Richard Newman and Pippa Mackie in The Grandkid. (photo by David Cooper)
Former community member John Lazarus is a very interesting man. Dubbed by the media as one of Canada’s best-known playwrights,” his fertile mind has spawned the likes of Babel Rap, The Late Blumer and his award-winning Village of Idiots, which evolved from a play through a CBC Radio mini-series to a National Film Board animated short. His latest work, The Grandkid, the intergenerational story of Julius Rothstein and his granddaughter, Abby, opened at Richmond’s Gateway Theatre this week.
Montreal-born Lazarus graduated from the National Theatre School of Canada in 1969. The call of the West lured him to Vancouver, where he worked for 30 years as an actor, director, critic, broadcaster, playwright, screenwriter and teacher – including a stint at Studio 58, one of Canada’s leading theatre schools. For the past 14 years, he has been an associate professor of drama at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont. Now, his newest creation brings him back to the West Coast.
The two-character play tells the story of an aging film professor, Rothstein, grieving over the recent loss of his wife, when his 19-year-old freshman granddaughter decides to move in with him to attend university. This leads to an intriguing social experiment and a new twist on BFF (best friends forever), as Julius and Abby become roommates and grapple with the timeless issues of youth and aging.
In a telephone interview with the Independent, Lazarus talked about his inspiration for the show. “I had friends where that living arrangement came up, their daughter moved in with Grandpa, and I listened with interest to their conversations about what was going on in the relationship. I was intrigued by the concepts of old age and youth and the stereotypes surrounding these two groups. I look around and see both people my age and young adults behaving very differently than depicted in the media and I wanted to write something to show how we can transcend the age differences and get along as a family.”
Developing strong characters is always essential, but especially so in a “two-hander,” as they have to hold the attention of the audience for the entire show. Lazarus believes that he has created two very likeable ones: “Julius is a hip old guy, easy-going, artistic, who is generally happy, but we see him when he is saddened after the death of his wife. He is an observant Jew and a liberal thinker, except when it comes to Israel, who he staunchly supports. He is tired of his career and he hopes that, with his granddaughter coming to live with him, she will inject a ray of sunshine into his life – and she does.” As to Abby, said Lazarus, “She is very idealistic, smart and wants to make a difference in the world. While the two love each other very much, they do clash over generational-gap kind of things.”
“My father, an insurance salesman, was a great storyteller and had a great sense of humor and irony. I remember thinking after listening to one of his stories, what a wonderful thing to do – to make people laugh.”
Lazarus often uses Jewish themes and characters in his repertoire. “I was brought up in a Jewish home and, while not observant, I feel culturally Jewish,” he explained. “My father, an insurance salesman, was a great storyteller and had a great sense of humor and irony. I remember thinking after listening to one of his stories, what a wonderful thing to do – to make people laugh. While I started off as an actor, writing became my passion. Although I don’t think of myself as strictly a writer of comedies, even in my serious plays humor sneaks in. To me, that is the Jewish essence of it, putting humor into every situation.”
Family and friends often provide ideas for his work and the needed conflict for the narrative. “When I was writing The Grandkid, I asked my wife what I could put into the story that would drive Julius crazy. She told me to give Abby a Palestinian boyfriend. I did not want to go there because I thought some might label the story racist so, instead, I gave her an Israeli boyfriend who has views on Israel that are diametrically opposed to those of Julius – that leads to some interesting dialogue.”
Some have suggested that the play is autobiographical. Lazarus laughed, “Definitely not. Yes, there are similarities between Julius and himself. Both of us are Ontario university professors, he film, me drama, but we differ in our views of politics and religion. I think, if we could sit down and have coffee together, we would have a very heated, but respectful, conversation.”
When asked why people should see the play, Lazarus reflected, “It makes you feel good about family and relationships. I guess you could call it a love story of sorts. It highlights the best parts of being young and being old, and how different generations can learn from one another. It will appeal to all age groups. Also, you could not ask for a better cast – Richard Newman, who I first worked with in the seventies, and Pippa Mackie, who I met in 2013 and encouraged to audition for the play because I thought she would be perfect for the part – and a terrific director, Natasha Nadir. It is good for a few laughs and you don’t have to be Jewish to enjoy it.”
In anticipation of being at the theatre on opening night, as the interview took place before the play opened, Lazarus said, “It is a culmination of a dream, to come to Vancouver and say, ‘Hello, here I am, I am back and here is my new play. I hope you enjoy it.’”
The Grandkid runs at the Gateway until April 26. For more information, visit gatewaytheatre.com or call the box office at 604-270-1812.
Tova Kornfeld is a Vancouver freelance writer and lawyer.