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To Be Perfectly Blunt

Kristin Hohenadel writes on arts and culture

Jason Sherman answers the phone with a self-conscious smirk in his voice. Talking to a reporter on this Saturday afternoon from his home in Toronto, he’s silly right from the start.

Is this the cerebral, sharp-witted, emotionally charged playwright of “Three in the Back, Two in the Head,” the political thriller based on the true story of a mad-scientist-turned-weapons-dealer? Or the writer of “Patience,” a modern take on the Job parable? In between intelligent banter about his work, Sherman says “duh” and wanders off into distracted giggles.

As writer-in-residence at Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre for the last seven years, the prolific 36-year-old playwright has won numerous playwriting awards and has begun to see his work produced across Canada. This week, Los Angeles will for the first time have a chance to see one of his plays, when his 1994 “Three in the Back, Two in the Head” opens Friday at West Coast Ensemble. And if all goes well, next fall, 1998’s “Patience” will open at the Coronet Theatre before heading to off-Broadway.

Sherman was first noticed in 1991 for his “The League of Nathans,” a play about how Jews see Israel. He says he began questioning his Jewish identity at the time of his bar mitzvah, which he says felt more like a coming-out party than a religious experience. “I certainly never felt any rapture--if I can borrow terminology from another religion. All I felt was nervous and embarrassed, because I had to share the stage with this girl with a golden voice,” he says, slipping into a reverie. “Which was the Brady brother who--you know that episode--when they were cutting this record and his voice was breaking?”

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Like many people who take themselves seriously, Sherman tries to appear as if he does not; he likes to say that all his pop culture references are from television. But by the end of the conversation, he’s cited as much Shakespeare as TV.

When he began to read about Israel in his late teens, he said, “Wow, wait a second here. This isn’t about little David who overcame Goliath. This isn’t about the noble Jews who overcame those horrible Arabs. The Jews were the bad guys. But we were never the bad guys--so what’s wit dat?

“On the one hand I really dig being a Jew, you know, Woody Allen--you don’t get much better than that. But on the other hand, Ariel Sharon. So where do I fit in all this? You look at the facts, but if there’s no emotional connection to the characters, then you just tune out.”

The characters in many of Sherman’s plays find themselves looking at the world trying to understand the larger picture through relationships between people.

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Sherman has spent the last decade expressing his ideas through theater, but he has harbored Hollywood dreams. “I grew up as a TV child and I always thought I could write for TV,” he says. “I just didn’t have the confidence to present myself as a TV or a film writer.” But recently Coronet Theatre producer Joe Cacaci, who also works in TV, offered him a writing job on the pilot for a Showtime/Viacom series based in Toronto called “The Hardwood,” about a fictional basketball team.

“I read a lot of stuff that’s about nothing,” says Cacaci, who learned of Sherman when he first read a script of “Three in the Back.” “Jason has a powerful voice, and he’s used to telling it like it is. When you come out of one of his plays, you know you’ve been somewhere, you’ve been kicked in the stomach a few times, but you laughed too, so you don’t mind.”

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Is Sherman interested in basketball? “I am now,” he shoots back. “Instead of ‘Upstairs, Downstairs,’ it’s on court, off court. It’s gonna be a chance to follow the characters backstage, as it were. That’s something I write about a lot. What intrigues me about seeing people’s media presentation and what they’re really like is that you get to see the hypocrisy, how people have to present themselves in order to. . . .” He interrupts himself. ". . . Kind of like what I’m doing in this interview,” he continues with a laugh.

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At West Coast Ensemble on a recent evening, an actor stumbled as he tried on the playwright’s voice, while Sherman was at home in Canada. In that dramatic avalanche of words known as the monologue, the actor tripped across Sherman’s carefully carved rhythms like a first-time lover. There were substituted words, punctuation where there should have been no breath. It was going to take a while to get it down.

In the script, there are no stage directions; the signposts are italicized words and cliches highlighted with quotation marks.

“Any other writer would have more stage direction,” says director Claudia Jaffe during a rehearsal break. “He gives you nothing, because he trusts his words.”

“His work can be daunting on the page,” says Urjo Kareda, artistic director of the Tarragon Theatre, where the play premiered. “Even hearing Jason talk is a help in hearing him on the page.” Jaffe promises a “letter-perfect” interpretation of the script. “I have made it clear to the actors that not one ‘a’ [or] ‘the’ is to be messed around with,” Jaffe says.

