New theater brings old spirit to MoCo

Shari Davidson, left, and Elenilson Ayala rehearse a scene from “The Melting Pot.” The
production is the first for the Jewish Community Theater of Montgomery County. Photo by Dan Schere

The tension is building in David Fialkoff’s North Potomac living room.

“Your dreams are mad. The Jew is hated here and everywhere. You are false to your race!” says Shari Davidson.

“I keep faith in America. I have faith America will keep faith in us!” Elenilson Ayala answers, as he puts his hand on his heart.

“Spare me the rigmarole,” Davidson says. “Go out and marry your gentile and be happy.”

The drama unfolding was a rehearsal of “The Melting Pot,” Israel Zangwill’s 1908 melodrama about Jewish immigration and assimilation. Davidson, Ayala and six others will perform the four-act play this weekend at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville. The production is the first for the Jewish Community Theater of Montgomery County, a new nonprofit that Fialkoff created. His goal is to revive the spirit of the long-dead Washington Jewish Theater, which in the 1980s mounted productions of Jewish-themed plays in Montgomery County.

Fialkoff, 55, is a gregarious veteran of community theater, having acted in productions in Montgomery County since the 1980s. He performs in shows mounted by the Temple Beth Ami Players, which is co-producing “The Melting Pot” with his new group.

The revival of a theater group in Montgomery County that performs Jewish shows exclusively has been a dream of Fialkoff’s since Washington Jewish Theatre closed in the early 1990s. Now an empty nester, Fialkoff decided it was time to tackle the project.

“It was in the back of my mind,” he says. And 30 years later, I was like, ‘Yeah, why don’t I go and do that.’”

Although Temple Beth Ami, Congregation B’nai Tzedek and Congregation Har Shalom in Potomac each has an in-house community theater group, Fialkoff says they frequently produce mainstream plays that do not have Jewish themes, because there are more roles for children.

“Beth Ami has turned toward doing big musicals like ‘Mary Poppins’ and ‘Guys and Dolls,’” he says. “It’s not really Jewish theater.”

Despite Fialkoff’s background in acting, he says he prefers directing. During last week’s rehearsal, Fialkoff calmly directs the actors, often laughing in the process.

“You look like you enjoyed that a little too much,” he jokes to Elizabeth Weiss, who plays Vera, as her character gave a kiss to Ayala’s during one scene.

“With community theater, these people aren’t getting paid. They’ve worked an eight-hour day. They come in here tired. I’m not going to yell at them. I like to laugh rather than have tension,” Fialkoff says.

Fialkoff chose “The Melting Pot,” after his wife bought a copy of the script at a used book sale. The play struck a chord with him because it explores immigration at the turn of the 20th century and anti-Semitism that Jews faced — topics that he thinks remain relevant in the 21st century.

The play opened in Washington on Oct. 5, 1908, with President Theodore Roosevelt in attendance. The play’s title helped coin the phrase “melting pot” as the process immigrants undergo to lose their old ways and emerge as Americans.

In the play, David Quixano (played by Ayala), a Russian Jewish immigrant whose parents were killed in the 1903 Kishinev pogrom, argues with his aunt Malka (Davidson) over his wish to marry Vera, the daughter of Russian Christian nobles.

“The things that some of the bigoted characters in the play say about the Jewish immigrants… they’re stealing our jobs, they’re criminals … who does that sound like?” he says, referring to President Donald Trump.

Fialkoff held auditions May. Ten people showed up. Nine were cast, including Ayala, a student at Washington’s National Conservatory of Dramatic Arts, who immigrated here from El Salvador as a child. Having an immigrant play an immigrant helps bring authenticity to the production, Fialkoff says.

“I’m hoping to get a message across to the audience that this happened 100 years ago, but it’s still happening today.”
Ayala says playing the part of David Quixano was natural, because he was able to draw on his own experience.

“At the age of 9, I really didn’t understand the concept of moving to a new land,” he says. “You see the parents talking at the adult table, but you don’t see the struggles they’re going through in a new land. As a kid you just see opportunities.”

Weiss, who also co-runs Congregation B’nai Tzedek’s theater group, [email protected], says she is pleased that Jewish Community Theater of Montgomery County has produced a show with contemporary themes.

“There are a lot of Jews in this area, and it gives us the chance to do shows that are relevant to what is happening politically in our own lives and the opportunity to teach the next generation.

Sunk by ‘David’
Before Theater J was founded in 1990 by the Edlavitch DC Jewish Community Center, Washington Jewish Theatre was the area’s main Jewish theater company. It was part of what is today the Bender Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington. Washington Jewish Theatre was for profit, operating under an actors’ equity contract and employing actors from across the region, according to Laurie Wessely, who was the company’s artistic director.

In February 1990, the company planned to perform an original musical called “David,” about the biblical king. A trio of young Jewish playwrights from New York had given Washington Jewish Theatre rights to the script.

During rehearsals, the cast and crew had been communicating with the playwrights about the overall direction of the show, Wessely says. But when it came time for the dress rehearsal, there was a problem. The playwrights wanted an up-tempo, Broadway-style show with an elaborate set and costumes. Wessely had produced the show as a simpler, more intimate chamber piece.

“Their dream was to have it be the next ‘Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,’” says Wessely, now an adjunct humanities instructor at Northern Virginia Community College.

After viewing the dress rehearsal, the playwrights demanded changes. Wessely, then 29, would have none of it.

“I wasn’t laid back and easygoing. I felt an injustice had been done,” she says. “It was a very tricky situation, and I was not happy about the demands they were making.”

Angered, the playwrights revoked the rights to the script, canceling the show.

A dream fulfilled
Later that night, according to The Washington Post, cast members gathered at the nearby Mexican restaurant El Torito to plot their revenge. The next day, the playwrights found that a billboard for the show had been delivered to their hotel room, smeared with blood and dirt.

“The playwrights asked me to turn over the headshots of the cast members to the police, which I refused to do,” Wessely recalls.
Wessely says the cast instead decided to perform “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” which isn’t a Jewish play but fit with their costumes and set. A different cast and director performed “David” under the auspices of the Washington Jewish Theatre in accordance with the playwrights’ demands.

Fialkoff ended up in the alternate cast of “David.” He calls the dispute between the show’s original cast and the playwrights was a “fiasco.”

Fialkoff attributes Washington Jewish Theatre’s demise to the “David” debacle. But Wessely says the real trouble started soon after. The JCC began budgeting less money for the theater, raising tensions with JCC Executive Director Lester Kaplan.

As it turned out, Kaplan was stealing from the JCC. He pleaded guilty to embezzlement charges three years later, according to The Washington Post. Washington Jewish Theatre folded in 1992, Wessely says, shortly after its production of “Cabaret.”
Wessely says she has mellowed since those days. But she wishes things had ended on a better note.

“I still get upset about it sometimes,” she says. “That was my dream job.”

Fialkoff says he does not know when or what his next show will be, but he hopes to put on one or two each year. If he does, there is one show he will produce for sure.

“Jewish Community Theater of Montgomery County must do ‘Fiddler on the Roof,’” he says. “It’s a requirement.”

“The Melting Pot,” Saturday, Aug. 11, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, Aug. 12, at 1 p.m. at Temple Beth Ami, 14330 Travilah Road, Rockville; tickets $5-$15; information and reservations: [email protected]

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