Editor's update (March 16): The New Jewish Theatre has postponed "We Are The Levinsons" due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It will be rescheduled for later this summer.
When Wendy Kout, author of “We Are the Levinsons,” a touching comedy opening March 19 at the New Jewish Theatre, started writing for the stage, she knew something was different.
“Oh, my God,” she remembers thinking, “I have come into my tent.”
She already had enjoyed a fine career, writing and producing TV comedies. Just to take one example, she came up with an idea for “The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd” on NBC. Not without trepidation, she brought it to the producer, Jay Tarses.
Wendy Kout is the playwright of ‘We Are the Levinsons,’ coming to the New Jewish Theatre March 19-April 5.
In Kout’s episode, Molly (Blair Brown) decides to take piano lessons. Searching for a teacher, she calls a man who sounds wonderful. In the course of one phone conversation, they seem so simpatico that Molly finds herself falling in love, sight unseen.
So when she opens the door for her first lesson, Kout explained, Molly is astonished to see that the man is …
“Disabled,” Tarses guessed.
“A person of color?”
Again no. This man was …
“A Hasidic Jew!” Kout exclaimed.
Talk about making sure nothing romantic would happen.
Kout takes pride in that episode, which aired about 30 years ago. It was a moment when she managed to include explicitly Jewish material in a medium that made room for that, a little room. Never too much, of course.
Kout had other successes. Already a veteran of “Mork and Mindy” and the TV adaptation of “9 to 5,” she created and was an executive producer of “Anything but Love,” a sitcom with a Jewish leading man (Richard Lewis) playing a Jewish character. The onscreen romance between Lewis and co-star Jamie Lee Curtis sparked offscreen, too: Kout and supervising producer, Dennis Koenig, fell in love and got married.
“I’m proud of putting a romantic Jewish lead on television,” Kout wrote on her website. “I grew up without seeing one.”
On the big screen, she switched the gender but maintained the Jewish identity when she wrote “Dorfman in Love,” a 2011 coming-of-consciousness romcom that starred Sara Rue and Elliott Gould.
But those opportunities were few and far between. As time passed, Kout kept seeking better ways to write about what she cared about: Jewish identity.
Or, as she often puts it, her mishpucha (family).
There’s her actual mishpucha, of course: her husband, her brother, her nieces and nephews, and their children, plenty of cousins. But Kout uses the Yiddish word more broadly than that.
She uses it to refer to other people who welcome her and her family into their world – and vice-versa.
It’s an old habit.
Born in Chicago, Kout has moved so often she calls herself “the Wandering Jew.” When she was a child, the family relocated repeatedly.
“My father had difficulty making a living,” she said.
But wherever they lived, Norm and Betty Kout immediately joined a temple.
“They were always active members,” Kout said of her parents, who eventually settled in Los Angeles. “They found their mishpucha that way.”
Kout and Koenig, a TV writer whose many credits include “M*A*S* H” and “Barney Miller,” have also moved around a lot, for pleasure.
“A television show is 24/7,” Kout said. “So when we decided to explore other kinds of writing, we looked at each other and said, what now?
“We went everywhere — Mexico and South Africa, Montreal and Vancouver in Canada. We like to stay a while, to explore the culture, to meet people.
“But when my parents began to age, we went back to Los Angeles to see them through their final chapters.”
She worked through that experience in “We Are the Levinsons,” a play about an elderly couple (Joneal Joplin and Judy Mann), their divorced daughter (Kelley Weber), her difficult daughter in her early 20s (Eleanor Humphrey) and a transsexual caretaker (Jordan Braxton, who performs widely as Dieta Pepsi), who helps the father.
Jennifer Wintzer directs the production, which was previously produced by Jewish theaters in St. Paul, Minn., and Victoria, B.C., winning good reviews and several awards. NJT artistic director Edward Coffield said he first was alerted to “Levinsons” by assistant directors at two other Jewish theaters.
“I couldn’t ignore that,” he said. “So I read it, and I fell in love.”
Though the play confronts grief and letting go, it’s fundamentally a comedy about family relationships as an enduring source of comfort and genuine love. Besides, Kout added, she thinks comedy is a perfect way to tell Jewish stories.
“Our legacy is laughter,” she said. “It’s how we’ve survived.”
Now that Kout and her husband have more or less settled in Santa Barbara, she’s working on other material, much of it concerned with the Holocaust. Her play “Survivors” derives from real-life testimony; its “daughter” play, “Never is Now,” retells stories of “Survivors” through a contemporary prism.
“We are losing the generation of survivors every day,” she said. “But kids today need to connect.
“I am not comparing the Holocaust to anything. But we can look at what happened before the Holocaust, at conditions that made the rise of fascism possible. That’s something we need to be alert to. It’s been the honor of my life to work on this.”
There are other projects, too. Kout is on the board of LA’s Skylight Theatre Company, which presents new works exclusively, and of the international Alliance for Jewish Theatre. There are more plays; a children’s book in the works; and, maybe, down the road, adult fiction.
“Every day I get up with meaning and purpose,” Kout said.
That tent must have been a good place to put down roots.