In Search of Himself (Bruce Goldsmith’s “When It Comes to Women”)

The High Holidays are always a good time to reflect, and this year, as I was serially sermonized in ways both inspirational and depressing, I was asked to consider that we can always start anew — that, as the dorm posters used to say, “Today is the first day of the rest of your life.”

Which reminds me of what Reb Jackie Mason said on the subject: “If we live every day like it’s the last day of our lives … one day we’ll be right.”

So as we play the TiVo of our lives, do we fixate on certain events, moments, relationships, and wonder what might have been? Or do we — can we — move on?

Which brings me to “When It Comes to Women,” Bruce Goldsmith’s new play currently playing at the Odyssey Theater in Los Angeles.

Despite its title, Goldsmith’s play is not a “Jake’s Women” review of the women in his life — rather it is a funny, at times sad and poignant, exploration of a “hinge” moment in one person’s life — how it impacts and reverberates on his relationships. It is about how loyalties and betrayals play out among fathers and sons, mothers and sons, husbands and wives.

“When It Comes to Women” asks what seem like impossible questions: What would happen if only I could talk honestly and openly with my parents about the true challenges in their marriage and in my own relationships, and about our own real feelings of self-worth? Could they respond with equal honesty? Can we ever find the love from our father and from our mother that we are searching for? Can we ever recapture the joy of a first love? What are the compromises we are willing to make in our marriages? Is it all a matter of the road not taken?

In Goldsmith’s play, we see — in a way the lead character cannot — the impact of the stubbornness and of the lack of kindness, charity, compassion and connection that can and does occur in one’s life. We see the wreckage incurred, the human cost of a damaged soul. We are witness to, Goldsmith says, a man’s search “to find some sense of himself, to overcome confusion.”

Goldsmith, with whom I served on the board of PEN USA, the writers’ human rights organization, is given to humor and seriousness in equal measure. His play, he says, is about “death and smoked fish.” Goldsmith asks: “What could be more Jewish than that?”

The playwright’s own story has had its twists and turns. His grandparents on both sides were Russian Jewish immigrants who led, as he put it, “heroic lives” to come to this country. Although born in Chicago, Goldsmith was raised in Los Angeles. He graduated from USC film school, where he won praise as a director.

To better understand the process of acting, he joined the Actors and Directors Lab, studying under such luminaries as Jack Garfein, Harold Clurman and William Inge and such incendiaries as Henry Miller. He spent four years there and fell in love with the process of creating drama in a scene.

It was as a screenwriter, however, that Goldsmith found gainful employment, writing feature scripts for Fox, Warner Bros. and Paramount, among others. Over time, he found himself most drawn to the small, yet critical, moments in people’s lives, which he judged better suited for the page than the market-driven large screen. He decided to write a novel.

In 1986, “Strange Ailments; Uncertain Cures,” Goldsmith’s first novel, “literally changed my life,” he now says. Not only did he sell the movie rights, but he wrote the screenplay adaptation and suddenly found himself in demand as a screenwriter. “Strange Ailments” has been continually optioned ever since. Goldsmith believes that it will get made.

When? “Soon.”

Goldsmith followed “Strange Ailments” with “Blue Numbers” (Mercury House) and “The Hard R Marathon” (Burning Gate Press). Still, he yearned to return to the stage. There is, Goldsmith says, “something about the intimacy” of it happening in front of you. He continues to be fascinated by the “struggle of what makes a scene work.”

The plot of “When It Comes to Women” takes place from 1971 to 1994, as a young man goes from idealistic single, to married father; from entrepreneurial dreams to business success (as an importer of gourmet foods and smoked fish). Goldsmith’s solution to creating a “narrative drive” over a 23-year period was to focus on a series of critical moments, and let the audience fill in the rest. Goldsmith discovered that “moments have a cumulative power,” both intense and involving.

A talented cast features David Shatraw in the lead role, supported by veterans Millie Slavin and F. William Parker (playing his parents). Jenny Eakes and Christina Haag portray the women in his life. The ensemble conveys the passage of time not with makeup but through the power of acting.

Goldsmith and I had lunch the Monday after his play opened. In reviewing his writing career, he concluded: “You have to pursue things that you find immensely important and write them.”

To sit and watch Goldsmith’s play is to ask: Are we the prisoners of the events in our lives? Is there free will? Can we break our patterns? Can we change? Can we move on? Who is there to help us? Or are we essentially alone?

This, in sum, is what Goldsmith’s play is about — only it’s funnier and more entertaining than the seriousness those topics would imply.

And as I said to Goldsmith at lunch, “What’s more important than that?”

Tom Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. Everywhere else, he’s an author and journalist who has written for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Interview and The Forward. His column appears every other week.

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Copyright 2005 Tommywood