New York roots guide Mill Valley actor through Brooklyn Boy

Playing one of the Brooklyn boys in David Margulies’ “Brooklyn Boy” is a stretch for actor David Kudler. But not much of one.

The Mill Valley native may have grown up far from Coney Island, Avenue P and Nathan’s Hot Dogs. But his parents are 100 percent Flatbush, and they have the accent to prove it.

The accent has come in handy for Kudler, who lays it on thick as Ira, a childhood friend of the title character in Margulies’ play. “Brooklyn Boy” tells the story of Eric, a successful novelist looking back on his Brooklyn youth, and his journey of reconciliation with his Jewish roots.

TheatreWorks’ production of “Brooklyn Boy” is playing now through Aug. 13 at the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto.

“My character deals with his own envy,” notes Kudler, “because his friend has done well and he’s running a deli on Kings Highway. It’s that funny thing that happens when you have a friend that does well for himself. You wish him well, yet you wonder, ‘How did he get there?'”

A Pulitzer Prize winner, Margulies often draws on his Jewish heritage in plays like “Dinner with Friends” and “The Loman Family Picnic.” This one takes it a step further, blurring the lines between autobiography and narrative, both within the play and real life. “In all his plays,” adds Kudler, “Margulies used his past to fuel his art and used his Jewishness as a cornerstone of his art.”

Until recently Kudler, who is also Jewish, hadn’t had the same opportunity. But not long ago he played Reb Saunders in the stage adaptation of Chaim Potok’s “The Chosen,” and now he’s Ira the deli guy.

“My parents were very secular,” says Kudler of his own Jewish back story. “When I was 10, I said to them, ‘All my life, you’ve been telling me I’m Jewish, but what the heck does that mean?’ They looked at me like I’d grown an extra head.”

His inquiry led to bar mitzvah training at Tiburon’s Congregation Kol Shofar. “It was a doorway into Judaism,” he recalls, “with a spiritual element and at the same time an intellectual element, looking at history, culture and language. I have kept that with me always.”

Having two native New Yorkers for parents, Kudler was also raised with a love of theater. He remembers catching many classic Broadway shows during family trips back East. He grew up studying acting at the ACT Youth Conservatory, and by the time he was college age, he had set his sights on an acting career. He attended Stanford University and later the National Theater Conservatory, going on to a career on the stage.

Local companies with whom he’s performed include Traveling Jewish Theatre, Berkeley Shakespeare Company, ACT, TheatreWorks, the San Jose Stage Company and the Marin Theatre Company (for whom he ran the youth theater school for years).

Six years ago, he left MTC to become director of publishing for the Joseph Campbell Foundation, the legacy of the late professor/cultural icon (of “The Power of Myth” fame). Kudler enjoys his job, which allows him the freedom to continue acting.

And as a professional Campbell partisan, he is quick to note that rumors of the professor’s alleged anti-Semitism are undoubtedly false.

“He taught 38 years at Sarah Lawrence College, which was three-quarters Jewish,” he says. “He had many Jewish friends and colleagues, and during his lifetime nobody ever said, ‘What an anti-Semite.’

“[Campbell] was not a big fan of Orthodoxy or of strong literalist readings of Scripture. He always talks about reading it poetically, not literally. That tends to rub both Christian and Jewish traditionalists the wrong way.”

Kudler still lives in Marin County with his wife, actress Maura Vaughan, and their two daughters.

And while he is happy to be back on stage in another juicy role, Kudler isn’t sure the acting gene was passed down from himself and his wife to their girls. Will the kids ever get the acting bug?

“I hope not,” he says. “My daughters are musical. Both are members of the San Francisco Girls Chorus and they play violin.”

Which, he says, is potentially a good thing. “The musicians unions are a lot stronger than equity.”

TheatreWorks’ production of “Brooklyn Boy” plays 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays, 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays, now through Aug. 13 at the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto. Tickets: $20-$62. Information: (650) 903-6000, or online at www.theatreworks.org.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.