After three false starts, Renee Calarco decided that the main character of her new play would not be Rabbi Menachem Youlus. It’s not that the real-life Youlus and the fraud he perpetrated aren’t fascinating subjects, but Calarco’s questions are not about him. They’re about the people he hurt.
In 2012, the self-styled Jewish Indiana Jones pleaded guilty to charges of wire and mail fraud stemming from his falsified tales of personally rescuing Torah scrolls that had been hidden during the Holocaust. One scroll, Youlus claimed, he recovered from beneath floorboards in Auschwitz, another from a mass grave in Ukraine. In fact, the Maryland-based Youlus obtained the scrolls from U.S. sellers who told no such stories of their origins.
Youlus’ lies enticed buyers to purchase the scrolls at enormously inflated prices. In the 2010 Washington Post article that revealed his scheme, Youlus claimed he was on a mission to restore the scrolls to rightful ownership; indeed, dozens were rededicated in temples throughout the greater Washington area. Youlus was sentenced to 51 months in prison and is still incarcerated.
In the world premiere of G-d’s Honest Truth, now playing at Theater J, audiences will see a fictitious story inspired by Youlus’ crimes. The play is told from the point of view of a couple who decides to purchase a Torah scroll they believe was rescued from a concentration camp by a Youlus-esque rabbi named Dov.
This is Calarco’s first play rooted in true events. Usually, when writing a play, Calarco starts with characters, allowing plot points to arise from human desires and conflicts. She’s always been a writer, but she came to writing for theater by way of acting and improvisation. “Improv is really just playwriting without the laptop,” says Calarco, speaking on a February rehearsal day. But with a true story, the real events prescribe the course the plot must take, so she needed more structure.
“I ended up writing little beats for this play on sticky notes and sticking them all over the wall and moving them around,” Calarco says. “I sort of got stuck for a while in the morass of the structure.” To untangle her thoughts from the facts of the case, she returned to what she finds most compelling: people.
“I realized that the thing I found really interesting was the people that believed [Youlus],” Calarco says. “There were some people who tried to find a greater meaning in the lie, to learn from it in some way. That’s when I thought, OK, that’s the way into the play.”
G-d’s Honest Truth’s main character, Roberta, came to Calarco first, and Roberta’s husband Larry came shortly thereafter. At a rehearsal four weeks from opening night, the actors, guided by director Jenny McConnell Frederick and stage manager Karen Currie, read through all the scenes that had been revised since the day before—cuts and additions that Calarco woke up at 4:30 a.m. to make. Page 86, Currie announces, is a placeholder. A single bold line at the top of the page reads “Something Goes Here.”
Intense discussion follows the reading of the revised pages, every line subject to scrutiny. In one scene, Roberta, played by Naomi Jacobson, claims she just doesn’t understand why any woman wouldn’t call herself a feminist. Calarco wonders if that line is bothering anyone. “I hate it,” Jacobson says. Calarco admits the line has been nagging at her too, and in the end, it’s cut. Feminism, everyone agrees, is too important a subject to be mentioned casually and not developed. But more than that, Jacobson contends, the thought doesn’t jive with the Roberta that lives on all the other pages of the script. The line wasn’t Roberta’s voice speaking; it was the playwright’s. Afterward, Calarco says she is still “discovering in rehearsal the logic of the story, where the gaps are.”
For a writer like Calarco, there’s no substitute for the process of rehearsing a full production. She might think a script is in good shape, but until a cast and crew try to bring it to life, she won’t know whether what’s on the page works in real life. McConnell Frederick takes the same approach. As producer of the Source Festival and co-artistic director of Rorschach Theatre, she has shepherded many new plays from concept to production. Helming the collaborative process means striking the right balance between spending time working the script and getting a cast ready to play in front of a paying audience. “In most cases,” McConnell Frederick says, “we’ll come to a lockdown date where it’s asked that the script not change after that.” In the case of G-d’s Honest Truth, a month prior to opening, that date is still TBD. “In the next few weeks,” McConnell Frederick says, “barring some major revelation.” She may sound too blithe for the demands of the deadline, but it’s a process she knows well.
Still, if past Calarco plays are any measure, the collaborative process is likely to proceed even after the curtain rises. Creative thought doesn’t stop at 8 p.m. on opening night; the audience, too, is a collaborative partner. In 2012, Theater J produced the world premiere of Calarco’s The Religion Thing, the mainstage anchor of the inaugural Locally Grown Festival (this year’s iteration includes G-d’s Honest Truth). After the D.C. run ended, The Religion Thing was produced by a company in New York. It turned out that the version of the play D.C. audiences enjoyed was just a draft. One night at the end of the Theater J run, Calarco sat in the middle of the house instead of in her usual vantage point at the back. She got a whole new read on the audience’s reaction to the play. “The only way I can describe it is that I felt them lean back a little bit instead of lean forward,” she says. “I felt… they weren’t buying what I had written in this particular section of the play and was like, ‘Oh man, now I think I get it.’” Calarco ended up changing a character in response. “I wasn’t being fair,” she says. The scene “was saying something about the character that was not true.”
Fairness is a word that arises frequently in conversation with Calarco. It seems to be fundamental to her technique as a playwright, which has led her to make G-d’s Honest Truth about more than a crooked rabbi who took advantage of people in the community.
“It’s about faith in all it’s forms,” she says. “Faith in a story that’s too good to be true—it happens to all of us.” As for her main characters, Larry and Roberta, “They are all of us. I feel like if I can be fair to and understanding of these fictional characters, that will translate to, I hope, the real people who had to deal with this.”
And what of Youlus, the real con man who inspired her in the first place? Does she feel responsibility to him? “No, no,” she says, and starts to laugh. “Other than in the way that I think any writer feels responsible for their characters. I want him to be believable and human and loveable and hateful. You want them to be fully formed.”
“I think I would have been reticent to take on this project if Renee had portrayed [Dov] as a 100 percent villain,” says McConnell Frederick. “I think what she’s done in the script is make it as complex as it was in life. We see him do some really wonderful things. Even this fraud leads to some really beautiful consequences.”
Achieving that depth and complexity of character is no easy feat. Collaboration helps ensure that different points of view are all authentically represented.
In one of the last revisions the cast read at the rehearsal last month, Larry and Roberta are arguing in the car. They have come to realize their Torah is probably a fake, but should they reveal what they know? Larry and Roberta have fundamentally different instincts about whether such a revelation is good for the community as a whole.
In the ensuing discussion, some actors say they still don’t entirely follow Larry’s argument. The fight in the script takes place in a car, and the actors chime in with “I know when I’m driving and someone distracts me”-type anecdotes. These conversations, as the scene’s written beat for beat, feel like what it’s really like when a couple argues, trying not to careen off the road.
It’s a lot of feedback for everyone to internalize. “Are we missing something?” Calarco asks McConnell Frederick, staring at her laptop.
“I don’t know,” McConnell Frederick replies, “I think I have to live with it a little.”