"I don't know any families that are symmetrical," says playwright Susan Sandler. "My family's pretty nuts. I've been digging into mine, and that's really the heritage I have."
Part of that heritage comes to the surface in Sandler's "Crossing Delancey," her hit play (and later a film) about what she calls her "romance" with her grandmother, her Bubbie. "The play is a valentine to my Bubbie."
It's also something of a valentine from North Hollywood's Actors Alley Repertory Theatre to the University of Judaism. The AART staging is the second production in a new relationship between the theater and the university, the first being Ira Levin's "Cantorial" earlier this year. Both productions, following a short run at the school's Gindi Auditorium under a full Equity contract, transfer to AART's North Hollywood facility for extended runs under the union's 99-seat plan.
Although the play is autobiographical, Sandler says she has learned to "let go" of its many productions around the country. She's too busy these days, anyway. She's currently working on a screenplay for Bette Midler.
"I've written four screenplays," she says, "and they've all been bought and are in various stages of the ugly word 'development.' I'm learning my Hollywood lessons."
Sandler hasn't given up on theater, though, and is also working on a new play called "The Gypsy Doctor."
All of her stories, particularly "Delancey," are affirmative statements about the human condition.
"I'm not interested in telling stories that don't celebrate life in some way. It's more comfortable for me to live with characters I have some affection for, that I can make part of my consciousness. I'm a pretty happy person."
Sandler was raised in Newport News, Va., but used to spend her summers with her grandmother on New York's Lower East Side. "I didn't think New York existed above 14th Street," she admits. When she moved to Manhattan as what she calls "an artiste," she would often cross Delancey Street to visit her Bubbie.
"It seemed to be the only place where I seemed whole, when I was sitting on the benches with her and her cronies. Everybody was 60-plus. My life was in flux at that time, but when I crossed Delancey everything got very true."
Sandler began to focus in on her relationship with her grandmother, on the matchmaker who tried to interest her in a young kosher butcher (he later became the play's Pickle Man) and the values that her Bubbie tried to pass on to a younger generation.
Those are values Sandler has held on to. They are also important to the director of this production, Jacqueline Kronberg.
"I'm just tired of plays that are full of anger," Kronberg says, "and this one's full of love. The play has Jewish content, but it's universal. It's about things that are changing so much in our society, what we really value. It's about love, and family, things I'm really concerned about. I'm old enough to remember when those were the important values in our society, and they don't seem to be now."
Sandler, who smiles when she recalls her struggling years as, among other things, a store detective and a "failed cocktail waitress," is comfortable with success. "I think," she says, "that success has to do with what you enjoy doing." She's sounding more like her Bubbie every day.
"Crossing Delancey"; Gindi Auditorium, University of Judaism, 15600 Mulholland Drive, Los Angeles; 8:30 p.m. Saturday, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Sunday, 8 p.m. May 11-13; $15-$20; (213) 476-9777 Ext. 280.
Reopens May 22 at Actors Alley Repertory Theatre, 12135 Riverside Drive, North Hollywood; 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. May 31, June 7, 14 and 28, Ends July 11; $15; (818) 508-4200.