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Having Faith in the Play

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Who is David Schulner and why is Craig Lucas, one of America’s highly regarded contemporary playwrights, proclaiming the 25-year-old as an heir to Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams and August Wilson?

Theatergoers can find out tonight when Schulner’s play “Isaac” gets a staged reading at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa--with Lucas in an unaccustomed role as director.

Best known for “Blue Window,” “Prelude to a Kiss” and the screenplay of “Longtime Companion,” Lucas has been shepherding “Isaac” through a series of readings and workshops in prominent venues.

Last year it was performed at the Sundance theater lab in Utah and read at Lincoln Center. After SCR, it is bound for another reading at the Public Theatre in New York as Lucas tries to drum up producers’ interest in a full-run staging.

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Lucas, 48, is a busy man, with six works in progress: a play, two musicals, a screenplay--and twins. The gay playwright is an expectant dad--the biological father of infants due this summer. He, his partner and a friend who is the mother will share the parenting.

The nervousness and excitement of a first-time father came through over the phone as Lucas spoke last week from his home in upstate New York. Yet he has no jitters about Schulner and his play, which radically reworks the biblical story of Abraham’s unquestioning willingness to slaughter his son, Isaac, as a holy sacrifice.

“A lot of playwriting now is dismayingly like prime-time television. The characters are glibly clever, the circumstances are sometimes serious but usually treated in a bromidic fashion. They tell us how to feel in the end,” Lucas said.

“David wrote a play without any of that. It’s about profoundly important issues, and it doesn’t apologize for that. . . . I thought it was an incredible thing for a 25-year-old to have taken the Bible and re-imagined it in light of the Holocaust.”

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The author of “Isaac” is an avowed theater junkie who has written four full-length plays and, other than stagings at small theaters in Minneapolis, where he lives, and Dallas, where he went to college, has never had one produced.

Over the phone from his home last week, Schulner was the antithesis of the young literary lion swelling with pride and expectations. He was pleasantly ingratiating, never boastful, and prone to self-questioning about some of the paths not taken in his life.

He earns his living as a waiter in an Italian restaurant and feels this is no time to act like a big shot in the making. When asked about the pressure of the buildup he is getting in the theater world, he says he reminds himself that it’s all gravy, so to speak, compared to his waiter gig.

Not that moving in high theatrical circles at such a young age is without its scary moments. “I don’t feel too much pressure anymore,” he said. “I’m trying to balance my naivete and excitement and overzealousness with a sense of caution and reserve and confidence.”

Interpreting Isaac’s story

Schulner grew up in Miami, where his family sent him to special schools for the arts starting with grade schools. He was a senior drama major at Southern Methodist University in Dallas when Lucas--at Schulner’s behest--was invited to speak and teach at a campus literary festival.

Schulner picked up Lucas at the airport, chauffeured him through his visit, and took part in a playwriting workshop Lucas gave.

Lucas immediately was taken with the one-act comedy his guide submitted.

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“You can tell a real writer. There’s so few of them,” Lucas said.

Soon, Lucas and Schulner were co-writing a play, “Savage Light,” commissioned by the Humana Festival in Louisville, Ky. Other than musicals and a screenplay, Lucas had never collaborated before. The producers in Louisville deemed “Savage Light” too sexually explicit to stage, Schulner said--his first big disappointment.

The second came when he couldn’t find a producer for his first full-length solo flight, “Disturbed by the Wind,” a play about the Wright brothers.

Schulner, who says he reads a play a day on average, nursed his wounds by reading even more than usual. He also binges periodically on the New York City theater scene. As for “Disturbed by the Wind,” he is trying to resuscitate it as a musical, with Elizabeth Swados as the composer.

“Isaac” had its genesis about three years ago when Schulner wrote a 10-minute play around what became the opening scene: Isaac speaking affectionately to the prize lamb he plans to sacrifice to show that he shares his father’s zealous faith in God.

He had grown up with the story, hearing it read every year in his synagogue on Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year.

