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FRIEDMAN TAKES SOME LIBERTY WITH ‘ELLIS ISLAND’

The Statue of Liberty is hot .

She’s the subject of a multimillion-dollar face lift, a network brouhaha, a coming national celebration--and locally a pair of timely new plays, JoAnne Akalaitis’ exuberant “Green Card” (at the Mark Taper) and, opening Saturday at the Colony Playhouse, Alan Foster Friedman’s “A Day Out of Time--Ellis Island, 1906.”

“A lot has been done about people coming to this country and settling here,” Friedman said. “Mine isn’t about that. It’s about the people who’ve uprooted themselves, come thousands of miles, and they’ve got one more mile to go--across the bay to New York. (Although most immigrants were admitted, 2%, about 350,000 people, were sent back.)

“The play takes place on that crucial day of these people’s lives. They’ve been separated from the main group and sent to special inquiry (for evaluation of medical or mental illness, criminal or ‘anarchist’ status). It’s an all-day process. They cannot leave the room. It’s hot, tense, a real pressure cooker. Everyone’s ready to fly at everyone else. ‘What will happen? Who will be the one who goes back?’ Some families will be split; some will choose to remain together and all go back.”

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Mirroring the mainly European immigrants of the time, Friedman’s cast offers a spectrum of nationalities: Armenian, Russian-Jewish, Italian, Greek, Hungarian. “You see, our government was trying something that had never done before: opening its gates to literally everyone. They were extremely liberal. Eighteen million came in over a 10-to-12-year period, a huge number that changed this country--as it is being changed by those who are coming in today.”

Friedman (whose credits include “The Last Danceman” and “A King in Ruins”) believes the reaction to those new arrivals is a constant. “If you go back, everyone is an immigrant. Parents, grandparents, great-grandparents--we all came from somewhere else. And everybody hates somebody. So we put down our roots and tend to resist the next (wave of settlers): ‘We’re here--no more.’ ”

His interest in the subject was piqued 12 years ago, while awaiting a late-night airing of “The Prisoner.” Instead, the station ran a documentary on immigrants. “After about three minutes, I said, ‘This would make a great play.’ ”

Before long, he and composer Craig Carnelia had begun work on “The Newcomers,” hoping to tie in a premiere with the Bicentennial. But then the troubles began. The musical was optioned by Dore Schary but artistic differences ensued. The collaborators had a falling out. Sheldon Harnick suggested the author scrap the musical idea and do it as a straight play. It was two years before Friedman was able to attempt that, “but in three weeks I rewrote the play, brought the cast down to 13 (from 32), took it to the New Federal (in New York)--and they said yes.”

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“I’m glad I changed it,” he said. “It’s a lot richer now.” He hopes that that richness will touch some emotional chords in the audience. “Some older people will remember when they came in, others will remember stories their parents or grandparents told them--and they can link up with that.”

Of his own connection to the work, he said: “It didn’t start out that way, but when I started hearing my own family stories, some of that crept in. Like the business of names, what happened to my (maternal) grandparents. Their name was Rizhie; it was changed to Rosen. My grandfather kept saying, ‘I’m not Mr. Rosen, I’m Mr. Rizhie.’ And they’d say, ‘Well, you’re Mr. Rosen now.’ So there are characters that relate to my grandfather, though obviously it’s not him on the stage.”

As for historical accuracy, “Well, you research. I hate to research. But I did a great deal, and when I was ready to write, I threw it all out--because facts aren’t theater. Facts aren’t interesting.

“I also studied photographs. I’d see a picture of someone and say, ‘I’d like to put that character on the stage, create a life for him.’ . . . Most of the time, my ideas for plays start with something like that: a line of dialogue, a story, a newspaper. And plays have come out of my life, my background. I’m not trying to do (stories about) me, my mother or father. But there are pieces of me, of my relationships (in the work). The advantage a writer has is that you can put your life on paper and take it anywhere you want to go.” Right now it has taken him to New York.

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“I live in a rent-controlled apartment (over a period of 18 years his rent has increased $40.05), which is right next door to the Actors Studio. One block away is off-Broadway theater row, three blocks away is a Broadway theater. So everything is close--but far . You know that last mile the immigrants are trying to get? It’s a lot like the 3 1/2 blocks to Broadway.”


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