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“Three in the Back” was commissioned by Richard Rose, who runs the Toronto-based Necessary Angel Theatre Company. Sherman spent a year researching the life of Canadian weapons scientist Gerald Bull. To avoid making it “sound like a movie-of-the-week treatment,” Sherman used Sophocles’ play “Ajax” as an archetypal model. To free himself from the creative shackles of real events, he changed the character’s name from Bull to Jackson. “If it’s a fight between the facts and the dramatic needs of the play, the facts always lose,” Sherman says.

Sherman spent three years writing the play and another two years revising it in acting workshops. “It’s a hard piece, let’s not fool anybody,” he says. “You really have to want to follow it, and anyone who doesn’t want to be alert for 80 minutes really oughtn’t go. It requires a lot on the part of the audience--it requires listening.”

Working in an office at the Tarragon with walls that do not quite reach the ceiling, Sherman is used to tuning out the background noise. Because he is the seventh of eight brothers, he says, there is a reason his characters never finish their sentences.

He attributes his love of theater to his late father, an amateur actor. Sherman began writing plays in high school. After earning a degree in creative writing from Toronto’s York University in 1985, he got a few grants to write plays, but used the money to eat instead, while reviewing books, founding a literary magazine and doing arts broadcasts for Canadian Broadcasting Corp. radio.

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Five years later, he took a job at the small but prestigious Coach House Press, but that lasted just one day. “A friend pointed out to me that five years had gone by and I hadn’t written a stick of dialogue,” he says. “I realized I’d better get back to it or I wasn’t going to do it at all.”

A few weeks later, a college friend called and asked to produce one of Sherman’s school plays. A month later, Sherman had rewritten the first scene. When it was mounted a year later, it caught the attention of the local theater community. “It was certainly a name you knew because he was everywhere,” Kareda says. “There’s a field of energy around him; he’s very smart, ambitious and extremely likable.”

Kareda says he was drawn to Sherman’s work because of “the energy of the language; it really spun off the page, created its own world extremely fast. He has an uncanny ear for how people speak the truth and hide it. And a terrific sense of humor.”

Ten years later, Sherman can write a first draft in two weeks. “I am able to write very quickly. Then I rewrite furiously. I much prefer to write a draft, than, say, an outline, because a draft gives me a better sense of the story and the voice of the characters.”

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He’s also learned the benefits of collaboration. “I get up very early, then write for the morning, then bring in material in the afternoon and get to hear it. You start writing to the strength of the actors to make the play as clear as possible without compromising too much. You start to use the director as more of a resource than [just] someone’s who’s blocking what you’ve written. It took me a couple of productions to figure out how that works.”

He cites Chekhov, the Marx Brothers and the “Bugs Bunny/Roadrunner Show” as his influences. In the early days, he was often compared to David Mamet, a fact that now makes him groan. “When I was starting to write, I needed a teacher. I was stupid enough to pick someone who everybody knows.”

“He was very David Mamet-ish at the beginning,” Kareda agrees. “He’s a much more complex writer now, more commanding and emotionally grounded.

“He’s matured as a man and a father,” Kareda says of Sherman, who is married and has a 7-year-old son. “The personal growth has fed into the work.”

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As soon as he finishes work on “Hardwood,” Sherman says he will get back to theater. He begins rehearsals in December of “Patience” at the 800-seat Canada Stage Company theater in Toronto, his biggest venue yet. And he will begin work on a new adaptation of “Galileo” for a Calgary theater.

In addition to being considered one of the leading voices of his generation in Canadian theater, Sherman is also a political satirist on CBC radio. “I think he’s seen as accomplished but difficult,” Kareda says. “He never cared for who he offended and then was always genuinely surprised that they were. He’s not great on public occasions--he gets incredibly nervous. I always pray if he wins an award that he’s not available to accept it, because he just ends up confirming people’s worst suspicions and fears about him.”

His agent has been circulating a press release that quotes a recent article in Time magazine branding him “the bad boy of Toronto theater.”

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“I’m not,” he says. “I’ve gotten into a few spats with critics up here, which is never a wise move. I don’t throw raw liver at the audience. I just write my little plays and upset some people.”

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“THREE IN THE BACK, TWO IN THE HEAD,” West Coast Ensemble, 522 N. La Brea Ave. Dates: Opens Friday. Regular schedule: Fridays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m. Ends May 23. Prices: $20; opening, $25. Phone: (323) 525-0022.


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