Can a lonely Jewish widow find happiness with a cantankerous homeless man she meets on a bench in Central Park?
That not-quite age-old question is addressed — and answered — in “Friends,” a new play making its world premiere in San Francisco next week.
The next big question is, with two Jewish characters, one Jewish actor, a Jewish director and playwright, is “Friends” the quintessential Jewish play?
That depends on whom you ask. For director Linda Ayres-Frederick, the play by Peter Levy embodies the essence of the Jewish experience.
“I was always told part of being a Jew is that you are your brother’s keeper,” she says, adding, “Both characters are New York Jews, the subject of food comes up a lot and Peter has the music of the Jewish language down pat.”
Levy, who has had numerous works produced off-Broadway and throughout the country, often incorporates Jewish themes (he’s even written one about a Jewish Indian), but some don’t. However, “Friends” has a uniquely wistful Jewish air about it.
“In the ’20s, there was a book called ‘Jews Without Money,'” says the playwright. “It was about ordinary elderly Jewish people. That’s what this play is about.”
A brief synopsis: Ruth Appfelbaum (played by Beverly Elkan) meets Max Horowitz (John Hutchinson) on a bench in Manhattan’s Central Park. He is intellectually accomplished but homeless, unable to make ends meet on his Social Security check.
The two start up a conversation, share a few lunches and ultimately Ruth’s kindness overrides her fears when she allows Max to stay at her apartment.
“He’s been accepted into the Jewish Home for the Aged,” says Levy, “while she has medical problems. He has one last chance for some stability and has to make a choice.”
Actress Elkan has great affection for Ruth, the character she portrays. “She’s wonderful and familiar, culturally deprived, curmudgeonly, but smart,” says Elkan. “She wants to connect with people very badly.”
Elkan herself had little trouble connecting with Ruth. A former Manhattan-based psychotherapist, she turned to acting as a second career late in life and has used to her advantage that background in psychology.
“I know about all kinds of people,” she says, “and I have a wide range of sympathies for them.”
Ayres-Frederick does too, and it shows in her approach to directing. “Every moment on stage has to count,” she notes. “Every moment, something has to be going on between the two characters.”
She brought that zeal to previous productions of “Hamlet,” “Our Town,” “The Seagull” and others. But staging new plays gets her blood pumping more than anything else does.
Adds Ayres-Frederick: “The warhorses are delicious to work on, but so many new plays are so well written, it’s a delight to bring them to the audience.”
That’s where writers like Levy come in. Playwriting is a second career for Levy or, more accurately, a dual career, as he has enjoyed lifelong concurrent success as both a lawyer and a writer.
Born in Berlin, Levy along with his family escaped Hitler’s Germany before the persecution of the Jews began in earnest (“I remember starting school saying ‘Heil Hitler,'” he says).
Settling in San Francisco, Levy attended George Washington High. He went on to graduate from U.C. Berkeley with a degree in economics (with minors in chemistry and English), later attending U.C. Berkeley’s Boalt Hall College of Law.
He became a civil litigator and had his own firm for a while. But throughout his legal education and subsequent practice, he published short stories and wrote prize-winning plays.
Ayres-Frederick had become familiar with his work, and she leaped at the chance to mount a new Levy play. “I like that he writes longer scenes,” says the director. “New writers tend to write shorter scenes because of our short attention span. But the scenes in this play develop and grow.”
That suits the show’s two actors just fine. “I don’t miss the long hours [of doing therapy],” says Elkan, “but I missed the intensity of the interpersonal relationships. The only people I know who feel as intense about their work are actors.”
Ayres-Frederick plans to harness that intensity to tell a story that, according to her, needs telling. “It’s about our common humanity,” she says, “and how trust is the common. The man on the park bench is not our enemy.”
“Friends” premieres 8 p.m. Friday, Nov. 7 at the Phoenix Theater, 414 Mason St. (sixth floor), S.F. The play runs Thursdays through Saturdays until Dec. 6, with matinees 2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 9 and 16. Tickets: $20. Information: (415) 989-0023.