have chosen to have an abortion,” Lawton said. “No one goes through it alone.”
The female characters in these sketches, written by 10 playwrights including Allyson Currin, Nicole Jost and Karen Zacarias, all have partners, best friends, sisters, roommates and even, in one case, an accountant, helping them decide whether to bring a child into the world. None of the characters have regrets, Lawton said, but abortion is presented as a choice that can be excruciatingly difficult and one that Advocates for Youth says one-third of American women will make.
“Out of Silence” was first presented informally last summer at an Advocates for Youth retreat. On Jan. 7, the organization rented out a theater space at New York’s Primary Stages to present the plays for potential donors and the media. Tuesday’s showing at Studio also is a rental, but it is open to the public. Limited tickets remain, Lawton said, and organizers are hoping to announce plans soon for a national tour of college campuses.
“Out of Silence” isn’t the only D.C. theater event with ties to New York. In fact, it has been a busy first two weeks of January for what could be called the Backstage Acela Bulletin. Here’s a quick overview of headlines:
●“If/Then,” the musical that brought Broadway superstar Idina Menzel to Washington for a month in 2013, will close March 22 at the Richard Rodgers Theatre on Broadway. Menzel had announced plans to leave the show for a world tour (she’ll be at Jiffy Lube Live on July 18), but on Friday, producers announced they would close the show instead of replacing Menzel. The New York Times reported that producers would “partially recoup [their] $10 million capitalization.”
●The name of D.C. native Helen Hayes will no longer be in lights on Broadway every night. The noncommercial theater Second Stage has announced that it is buying the West 44th Street venue named for the actress and will sell rights to the 102-year-old theater. The looming name change comes just four years after Washington’s theater awards association dropped the name Helen Hayes in favor of TheatreWashington, and seven years after the organization now known as TheatreWashington asked a coalition of high schools in Upstate New York, where Hayes lived until her death in 1993, to stop calling its awards show “The Helens.”
●Set designer Timothy R. Mackabee, a Baltimore native who created the sets for the Broadway revival of “The Elephant Man” with Bradley Cooper, will soon be heading to London. Cooper announced on “The Tonight Show” that the play would be moving to the West End, and a 12-week London run was confirmed a few days later.
Ritzel is a freelance writer.