Forgetting Death

Moni Yakim finally brings “ The Workshop” to New York stage

B

y 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 postwar 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.

“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 husband who will never come back to good-looking, melancholy, ever-hopeful seamstress Simone.

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

Moni Yakim, the Israeli-born-and-bred director of the production of “The Workroom” at the Manhattan Theatre Source also knows about the very-dead at first-hand.

“My wife’s family,” he said one day last week. His wife is actress and acting teacher 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, parents, grandchildren, everybody. My wife’s father, who had arrived in Israel as a stonemason and ended up a pediatrician, was so angry that he refused to ask for reparations or anything.”

“With you, the less one knows the better one gets along,” one of the other seamstresses snaps at the moody, hard-driving head of the workroom. Leon’s response: “Those who ought to know will never know, and we, we already know too much… much too much.”

Said director Yakim: “Basically, that line is what attracted me to the play––that others should know.”

Yakim is now working on an adaptation for the stage of a top-flight 1984 German film about the Wansee Conference in which Adolf Eichmann and other top Nazis decided on the Final Solution.

Jean-Claude Grumberg’s credits include the screenplays of Costa-Gavras’s “Amen” and, with Francois Truffaut, the screenplay 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 [about the court-martial and Devil’s Island imprisonment of Captain Alfred Dreyfus]. I went to Paris and told Grumberg what I wanted to do with it [in New York], and he got extremely upset, because 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, Kanin’s wife, in the lead as a 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 school.”

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

So now we have “The Workroom,” in an American version by Daniel A. Stein and Sara O’Connor.

There are a number of parallels between this play and the 2002 French film “Un monde presque paisible,” released in the United States last year as “Almost Peaceful.” There are also some considerable differences. The film does not credit the play.

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 ‘L’Atelier’ 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.’ Then, after a pause: ‘But he shouldn’t be too young either.’ ”

This is far from Yakim’s first experience in downtown New York theater. He directed the famous 1968 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. The show had 1,800 performances.

“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 something like ‘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,” with Yakim subsequently moving on to the Yale drama school and then back to Juilliard, where he still is. He’s also the author of “Creating a Character: A Physical Approach to Acting” (Applause Books).

He and his wife Mina are the parents of Boaz Yakin (with an “n,” the original spelling of the name), who has directed “Fresh” and other movies; and of Erez Yakin, 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?” said Yakim. “I’ve worked at the Village Gate, the Provincetown Playhouse, the Bitter End, the Astor Place, all over, everywhere. And now here.”

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

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