Gordon Edelstein: The Actor’s Director
(Published in City Arts, December, 2014)
Gordon Edelstein likes to kibitz. He’s just arrived at a Ninth Avenue restaurant from a preview of My Name is Asher Lev, a play he’s directing, and he spots an old friend, an aging actor, hobbling with a cane. “Now I know I’m in a classy establishment!” he calls to him and orders a drink. A few minutes later, his glass empty, Edelstein signals the waiter, his dimpled smile wide. “Hey, you forgot to bring my drink.” Oops, the waiter grins, skittering off to fetch a refill.
Edelstein is charming and intense, sensitive and opinionated. These traits, along with his passion for getting a story just right and his love of actors, have made him one of the most successful directors of his generation. At 58, he is starting his eleventh season as artistic director of the venerable Long Wharf Theater in New Haven, Connecticut. He’s brought several plays to New York, most recently The Glass Menagerie starring Judith Ivey and Athol Fugard’s The Road to Mecca with Rosemary Harris. Edelstein likes to point out there are more people in the U.S. Senate than earn their living as he does.
My Name is Asher Lev, which is based on a beloved Chaim Potok novel, had a well-attended run at the Long Wharf last year. Edelstein was attracted to the characters’ passionate devotion to their beliefs and their love for each other. Every commercial play presented to New York’s discerning audiences and critics is a gamble and Asher Lev, with its $900,000 budget, is no exception. Some of the backers are close personal friends and Edelstein badly wants it to succeed.
Rehearsals begin on a Monday morning in October. Gordon admits he’s nervous as the cast, crew, playwright Aaron Posner and producers assemble in a crowded rehearsal room on West 49th Street. Edelstein summarizes the play: it is the story of a Hasidic boy from Brooklyn who struggles in vain to reconcile his passion for painting with his community’s traditions. It’s a clash, Gordon comments, familiar to many in the theater. Then it is time for a table read, not a performance, he cautions, but “a peek through a keyhole to see us work.” By reading the play aloud for the first time, the actors begin the intimate, painstaking process of bringing Asher Lev to life in time for opening night, just five weeks away.
Two of the actors, Ari Brand, who portrays Asher Lev, and Mark Nelson, sporting a beard to play his father and other characters, were in the original Long Wharf production. Jenny Bacon, in the role of Asher’s mother, is new. As the only non- Jew at the table, she is concerned about pronouncing Yiddish words. Edelstein assures her that while there are certainly many wrong ways, there are many correct ones too, as people from different villages often disagree.
As the actors read, Gordon runs his fingers through his wavy grey-flecked hair, his knee bouncing under the table. He exchanges a few pleased glances with Posner, but mostly he takes notes, lots of notes. When the actors finish, Edelstein jumps up, his shirttail afloat over his baggy jeans, and gives Jenny a reassuring hug. He declares himself pleased but there will be only two weeks of rehearsal instead of the usual four before previews begin, so while the others go out for lunch, Edelstein pulls out a noodle salad he’s brought from home, and reviews his notes with Posner. With the tact of someone who has spent his entire professional life in the collaborative enterprise that is theater, he frames his requests with “I’m not sure I’m right but…” and “nothing is urgent…” but there are some cuts he’d like to make to the narration, the portions of the play in which Asher Lev addresses the audience. In another scene — “a moment I adore” — Gordon wonders if another sentence is needed to make the point clearer. Posner accepts some of Edelstein’s suggestions instantly and promises to mull over the others. Drama is action, Edelstein says, and everything that does not move the story forward, everything that is not indispensible, must go.
When the actors return, Gordon asks them if there any script changes they are wrestling with. It is their turn to barter with Posner for an extra word here, one less there. “Provincetown” gets changed to “Cape Cod,” “ands” and “buts” are added and subtracted. A line from an earlier version of the script has been dropped and Nelson asks Posner to restore it. Edelstein is supportive. “You have to own it in order to perform it.” Nelson, who has known Gordon for thirty years, tells me that not all directors are as open to actors’ suggestions. “Gordon is his own species… his ego doesn’t prevent him from allowing actors to be artists.”
