Volume 76, Number 37 | February 7 -13, 2007

Photo by Peter Lindburgh

Playwright Israel Horovitz has begun showcasing works created in his New York Playwrights’ Lab, like “The Secret of Mme. Bonnard’s Bath,” premiering this February at the Kirk Theater.

Israel Horovitz touches up the canvas

By Jerry Tallmer

It will soon be 40 years ago that a scared but cocky kid named Israel Horovitz, faced with the last-minute defection of his key actor, stepped into the leading role of “Line,” a play by that same kid — well, he was 28 but didn’t look it — in its first performance anywhere. “Stepped” is the right word, because “Line” was —- and is — a short piece in which a bunch of people in what the British would call a queue keep one-upping one another by stepping slyly in front of one another.

“At La MaMa, that was, when La MaMa was upstairs on Second Avenue. November 11 — no, November 12 — no, November 11, 1967,” said the Israel Horovitz of 2007, at his home in the West Village. “And do you remember the headline over the Post’s review?”

Yes, said the man who wrote that headline (and wrote the review too). It was WELCOME, MR. HOROVITZ.

Israel Horovitz has come a long way since then (so has Ellen Stewart’s La MaMa), and in this spring of 2007 superprolific playwright Horovitz has given rebirth to a script-reading group, the New York Playwrights’ Lab, that he and some of his peers — Wendy Wasserstein, Kenneth Lonergan, Warren Leight, for three — launched a mere 32 years ago.

But now the NYPL has at long, long last burst into production, starting back in December with a new look at  Horovitz’s astonishing “Lebensraum,” an acidic 1996 comedy-of-a-sort about a German chancellor who invites six million of the world’s Jews to take up residence (and employment) in present-day Germany; now that’s been followed, at the Kirk Theater on 42nd Street’s Theater Row, by the New York premiere of Horovitz’s most recent full-length work, “The Secret of Mme. Bonnard’s Bath,” starring John Shea and Stephanie Janssen.

Master colorist Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947) is one of France’s great, undersung masters of interiors, exteriors, and ulteriors — the ulteriors being naked ladies, almost all of them his wife Marthe. He did 500 paintings of her in all, 147 of them — according to Horovitz — of Marthe nude, in or out of her bath.

“You know who reminds me of Bonnard?” said Horowitz. “Edward Hopper. Their paintings seem tame and uninteresting, then you look again and see a very strong narrative — almost cinematic. Picasso, you know, hated Bonnard. Never missed an opportunity to say something negative.”

The play begins in a small museum somewhere in the South of France in 1945. A museum guard is snoring away. Enter a bespectacled old guy in a painter’s smock. He makes his way to “Young Women in the Garden,” an early-1920s canvas by Pierre Bonnard, contemplates it a while, then takes out a paintbrush and a tube of golden yellow paint which he proceeds to apply, liberally, to strategic points in the picture, mostly the golden tresses of one young woman.

The guard jerks awake, takes in the scene, and starts shouting: “Arretez! Arretez! What are you doing, you crazy old bastard? … That is a Pierre Bonnard! You are ruining a Pierre Bonnard!”

“I am Pierre Bonnard,” says the old guy. “This is my painting. I’ve had a fresh idea for my painting … ”

All true, says Israel Horovitz, who first heard that story when, directing one of his own plays in Paris three or four years ago, he listened in to actors who were swapping chitchat during a rehearsal break.

“It raises the question,” said Horovitz now, “of who owns the intellectual property, the artist or the man who puts up the money. I heard that anecdote and I wrote one scene. Then Christmas came along. My kids” — he has five of them, ages 21 and up — “are always asking: ‘What do ya want, Dad?’ and I always say: ‘Oh, take ten things out of the house.’ But this time they gave me a bunch of big books on Bonnard, and I started reading. So I guess the real question, or story, is the contrast between the artist’s life and the artist’s work.”

Okay, Israel, may we turn that question back onto you?

A moment’s thought.

“Maybe when you’re very, very young you tell true stories of your life … but you run out of stories soon enough,” said the lean, sinewy, ageless Israel Horovitz who on the 31st of March, “at 15 minutes before April Fool,” hits 68. “As a dramatist,” said Horovitz, “I try to keep it on the stage.”

If Bonnard was a most prolific painter and printmaker, what about Horovitz the dramatist, who has to his credit … how many plays by now, Israel?

