Theater: 'The Shawl' opens after long labor by New York writer, Baltimore producer and Hollywood director.

CUT FROM THE SAME CLOTH

June 16, 1996|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

NEW YORK -- They look like an unlikely pair -- the Baltimore producer and the New York playwright.

The producer, Kathy Levin, is tall, blond and bristling with energy. The playwright, Cynthia Ozick, is short, gray, bespectacled and, as she puts it, "older than Kathy's mother."

But they've been working together a long time. After seven years and 18 drafts, "The Shawl," the first play by Ozick -- a distinguished novelist and essayist -- opens off-Broadway at Playhouse 91 on Thursday. And it probably wouldn't have happened without Levin's persistence.

There's a third figure in this picture, as well. Sidney Lumet -- director of such acclaimed movies as "The Pawnbroker," "Serpico" and "Dog Day Afternoon" -- was lured back to the stage after 30 years by the opportunity to direct "The Shawl."

Yet it was Levin who kept the fire burning, even when hope seemed thin -- when one production failed to materialize and when Lumet's movie schedule made it necessary to delay the off-Broadway opening, originally announced for last fall.

"I never thought it was over. That's because the journey was with Kathy, and she was always optimistic," Ozick says. "Kathy makes things happen."

Levin, 39, is best known for founding Magic Me, a nonprofit program that brings children together with elderly nursing-home residents. In recent years, however, the Baltimore native has been more active as a producer, with credits including the stage and film versions of "A Few Good Men" and the Broadway revival of "Gypsy" that starred Tyne Daly.

She became involved with "The Shawl" in 1989 when a friend, Alan Udoff, a philosophy professor and Holocaust-studies specialist at Baltimore Hebrew University, asked if she'd like to read a play by Cynthia Ozick.

Levin, who says " 'fan' is an understatement" to describe her admiration of Ozick's work, was thrilled. The script that arrived a few days later turned out to be a sequel to one of Levin's favorite Ozick works, "The Shawl."

First published as a New Yorker short story in 1980, "The Shawl" is a chilling account of Rosa, a Polish Jew who gives birth to a daughter in a concentration camp and hides the baby under a shawl. One day in the camp, Rosa's 14-year-old niece, Stella, steals the shawl, which leads to the baby's discovery and almost immediate murder by a Nazi guard.

The characters of Rosa and Stella also appear in Ozick's 1983 novella, "Rosa," which is set in a run-down residential Florida hotel three decades later.

The script Levin received was yet another sequel, also set primarily in Florida, but with an important new character -- a Holocaust researcher who turned out to have an ominous agenda.

Though Ozick, 68, may not be a household name, she is a writer's writer, a master craftsman. Newsweek book critic Peter S. Prescott has written about her: "When the chroniclers of our literary age catch up to what has been going on (may Ozick live to see it!), some of her stories will be reckoned among the best written in our time."

Last month, a New Yorker profile was keyed to the publication of her latest collection of essays, "Fame and Folly." And, in the recently released "Cynthia Ozick Reader," editor Elaine M. Kauvar proclaims: "Cynthia Ozick is on anybody's list of the 10 most important writers in North America today."

Looking back on her role in encouraging Ozick's first foray into playwriting, Levin says, "What I didn't realize then is the bravery and trust it took for Cynthia, at this place in her career, to throw her hat into the ring and become a novice. She's like a schoolgirl now in the playwriting program, and she suddenly asked me to teach her this craft. If I'd thought about it, I wouldn't have done it. Who am I to teach Cynthia Ozick how to write plays?"

"Fame and Folly" includes a chapter on Ozick's playwriting called "Old Hand as Novice." But in person, Ozick amends this, saying, "I'm not a novice anymore." And, she adds, "If I had known how long the road was, I would not have done it."

She was spurred to begin this long road after several years of receiving screenplays of "The Shawl" from Hollywood.

"I was appalled by the ignorance and lack of sensibility," she says of those efforts. "So I thought, well, I'll just do it myself."

To become accustomed to the form, Ozick spent months reading scripts -- contemporary as well as those by Shaw and Ibsen. She expected the script she sent Levin to be her first and only draft.

'Stuck in rage'

Levin's initial reaction to the play was that "the situation was unbelievably powerful." But she also felt, "At the end of the day, there wasn't the drama there that I had fantasized."

That night she and Ozick spoke for several hours over the phone. Levin worked up the nerve to suggest that Ozick consider making the new, ominous character seductive, attractive -- even sexy.

Ozick balked.

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