Judith Ivey told me that Edelstein has a reputation as an “actor’s director,” someone who understands all the struggles an actor goes through to create a role. “He’s a collaborator, not a puppeteer.” Edelstein says he lets actors explore their roles without judging them and then shapes what they do. As a director, his palette includes a myriad details: exactly where the actors will stand and how they’ll move across the stage, what props they will pick up and what they’ll do with them, how lines will be delivered, lighting and sound design. How he applies those colors will make Asher Lev a critical success or failure.
As Asher Lev’s teacher tells him, the pursuit of art can eat your whole life. Gordon Edelstein came by his love of theater as a child, from his parents, a pawnbroker and a housewife who adored theatre and often brought him into Manhattan to see shows. His first one was a musical, Carnival, Jerry Orbach’s 1961 Broadway debut and what he remembers best is a big wink from one of the chorus aimed at his eager seven-year-old face in a box seat. Gordon started directing at summer camp and in high school but when it came time to go to college, he majored in history and religious studies. Not sure what to do after graduation, he went off to Europe for a year where he found work with Jerzy Grotowski, the experimental Polish theater director. By the time he returned, Edelstein knew that he wanted nothing more than a career as a director. So he spent a decade waiting tables at the Algonquin and Michael’s Pub and working office temp jobs to support himself while he directed plays at hole-in-the-wall theaters for little or no money.
In 1987, the Berkshire Theater hired Edelstein as its associate artistic director. Four years later, he landed the same job at the Long Wharf, one of the best- established regional theaters in the country. But when the theater fell on hard times seven years later, it eliminated Gordon’s position. He stayed on as a freelance director, earning a lot less money and losing his place on the management team. Gordon felt “like a musician that didn’t have an instrument to play. It was eating away at me.”
In 1997, Seattle’s ACT theater offered Edelstein the position he had been working towards all his life: artistic director. It was his first chance to do what he always wanted, not just direct plays but also run a theater, program a season, make a home for artists, and develop a relationship with an audience. The playhouse had just moved to a new building in the center of the city and the board offered Edelstein carte blanche. There were several spaces to be programmed so he could indulge his eclectic tastes, from musicals to classics, from conventional to avant garde. But the decision to move so far away was agonizing. By this time, Gordon and his wife Joan, an ob-gyn, had two young children and she could not leave her practice. Gordon would have to go to Seattle alone and commute back to his upper west side home as often as he could.
Gordon arrived in Seattle bursting with energy and enthusiasm. He was inspired by New York’s Public Theater to make ACT an exciting theatrical hub. He directed Death of a Salesman, produced Vagina Monologues before it came to New York, commissioned an opera by Philip Glass and a musical by Randy Newman and premiered The Syringa Tree. Alan Arkin and Julie Harris came to star. It was the most exhilarating and productive time of his life but after four and a half years, Gordon missed his family too much. He had to get home. By a stroke of luck, the Long Wharf was looking for a new artistic director. They welcomed Edelstein back.
Although Asher Lev rehearsals run 6 days a week, Edelstein is still responsible for the non-profit theater’s $6 million-a-year budget and its ongoing capital campaign. His iPhone is never far from his hand. Edelstein is lobbying to bring to New York another Long Wharf play, Satchmo at the Waldorf. Edelstein’s black eyes shine like a proud father’s when he talks about it. Satchmo, written by Louis Armstrong biographer and theater critic Terry Teachout, takes place backstage at one of Armstrong’s final concerts, with the brilliant actor John Douglas Thompson shifting seamlessly between three roles: an ailing, 70-year-old Armstrong, Joe Glaser, his lifelong Jewish manager who bequeathed him almost nothing, and Miles Davis, who denounced him as an Uncle Tom for his ingratiating mannerisms with white audiences.