“I dunno. It’s like when you ask my grandmother how many grandchildren she has. She always says: ‘I don’t know, I’ll have to count.’ I guess it’s about 55 plays produced in this city” — famously among them, the coruscating “The Indian Wants the Bronx,” which at the Astor Place Theater in 1968 introduced an actor named Al Pacino (as well as an actress named Jill Clayburgh) to the world. On the other end of the timeline, one of the last Broadway appearances of Jason Robards, Jr., was as the cranky old professor opposite Judith Ivey in Horovitz’s 1991 “Park Your Car in Harvard Yard.”

New England and Massachusetts are everywhere in Horovitz’s bloodstream and inkstream. More yet, in 1980  he created a Gloucester (Mass.) Stage Company that has piled up an astonishing record “in the 27 years in which I served as unpaid artistic director.”

The time had come, Horovitz said, “to find somebody to take my place — let you guys [up there in Gloucester] bite the bullet — so I started breaking in Eric Engel three years ago. He took over as of December 31. And I’ve spent those three years putting this New York company together” — the reborn New York Playwrights Lab.

More yet, for the past 10 years or so Horovitz has been thinking that, “though some extraordinary plays had come out of it,” the NYPL should go beyond its mere existence as “an ever-changing group of 15 playwrights reading their plays to one another, as a way to keep writing for the theater when they might be doing movies or television — a way of tricking ourselves.”

To Israel that now seems “pretty silly.”  We should, he thought, be showcasing the work instead of just reading it. “It took me some time to extricate myself from the Gloucester company” — but here he is.

And practically next door — well, a couple of blocks away — is Edith O’Hara’s 50-seat 13th Street Theater, where since 1972 Israel Horovitz’s “Line” has been playing three shows a week, 52 weeks a year, with hundreds, maybe thousands, of actors passing through its several roles. Edith O’Hara, who at age 90 (and vitality 60) is being pressed for eviction of the downstairs (theater) premises by the landlord who’s bought the building.

“It is what it is,” said Horovitz. “A good birthing place for young artists, hundreds of them, who when they get to New York from, say, Massachusetts, find it’s like landing on another planet. It’s a shame to see the way property’s being developed now. ‘Line’ has been there for 30-something years, it’d be nice to see it make 50.”

Israel furthermore returned to activity in New York with a January bill of nine new short plays by him, some as crisp as 20 minutes, presented at the 78th Street Theatre Lab (no relation to NYPL) by the Barefoot Theatre Company, one of his favorites, “a multiracial group mostly drawn from Brooklyn College,” plus  — as “the Cat Lady” — a fine longtime actress named Lynn Cohen.

The toughest, ugliest, and to use the playwright’s own word, most “serious” of those nine short pieces is “Beirut Rocks,” in which last year’s Israeli-Hezbollah war is brought home via an intense confrontation in a Beirut hotel room between two students from America, one a Jew, the other a Palestinian-born Arab. If you like, it’s the very frightening flip side of “Lebensraum.”

Israel’s was one of the six Jewish families of Wakefield, Mass., in the 1940s. His truckdriver father, Julius Horovitz, became a lawyer at age 50. His mother, Hazel Solberg Horovitz, who’d trained as a nurse, died last year just before her 95th birthday.

“My five kids all live downtown [in Manhattan] within a mile of each other. My big daughter, Rachael Horowitz, who was executive producer of [the 2002 Jack Nicholson film] ‘About Schmidt,’ had twin boys this year. And three months later my son Matthew and his wife had twins; he’s a writer, producer, and NBA basketball fiend. And you know who my son Adam is – ”

Adam Keefe Horovitz, or King AdRock, is a Beastie Boy more famous than all the rest of the Horovitzes put together.

The mother of those three was painter Doris Keefe, Israel’s first wife, “who died a long, long time ago.” The mother of 21-year-old twins Hannah and Oliver is Gillian Adams Horovitz, the slender, good-looking British marathon champion whom Israel met at a race in Boston 27 years ago, and has been married to for 25 years now.

“I love to write,” says Israel Horovitz. “I get to see my plays. I travel the world. In a way I’m living the life of my dreams.”

Welcome home, Mr. Horovitz.

THE SECRET OF MME. BONNARD’S BATH. Written and directed by Israel Horovitz. Starts previews February 3, opens February 8 for a stand through February 24 at the Kirk Theater, 410 West 42nd Street, (212) 279-4200.

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