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British playwright makes use of his Judaism

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LONDON, Sept. 6 (JTA) — The bedraggled man on the park bench reaches into his pocket and pulls out a white piece of cloth.

He blows his nose into it, contemplates it, and then puts it on his head. It is a yarmulka.

Welcome to “Howard Katz,” the latest play by one of London’s hottest playwrights.

Patrick Marber, 36, shot to fame in 1995 with his first play, “Dealer’s Choice,” which he wrote and directed for Britain’s National Theatre.

He cemented his status two years later with “Closer,” which grabbed fistfuls of awards in London and New York, where it was named best foreign play of 1999.

His new play might at first seem to be a departure for Marber. While “Dealer’s Choice” concerned a circle of small-time gamblers and “Closer” looked at four lovers, Katz is the tale of a middle-aged show-business agent facing a midlife crisis that threatens to become an end-of-life crisis.

And, as the opening moment of the play makes clear, Howard is a Jew with a very complicated relationship to his religion and to God.

But Marber told JTA that “Howard Katz” is not as big a change from his previous work as it might appear.

For starters, he said, the main characters of his two previous plays have been Jewish, too.

Stephen, the restaurant owner and disappointed father who presides over the gambling session in “Dealer’s Choice,” is a Jew, as is the main character in “Closer,” Daniel Woolf.

“But those elements are not important to those plays — Howard’s Judaism is important,” Marber said. ‘Throughout the play, he’s looking to find out who he truly is, so he uses his Judaism at certain points to ground him and to root him.”

The play charts Howard’s disintegration over the course of about a year and a half, as he goes from successful London showbusiness agent and family man to tramp on a park bench.

“Every scene in the play is a branch he tries to cling onto as he falls through the trees,” the playwright said.

One of the most telling moments, for a Jewish audience, comes when Howard’s brother Bernie, who has inherited the family barber shop, tells Howard he is firing their father’s old employee Norman, who is a foreigner.

“We’re Jews, Bern. We’re Jews, we’re . . . Yids. So we’re not racists. So we’re not gonna live in hatred. And we believe in the family. And we believe in justice,” Howard says.

But Bernie deflates him immediately.

“Don’t come in here like Topol,” the actor who played Tevye the milkman in “Fiddler on the Roof,” Bernie says. “Piss off.”

In a sense, it’s a modern take on the medieval mystery play “Everyman,” in which the protagonist sees all his worldly achievements disappear as he prepares to face death — but with its rapid-fire dialogue and focus on masculine identity, this is “Everyman” as written by David Mamet.

Marber listed Mamet among the playwrights whose work intrigues him.

“It’s a strange thing that the playwrights I’m most influenced by all happen to be Jewish — Arthur Miller, Mamet, Harold Pinter, Tom Stoppard,” he said.

In the past year, Marber has worked on a number of plays by Jewish playwrights, directing a highly acclaimed production of Pinter’s “The Caretaker,” acting in Mamet’s “Speed-the-Plow” and directing Mamet’s “The Old Neighborhood.”

“That was an important production for me. I enjoyed working with the Jewishness of ‘The Old Neighborhood,’ ” Marber said.

Although he was surrounded by Jewish plays and playwrights at the time he was writing “Howard Katz,” he does not say that one led to the other, saying only “a play emerged from the gloom” as he was working on other projects.

“I also felt that modern English Jewry was territory that hadn’t really been explored onstage,” he said.

Judaism, he said, “was something I got for free, and I decided to use it.”

That said, Marber was “greatly surprised” that “Howard Katz” turned out to be, “on some level, a religious play.”

Howard struggles with a God in whom he may or may not believe throughout the play, until, at the end, “he’s at peace in his relationship with God — not certain that he believes, but respectful if he does,” Marber said.

The play has received mixed reviews in London, but Marber said he thinks it will go over better in the United States.

“English audiences get it, but an American Jewish audience gets it much more viscerally,” he said, drawing on the experience of watching American theater tourists who have seen the play at London’s National Theatre.

American Jews are much more self-confident than English Jews, he said, one of the reasons that overtly Jewish characters are much more prevalent in the United States.

“There are many less of us,” he pointed out. “We don’t have a town. The Jews of America have a whole town, and that really helps,” he said with a laugh, referring to New York.

Discussions to bring “Howard Katz” to the United States are in the very early stages.

“It’s quite hard to put it on Broadway without having had great reviews here,” Marber acknowledged, “but I think Broadway’s the place for it.”

A Hebrew production, however, looks likely as early as next spring.

The Cameri theater in Tel Aviv is interested in doing “Howard Katz,” Marber said. It would be the second of his plays to make the leap to Israel. “Closer” was a big hit at Habimah, Israel’s national theater, he said.

Marber has never been to Israel, despite plans to go see “Closer.”

“Every time I nearly went, there was some bomb or some explosion and I thought, No, I’m not going to go.’ I was put off by the violence,” he said. “I pray it doesn’t keep me away from ‘Howard Katz.’ “

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