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D.C. is awash in actors, directors and writers hatching new plays

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“New pages!” Sheryl Kaller declares, uttering a cry that’s heard in theater workshops across the land. This session, taking place in a rehearsal space in downtown D.C. under the auspices of Mosaic Theater Company, holds special interest given its ambitious subject: a play about a pair of German Jewish entertainers, imprisoned in a Nazi transit camp in Holland and forced by the commandant to put on comedy cabaret.

Kaller, a director with Broadway credits (“Next Fall,” “Mothers and Sons”), is guiding “Max and Willy’s Last Laugh,” by Jake Broder and Conor Duffy, through 10 days of development work, with more than a dozen actors and musicians. It’s an exhilarating interlude in the creation of a new play, and an example of how, as covid fears dissipate, the in-person building of novel pieces is on the rise again.

“If you act like a Jew, I will treat you like a Jew!” the commandant, played by D.C. actor Harrison Smith, snarls from his seat at Max Ehrlich and Willy Rosen, portrayed by Broadway vets Jason Graae and David Turner. “We may lose the war,” the Nazi officer adds. “But you will never win it!”

The buzz in the room has echoes in other Washington rehearsal halls, where more workshops are underway. Folger Theatre and Ford’s Theatre are also readying multiple works-in-progress for early viewing by the public, in mini-festivals over the next couple of weeks. Mosaic’s “Max and Willy’s Last Laugh” runs Thursday and Friday at the Edlavitch Jewish Community Center on 16th Street NW; Folger’s new “The Reading Room” series goes up Thursday through Saturday, with workshop readings of four plays at the Lutheran Church of the Reformation on Capitol Hill, and Ford’s joins in with its “A First Look” festival of three works Feb. 2-4 in its historic theater on 10th Street NW.

This revving up not only reflects a restatement of investment in the next waves of productions, it’s a rebirth of creative minds gathering in person after the long, isolating interregnum of the pandemic. Playwrights, actors, directors and musicians have spoken gratefully about their participation in virtual workshops on platforms like Zoom. But those sessions can’t match meeting one’s collaborators in the same physical space.

“One of the most immediate things that hit us all at first rehearsal was this was the first time the creative team had been in person,” says Reginald L. Douglas, Mosaic’s artistic director. “They had spent the whole creative process on Zoom. So not only are we all meeting each other — ‘You have legs! Look how tall you are!’ — this was the director’s first time meeting the playwrights she’s been working with for a year. And so I think there’s a vital need for liveness. You know, that’s why I’m in the theater.”

The return to “liveness” also allowed Karen Ann Daniels, Folger’s artistic director, to bring to D.C. a range of artists, for work sessions on plays that might end up in full production at Folger Shakespeare Library on East Capitol Street. “It became about who are the people who are actually already thinking about Shakespeare and was a source of inspiration for them,” Daniels says. She’s invited playwrights and directors, several of them artists of color, to stage readings of works with Shakespearean themes.

Three of the Folger workshops are world premiere productions: a bilingual adaptation of “Hamlet,” by Reynaldo Piniella and Emily Lyon; “A Room in the Castle” by Lauren Gunderson and a Folger commission, “Our Verse in Time to Come,” by Daniels, Malik Work and Devin E. Haqq. A fourth, Al Letson’s “Julius X,” a retelling of “Julius Caesar” through the story of activist Malcolm X, revisits a play Letson wrote some time ago that he says “never got the development that it needed.”

“For me, a workshop tightens a piece,” Letson says, adding that as a student, he fell in love with “Julius Caesar” and dreamed of playing Marc Antony. “When I first wrote ‘Julius X,’ I was really trying very much to stick to Shakespeare’s original text. Now I feel like there’s a way to break out of that.” One way Letson is doing that is by looking to expand the roles of the female characters.

Broder and Duffy, the Los Angeles-based actor-authors of “Max and Willy’s Last Laugh,” are looking to improve a script, too, that they’ve been crafting for years. In 2017, Duffy recalled, he read an article about Max Ehrlich — the script’s title page reads, “Unfortunately based on real life” — and he passed it to his friend, Broder.

“I’d never heard the names Max Ehrlich or Willy Rosen or Camilla Spira, or the Westerbork transit camp,” Duffy said, Spira being a cabaret and film star of the 1930s who was also interned in the camp. “And the first thing I did was I emailed Jake. And I said, ‘You’ve got to read the story. It’s incredible.’”

A few days later, Broder emailed back: “I can’t stop thinking about this. Do you want to write it together?”

At chairs and tables arranged in a loose circle in the Jewish Community Center’s Cafritz Hall, the actors read scenes and sing period German songs, as well as some composed by Broder and Duffy. Music director John McDaniel — best known as Rosie O’Donnell’s band leader on her TV talk show — is at the keyboard as Graae and D.C. actress Awa Sal Secka, as Spira, deliver a lilting version of a vintage number titled “It Would be Wonderful Indeed.”

The conflict in the story — which includes numbers from the performances actually staged at Westerbork — revolves around an ongoing tension between the title characters. Graae’s major-domo Max seeks to mollify the Nazis who control who gets sent on to the death camps. Turner’s Willy, a pianist, is more defiant and wants to speak truth to power. Turner provokes some debate after he asks Kaller if Willy, in protesting too vehemently, will be seen as the architect of his own destruction. Kaller turns the discussion to the essential dynamic between Max and Willy. “Max depends on Willy to be contrarian,” she says, “and Willy depends on Max to keep him safe.”

The freedom to bat around such ideas is one of the pleasures of the workshop. “It’s the most egoless room to walk into,” Graae says, in an interview at the end of a rehearsal day. “No one gets their feathers ruffled. Everybody has been lauded for some great things going on, but it never feels ego-driven, ever. And you know, you do get a lot of work done when egos are set aside!”

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