Potok, The Playwright


In between writing novels, Chaim Potok turned to writing plays, some based on his fiction, and one, altogether original, “Out of the Depths.” That play, inspired by the life and work of writer, ethnographer and activist S. Ansky, will have its New York premiere as a staged reading on Sunday, Feb. 3, 2 p.m., at the Center for Jewish History (cjh.org).

The production, with eight actors playing the 25 characters, along with a violinist, is presented in celebration of the publication of “The Collected Plays of Chaim Potok,” edited and with an introduction by the late writer’s daughter, Rena Potok. All of the plays are published here for the first time.

“Out of the Depths” was developed by Potok in collaboration with Novel Stages Theater Company in Philadelphia and was directed by David Bassuk in the spring of 1990. Bassuk, who directs the New York production, tells The Jewish Week that in going back to the play almost 30 years later, he’s struck by Potok’s “smart sense of humor that is there throughout the play.”

Bassuk, professor of theater and former dean of theater arts and film at SUNY-Purchase, first met Potok during the short-lived production of the musical “The Chosen” — based on Potok’s most well-known book, which has sold several millions of copies internationally — at the Second Avenue Theater here. Bassuk was assistant to the director, John Hirsch. When Hirsch was later teaching a seminar at Yale on S. Ansky’s “The Dybbuk,” he invited Potok to speak about the Yiddish writer and the play, and in that session, Bassuk saw glimpses of a potential new play — and he and Potok then collaborated.

“Out of the Depths” is a play within a play, that opens in 1920 Warsaw, just after Ansky’s death, as the legendary Vilna Troupe is rehearsing “The Dybbuk” soon before its imminent opening. A journalist named Chernin remembers his lifelong friend Ansky, and within these reminiscences Ansky remembers his own life.

Ansky, born in Russia, spent years doing ethnographic studies throughout Eastern Europe, collecting stories. He left traditional Jewish life in his teens, later to return on his own terms. It’s not difficult to see parallels between the lives of Ansky and Potok, who also moved between Orthodox and modern worlds. In fact, Bassuk says that in the first draft of the play, the character of Chernin was an American Jewish novelist talking about Ansky.

Potok, who died in 2002, wrote in his notes, “The play is a journey through layers of memory and narrative. … There are no lines or hard edges of memory.”

Rena Potok writes in her introduction that her father spoke of what he called core-to-core cultural confrontations as the “invisible scaffolding” of his novels and plays. A writer and poet who teaches at Villanova University outside Philadelphia, she recovered the script to this play by reconciling a not-final draft with a video of the Novel Stages production, going over it word by word to pick up any changes. She is now working on a novel.

Bassuk says, “I think it was C.S. Lewis who said, ‘The longest way around is the shortest way home.’ That’s what this play is about — after all of Ansky’s journeys away, he’s on his way back to his own people for his own life. A lot of us go through that.”

“Chaim took his home with him. He took his love of his people on the journey into the secular world. That’s his great gift. He understood that living in a secular, modern world and still having a cultural and religious identity is not a contradiction.”

Tickets can be purchased here