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Writer sees love, politics in the ashes

Times Staff Writer

JOHN O’Keefe calls his play that’s set in Nazi-era Germany “Times Like These,” not “Times Like Those.” His reasoning might ruffle some feathers.

“If you are moved by political elements in this play that resonate with what’s happening now, I’m open to that comparison,” says the 62-year-old San Francisco-based writer and director.

“Times Like These,” in an acclaimed staging by Padua Playwrights Productions at 2100 Square Feet, is loosely based on a true story of a famous acting couple in prewar Germany who were persecuted and threatened with deportation to a camp because the wife was Jewish.

Still, O’Keefe’s play “is not a political diatribe; it’s not something that might be done by the San Francisco Mime Troupe,” which is known for its pointedly political work. “It’s a love story.”

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On the other hand, even though the trilogy that includes “Times Like These” is set in the era surrounding World War II, it was inspired by the 2000 election of George W. Bush. “It was so shocking that the process just stopped, that everything was chaos, that we could begin to observe what forces were at work.”

The Sept. 11 attacks occurred while O’Keefe was working on the play. The day “was such a trauma,” he says, and he initially thought: “By God, let’s get them A-rabs.” But then he began to see potential parallels between current events and events in the “Times Like These” era. He felt it was conceivable that martial law could be declared to “protect” the citizenry. The phrase “homeland security” reminded him of terms used in fascist societies.

His speculations “sound like old lefty politics,” he admits, but his previous writings were not notably political; they include his monologue “Shimmer,” about his formative years in an Iowa youth detention facility.

He wants theatergoers who prefer to appreciate the play without thinking about current politics to be able to do so. “I’m not saying these times are exactly like those. I’m saying let’s frame the play in this context and see what people think.”

The play premiered at the Cinnabar Theater in Petaluma earlier this year under the title “Crystal Night” -- referring to the infamous Nazi attack on German Jews known as Kristallnacht. But O’Keefe changed the title because “people were looking at it totally as a Holocaust play, which they don’t want to see again and again.”

While here, he took advantage of L.A.'s acting pool to stage a reading of the first play in the trilogy, “Glamour,” about a wartime episode in the life of poet Robert Graves.

The final entry in the trilogy is “The Nazi and the Texan.” But don’t jump to conclusions -- the title refers to a spy who worked for both Germany and America and liked all things Western, not to anyone currently in power.

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‘Times Like These’

Where: 2100 Square Feet, 5615 San Vicente Blvd., L.A.

Info: (323) 692-2652


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