Teachout told me that Edelstein’s Uncle Vanya was “one of the most beautiful pieces of theater” he’d ever seen, so he was pleased when he offered to direct Satchmo. His first suggestion: drop the intermission and combine the two acts into one. As Teachout reworked the script, he realized Edelstein was right. After that, he accepted a lot Edelstein’s suggestions, including adding Miles Davis, Armstrong’s detractor, as a character. Thompson called that a stroke of genius. Collectively, the three men crafted a taut, 90-minute jewel. “I stood back and surveyed the garden,” Edelstein said, “I pulled out the weeds.”
After two weeks in the rehearsal space, Edelstein and the Asher Lev cast move to the upstairs stage at Westside Arts Theatre. They are on the set and in costume for the first time, now joined in “tech” rehearsals by the lighting, costume and sound designers.
On a Sunday morning, Edelstein huddles with the actors, advising one who has brought too much feeling to one of the scenes, “Just live the lines. Trust the words. Don’t try to wring emotion out of them.” He’s also concerned about a scene in which Asher tells his mother he hates the world. She responds, “You must not hate God’s world.” This is Asher’s dilemma, the conflict between the artist who must feel his hate and the Hasid who must conquer it.
The mood is jovial and relaxed. Gordon teases Jenny that she will change her name from Bacon to Kreplach before they are done. She asks Gordon to let her know where she, as Asher’s mother, gets off track in a scene where she’s discussing Jesus with her onstage son. Edelstein suggests, “in that moment, be flummoxed for a second.” They play the scene again and he calls out from his seat in the darkened theater: “Better already!”
A lot of directing is trial and error… and happy accidents, says Edelstein. In one scene, Mark Nelson as Asher’s father Aryeh is berating his son for painting nudes and crucifixions. Nelson has been sliding his son’s portfolio across the tape but it’s been accidentally falling on the floor. Gordon suggests trying the scene with Mark flinging Asher’s portfolio on the floor. Edelstein likes the gesture but wonders, should Aryeh throw it off the table or just shove it? Where should it land: in front of the table or across the room? Who will pick it up and when? The actors run through the scene a few more times until Edelstein is satisfied that it’s the best it can be… for now. In a later scene, he has Asher hug the endangered portfolio like an infant.
Getting the details right, Edelstein believes, is critical for this play. Before the Long Wharf production, he took his costume designer and actors on a research trip, an organized tour of Crown Heights. He wanted to understand the Lubavitcher community that is the setting of Asher Lev and noticed that the men and women never touch. That inspired an addition to the play: when Asher meets a gallery owner who puts out her hand to introduce herself, he smiles shyly and steps back. His art teacher intervenes and tries to put Asher’s hand into the expected handshake but, in a telling moment, the young Hasid recoils.
As many times as he sees a scene, Edelstein almost always spots a detail he wants improved. At one point, the three actors seem lined up along the same plane so he moves one further upstage. He often asks to see variations of movement or delivery so that he can pick the one that works best. At the same time, Edelstein calls out suggestions on lighting and sound cues to the crew working in the darkened theater. After the day’s run through of the entire play, many of his notes are about “too much air.” There are pauses that can come out.
In another place, the characters are too close together. Having them farther apart will add tension for the audience. Edelstein tells Jenny Bacon she should feel slightly more empowered as the wife and she agrees; they’ll work on that tomorrow.
He’ll continue to give the actors suggestions during previews, until about a week before opening night. Then it is time to stop tinkering; he needs to let the actors’ work gel. “I have poured my heart and soul into the play and have reached the limit of my ability,” he says.
Edelstein insists that critics won’t make or break Asher Lev. “People who love the book will come see it.” Word of mouth is key. Still he can’t help being anxious about that ultimate crucible of Gotham theater: The New York Times review.
On opening night, Gordon looked spiffy: his hair was slicked back, his pants pressed. Early in the evening, he got word that the Times review would be delayed. So Gordon, surrounded by family and friends, basked in the invited audience’s enthusiastic applause and enjoyed the crowded party a few blocks from the theater. The next morning he began auditions for his next play, Sam Shepard’s Curse of the Starving Class.