Volume 17, Number 40 | February 25 - March 3, 2005


Manhattan Theatre Source
177 MacDougal Street
(212) 868-4444
Thru March 12

Photo by Carol Rosegg

A scene from “The Workshop” playing at Manhattan Theatre Source on MacDougal St. Pictured l to r are: Carla Matero, Kristen Cerelli, Jill Van Note, Emily Gunyou, and Anna Guttormsgaard.

‘That others should know’

Israeli-born/bred director tackles French play

By Jerry Tallmer

They survived, the people in this workroom.

“I don’t want to have anything to do with the dead, the dead are dead, right?” says Leon, the boss of the workroom, here in this atelier in post-Holocaust Paris, “and ours are a thousand times more dead than any others because there’s nothing left of them.”

Nothing more than smoke, than ashes. Or soap.

It’s almost an aside, a throwaway. “On the shelves where the German housewives keep their stock of brown soap, that’s where he is, that’s where you have to look for him,” Leon caustically says of one of the six million dead, the never-coming-back husband of one of the seamstresses in that workshop, good-looking, melancholy, ever-hopeful Simone.

The play is in fact called, in English, “The Workshop,” in French, “L’Atelier,” and it was written in 1978 by Jean-Claude Grumberg, who himself – son of a Romanian immigrant who went up in smoke at Auschwitz or elsewhere – was once an apprentice tailor in several such garment-making workshops in postwar Paris.

Moni Yakim, Israeli-born-and-bred director of the production of “The Workroom” that’s at the Manhattan Theatre Source, 177 MacDougal Street, through March 12, knows about the thousands-times-more-dead because there’s nothing left of them.

“My wife’s family,” he said one day last week – his wife is actress Mina Yakim – “… her father, Aron Felsenstein, who had left Warsaw because of the anti-Semitism, went back in 1932 to try to convince his brothers to leave. They laughed at him. And so they were all exterminated, four brothers, one sister, wives, children, parent, grandchildren, everybody. My wife’s father – he arrived in Israel as a stonemason and ended up a pediatrician – was so angry that he refused to ask for reparations or anything.”

Another key line in “The Workroom” – indeed, the key line, is temperamental, hard-driving Leon’s reply to the barb: “Certainly with you, the less one knows the better one gets along” that has been thrown at him by another woman in the workshop.

“Those who ought to know,” says Leon (actor Kevin Orton), “will never know, and we, we already know too much … much too much.”

Says director Yakim: “Basically, that line is what attracted me to the play – that others should know.” He’s now working on an adaptation for the stage of an excellent 1984 German film about the Wansee Conference in which Adolf Eichmann and other top Nazis decided on the Final Solution.

Jean-Claude Grumberg also wrote the screenplays of Costa-Gavras’s “Amen” and, with Francois Truffaut, of Truffault’s “The Last Metro.” Yakim gave a whistle. “ ‘The Last Metro!’ I didn’t know that. I’m impressed.”

He has, however, known Grumberg from “way, way years ago. “Back in the ’70s I was interested in his play ‘Dreyfus.’ A terrific play. I went to Paris and told him what I wanted to do with it, and he got extremely upset. The week before he had sold the rights to Garson Kanin.”

Kanin directed it on Broadway in 1974 as ‘Dreyfus in Rehearsal,” with Ruth Gordon (Mrs. Kanin) in the lead as doyen of a touring Polish troupe of comedians and ham actors. It ran for three previews and 12 performances.

Four years ago, Moni Yakim was again in Paris, looking for a piece to put in the hands of his students at the Circle-in-the-Square theater school.

“So I re-read ‘Dreyfus’ – the English-language rights to which are controlled by the Kanin-Gordon estate – “and in the back of the book I came upon ‘L’Atelier.’ I fell in love with it, and it also had lots of parts for women – a real ensemble drama. I brought it back to New York and did it at the Circle-in-the-Square school.”

His students there had banded together to form an Unbound Theatre company which opened with Dylan Thomas’s “Under Milkwood,” which moved out to Off-Broadway’s Mint Theater, thanks to funding by Margarita and Len Gochman.

And now, “The Workroom,” in an American version by Daniel A, Stein and Sara O’Connor. (There are a number of parallels between this material and the 2002 French film “Un monde presque paisible,” released in the United States as “Almost Peaceful.” There are also some considerable differences.)

Yakim said he had talked with Grumberg only two or three weeks ago. “We needed to do some cuts, and I wanted to tell him. When this play was done in Paris, he himself played Leon. Now, on the phone, he said: ‘Do you have good people? I played Leon, you know. He shouldn’t be too old, you know.’ There was a pause. Then Grumberg added: ‘But he shouldn’t be too young either.’ ”

This is far from Yakim’s first experience in downtown New York theater. Indeed, he directed the famous Village Gate run of “Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris,” having stepped into the job after 19 other directors – “including the last of them, my good friend Boris Tumarin” – had turned it down.

“Nobody could figure out how to handle a show with 26 songs. But I knew how to do it. I’d had my own little company, Lehakat Rein, which means Band of Pals, back in Israel, before the Army, during the Army, and after the Army, until I went to France.

It was – who else? – Stella Adler who saw him perform in Paris and brought him here.

“She was going to turn me into a star. First I had to study with her, and to survive I started teaching. With four other people I started the Juilliard Drama School under John Houseman,” subsequently moving on to the Yale Drama School and then back to Juillliard, where he still is. He’s also the author of a much-used text: “Creating a Character: A Physical Approach to Acting” (Applause Books).

He and his wife Mina are the parents of Boaz Yakin (the original spelling of the name), director of “Fresh” and other movies; and of ErezYakim, a painter whose works include a novel-in-pictures, ‘The Silent City.’

Moni and Mina Yakim used to perform together as mimes, including a hitch at the now defunct St. Mark’s Playhouse.

“Downtown?” says Yakim. “I’ve worked at the Village Gate, the Provincetown Playhouse, the Bitter End, the Astor Place, everywhere. And now here.”

The actors are Kristen Cerelli, Max Damashek, Charles E. Gerber, Rick Gifford, John Grimball, Emily Gunyou, Anne Guttormsgaard, Jody Hogarty, Carla Matero, Jill Van Note, and Kevin Gordon. They have their hands full, and not just with fabric.

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