‘Right to be Forgotten’
Playwright remembers her Jewish values when selecting subjects
When James Vagias co-founded the East Brunswick-based American Theater Group in 2012, congestion pricing was something that was done, you know, in London and Hong Kong. Not in New York. And orchestra seats that cost 180 bucks? Each??
There were factors other than offering a less costly alternative that encouraged Vagias in 2012. “We thought, Broadway does big spectacles,” he said. “We wanted to do new works by undiscovered writers or writers who have not had their work done to the degree that their talent requires.”
ATG’s newest production, “Right to be Forgotten,” falls neatly in the company’s wheelhouse. Playwright Sharyn Rothstein has enjoyed a modicum of success — the ATG presented her “A Good Farmer” in 2018 — but mostly it’s been on a regional level.
“Right to be Forgotten,” for example, was produced at regional theaters in Washington, D.C., and Chicago before its New Jersey incarnation. It’s a look at the current media landscape, where a mistake a man made when he was 17 continues to haunt him a decade later.
“When I first started writing this” — around 2017 — “the right to be forgotten was just being debated in Europe,” Ms. Rothstein, 42, said in a Zoom interview. “It was eventually passed by the European Union, but no one I spoke to in the United States who was not an expert had any idea what I was talking about.”
She started writing but was afraid that “by the time it got produced, Congress will have gotten around to some legislation and my play will no longer be relevant.
“But guess what? That never happened. Which is good for my play, but bad for society. We still do not have a federal framework for a bill dealing with the information about ourselves that can live online for all eternity.”
Ms. Rothstein’s other works are similarly weighty and prescient. “By the Water” deals with a Staten Island community torn asunder in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.
“A Good Farmer” concerns the unlikely friendship between two women, one a farm owner and the other an illegal Mexican immigrant, both trying to survive in a community sharply divided about newcomers.
Ms. Rothstein grew up in northern Connecticut.
For the record, she has New Jersey ties. Her father, Alan, grew up in the state, “so I spent an awful lot of time in the New Brunswick area,” she said. Her mom, Marilyn Simon Rothstein, is the author of several humorous Jewish-themed novels who has “done a lot of book talks around New Jersey.” And to complete the circle, Sharyn’s husband, Jeff Lesh, is from Rochelle Park.
She belonged to “a Conservative synagogue, Beth El in West Hartford, and I went to a Reform Jewish summer camp, Camp Eisner in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, where my 9-year-old daughter will be going for the first time this June,” she said.
While her plays cover various topics, Ms. Rothstein believes their themes come out of her “Jewish heritage,” she said.
“I am incredibly grateful to have a Jewish education. It really does inform my approach and what I write about. I grew up with the idea that being Jewish means committing yourself to tikkun olam. So the idea of social justice is something that always interested me.”
After college, she moved to New York, where she took a lot of day jobs. “I worked at a talent agency,” she said. “I worked at a Broadway advertising agency, which was a lot of fun. I did all kinds of freelance writing. Anything anyone would pay me for, basically, while I was trying to build my theater career.
“But I’m sure you know — I’m sure everyone knows — a theater career is not the most lucrative career, even when you’re having success. When I started getting hired for television work, I was finally able to make my living just writing.”
The television work started with “Suits” and continues with the “Orphan Black” spinoff, “Orphan Black: Echoes,” which will begin its first 10-episode season on AMC later this year.
For now, though, it’s back to playwriting. She’s working on a stage adaptation of Joan Micklin Silver’s beloved 1975 movie “Hester Street.” The film is about assimilation and follows Gitl, a young immigrant who comes to join her husband in New York.
“Two producers came to me about six years ago, and they were looking for someone to adapt it for the stage,” she said. “I hadn’t seen the movie before, but when I did, it immediately resonated with me. That’s my family’s story. My family came from the shtetls of Poland and Russia and settled on the Lower East Side, where I spent time as a kid with my grandfather, where he used to get his knishes.
“I want to honor the movie as it was and keep its joyful and inspiring spirit but make sure it also resonates with what we as Jewish people in America are facing now. We’re dealing with a rise in antisemitism and hatred.
“A lot of my work focuses on issues of social justice and community engagement. And I think a lot of that comes from my Jewish education, one that I am now subjecting my children to.”
“Right to be Forgotten” runs from June 8 to 10 at the JCC MetroWest in West Orange and from June 15 to 18 at the Sieminski Theater in Basking Ridge. Buy tickets at www.americantheatergroup.org.