“I remember it confusing me, making me angry. The story was always used to teach faith, and I always got the exact opposite: ‘If this is what a religion is, I don’t want to have anything to do with it.’ ”

At 20, during a backpacking trip in Europe, Schulner visited the Marc Chagall Museum in Nice, France. The first thing he saw was a series of watercolors telling the story of Abraham and Isaac.

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“He painted Abraham looking back over his shoulder at his son with trembling eyes, fear and confusion and all these contradictions that aren’t in the Bible. It’s then I found a way that I could dramatize it.”

Schulner said that with “Isaac,” he has found his voice as a playwright.

“Living here in Minneapolis [where he moved four years ago to join college friends who had established a small theater] I really became aware that I was perceived very differently. There’s a lot of anti-Semitism, a lot of ignorance, things I wasn’t aware of before.”

One day about a year ago, Schulner said, he had lunch with his now ex-girlfriend and her mother, and the mother used a derogatory phrase stereotyping Jews as cheapskates. At work the same night, he heard other restaurant employees ridiculing Jewish customers.

“I remember going down to the [staff locker room] and just dissolving into tears. I didn’t know how to respond. The fact I didn’t respond to each incident--I kept it inside because I didn’t know what to do with it. It was a really hard experience.”

So, apparently, is “Isaac” for religious believers when they hear its dramatization of a family being destroyed by an attribute--supreme faith--that is often exalted as the greatest human quality. The playwright raises the stakes by bringing a story that dates back 4,000 years into the shadow of the Holocaust.

“The children of Abraham will perish,” an infuriated Isaac rails at his father after having a vision of the future of the Jews--the nation God promised would spring from Abraham in return for his faith. “And those who remain, those who survive, will be the children of Isaac. Confused and angry and ambivalent and torn apart.”

“At Sundance the play just ripped people apart,” Lucas said. “They sat there crying. I knew I liked the writing, but I was utterly amazed.

“Several really devout Orthodox Jews there were profoundly infuriated at us, and other [more liberal] Jews there had real deep reservations because the play questions God,” said Lucas, who was raised an Episcopalian and now describes himself as a nonbeliever.

“But as the play points out, ‘Israel’ means [in Hebrew] ‘to wrestle with God.’ The play is in a long tradition of questioning God, wrestling with the Torah.”

Indeed, Schulner said that before writing “Isaac,” he spent four months delving into commentaries on the story, including Midrash--the Jewish tradition of folk tales, usually told by rabbis and scholars, that wrestle with and seek to make sense of the often cryptic narratives in the Bible. There, he found precedents for interpretations and transformations of the episode that were as radical as his.

“Reading the Midrash was a wonderful support for me,” he said. “It was completely liberating and gave me the confidence to go forward.”

Schulner cherishes Lucas’s help and has no qualms about being labeled his protege. Still, this story that wrestles with the Bible apparently has engendered some creative wrestling between playwright and director.

“He’s his own man, very stubborn,” said Lucas, who dismisses the notion of Schulner as his protege.

Lucas said that to drive home the contemporary impact of “Isaac,” he would like to frame the play as a story being told by Jews caught up in the Holocaust. So far, he said, Schulner has demurred.

Undergoing Rewrites

Playwright and director are concerned that it not be pigeonhole as a Bible story or a Jewish drama.

“I was very worried early on that I’d written a ‘Jewish play,’ and it would be marginalized,” Schulner said.

He has asked audiences at readings--including one at a Baptist church in Dallas--whether they thought it had broader reach, and has been encouraged by the responses. As Schulner notes, there are Abrahams everywhere: parents who sacrifice their children to obey such modern gods as money, career, pleasure and prestige.

Schulner, who plans to move to Los Angeles in April, continues to rewrite the play, especially the ending. He credits Lucas with insisting that the clash of faith and family not be easily tipped in Isaac’s favor.

“He has a wonderful sense of battle, which is essential. To completely take Isaac’s side and renounce faith, it wouldn’t do the play justice. My first impulse, as a young man, was to [have Isaac say], ‘How could you do this to me? We’re finished!’ But as I began to inhabit each character more fully I could see it wasn’t as cut and dried.”

* “Isaac,” by David Schulner, will be read tonight as part of the NewSCRipts series at South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. 7:30 p.m. $8. (714) 708-5555.


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