`There are some people who are ostensibly great nature lovers unless nature infringes on their well-tended lawns or eats their flowers." This is part of a little scenario that director Dan Berkowitz quotes to me as we talk at the Nassau Club about "Miss Connection," the play written by Princeton resident/playwright/poet/patron of the arts Marvin Cheiten that Berkowitz has just flown in from Los Angeles to direct. The comment on "nature lovers" is but one of the gentler bits of hypocrisy that is skewered by the comedy/ satire, set in present day Princeton. Last summer Berkowitz was here to direct Cheiten’s "Zenobia," a verse drama set in the third century in what is now the eastern part of Syria. His new play is a far cry from this in setting and style.
"Miss Connections" will play at the Hamilton Murray Theater, Thursday through Sunday, August 17 to 20. Cheiten has warned that some locals may well be offended. But I’m sure his pen (well probably computer keyboard) can’t be too deadly. When I talked with him last summer, he said that he never wanted to live any place other than Princeton and almost never goes far from home. But with "Miss Connections," Cheiten does take aim at foibles that will be familiar to those who live in the area.
Berkowitz hasn’t lived in the area for many years and relies on the play’s authenticity by testimony from long-time Princeton resident Maureen Miller, who serves as the play’s costume mistress. She told him that it was "much like it is…and hysterically funny." He says that apparently there are a number of "hot button" issues that will strike home, issues that audiences will either find either funny or that will "tick them off." Berkowitz asked Cheiten if the issues are really that divisive and was assured, "Oh, yes." But he adds, "It’s very much of the moment, but I think it would play well in Ohio where it would still be funny. But in Princeton, there should be real guffaws."
Like much good comedy, Berkowitz says, "Miss Connections" is about "stuff" that is deadly serious – and it is also a love story. When Berkowitz first read the script, he says he thought of "The Odyssey" because the play begins with a mother and daughter at home and a father who has been mysteriously away for eight years. It seems that the father left Princeton because he was frustrated by what he saw as hypocrisy and the "overblown" nature of the town. Fleeing seems a bit of over-reaction but developments in the play will surely make his actions clearer.
Berkowitz describes "Miss Connections" as a "charming comedy/drama." He wants to say it’s touching, but is afraid that sounds too maudlin and is content to add, "It’s about conflicted personal relationships and compromises that must be made."
The first play of Cheiten’s that Berkowitz directed was in 1996, a "hokey, campy farce" called "Chowder, She Wrote." Most of us remember the source for this, the then-popular TV series "Murder, She Wrote," starring Angela Lansbury. Berkowitz thinks that he has directed more shows at Theatre Intime than "anyone living or dead." He believes "Miss Connections" will make his 17th production there.
Cheiten and Berkowitz, both Princeton University graduates, met here when they were young artists. At the time, Cheiten was working as an intern in the box office at the McCarter Theater. Another intern was sharing a house with friends, who included recent graduate, Berkowitz. She invited Cheiten to their New Year’s party. Berkowitz remembers seeing "this huge car drive up to the house. I think it was a Cadillac. And I wondered who in the world it could be. It was Marvin."
The bond between director and writer has held for a number of years. To me, it is impressive that a friend will fly east from the West Hollywood home that he obviously loves very much, to again direct a local production of a friend’s script.
Berkowitz is probably most famous locally as the host and impresario of the Nassau Inn Cabaret. This all began in the summer of 1974 when he was running Summer Intime. "The board of the theater said I was crazy. No one would come out for a midnight cabaret." Ignoring this advice, the organizer of Summer Intime began anyway in the basement of the Hamilton Murray-Dodge theater. The following year, some people in town asked the group to do this full-time – and so began their late-night residence at the Nassau Inn. Over the following several years, they did more than 100 shows, a new show each Friday night. Berkowitz was the producer/director and acted as emcee. Of course he is pleased that though this was more than 25 years ago, "we still occasionally get asked to come back." The last time was in 2003 when they did a fundraiser for McCarter Theater.
The tie to Princeton is still there. Though he says that if it hadn’t been for Richard Nixon he would never have graduated from Princeton. He explains: "If Nixon hadn’t invaded Cambodia I would not be a college grad. You think I’m kidding. I did my senior thesis from research to writing in eight days. And I still remember: It sounds tacky but my advisor, Martin Duberman, said, `This is the most brilliantly written thesis I’ve ever read. It’s also the lowest graded because it has nothing to do with the history department, no footnotes either. It belongs in the New Yorker.’ I asked, `Can I quote you on that?’ He looked at me as if I was quite quite mad. Nixon invaded Cambodia. There were student strikes. And final exams were cancelled. If I had had to take the final exams, I would not be a college grad. I knew nothing."
Berkowitz says, "I majored in history but spent all my time in the theater, and it was wonderful." This was a time at Princeton before there was a theater department. So anyone working in the theater had to really love it since they got no college credit. Berkowitz also found time to write a Triangle Show.
After his Princeton days, Berkowitz made an attempt at graduate school, going to the University at Berkeley in California, but was discouraged by the delay in the program for him to get any hands-on directing experience. After all he had already done a lot of directing. "They insisted on classes that included an acting project where I had to be a washing machine." He and the school parted ways.
One of the major influences in his creative life was the famed actress/teacher Stella Adler with whom he studied. At that time he had directed a number of plays here and there, but working with her helped him codify the things he had already learned from experience. He still calls on those techniques when directing today.
Berkowitz grew up in Jersey City, where his father was a lawyer who didn’t approve of his son’s career in the theater. Miss Adler had intoned as only she could, "Darling, should I speak to your father?" This still brings great laughter to the fore, imagining his father’s reaction had this confrontation really taken place.
Berkowitz has filled a number of artistic shoes, for a time living in Manhattan and working on the groundbreaking evening interview program, "The David Susskind Show." He still directs on occasion if a particular project interests him. However, he considers himself primarily a writer.
His move to California was prompted when the first thing that he wrote professionally – a project called "`A’ My Name Is Still Alice," a sequel to an earlier musical by the same name without the "Still" – was produced at the Old Globe Theater in San Diego. Friends advised that he should go there to make sure no one tampered with his work. He was impressed by the sunny, low-humidity weather. In 1994 he moved to California for good, leaving behind a Jersey City apartment with a magnificent view of Manhattan, to purchase a home in West Hollywood where he still lives, still happy about the weather. He has written for television as well as film, but primarily earns his living as a script consultant.
He is the West Coast member liaison for the Dramatists Guild of America (the professional association of playwrights, composers, and lyricists,) the co-chair of the Alliance of Los Angeles Playwrights, and heads up a gay/lesbian alliance, as well as writing a regular column for the Dramatists Magazine.
As soon as he returns to Los Angeles after "Miss Connections," he begins work on a screenplay that he has been hired to rewrite. This grew out of work he had done as a consultant. After that, he wants to take some time off and work on a play that is brewing in his imagination.
He spent his first days before rehearsal of "Miss Connections" scouting for items for the set and visiting friends in Princeton. "The nice thing about directing in Princeton is that you know you have a smart, literate audience. I remember particularly when we were doing the cabaret, you could do very pointed satire and know that the audience would get it."
Miss Connections, Thursday through Saturday, August 17 to 19, 8 p.m.; Sunday, August 20, 2 p.m., Princeton Summer Theater, Hamilton Murray Theater, on the campus of Princeton University. A new contemporary comedy set in Princeton written by Princeton resident Marvin Harold Cheiten. Directed by Dan Berkowitz. $10. 609-258-7062.