I first heard about the Penguin Rep from Alan Brandt.
We were standing in the lobby of an off-Broadway theater after a performance of his heartfelt drama “2½ Jews.”
It was Brandt’s first play, written when he was in his 70s. It was about how three generations of men — a Jewish granddad, his son who married out of the faith, and his grandson — find common ground. It had all the grist for a great story. But most of what Brandt wanted to talk about was the Penguin, where the play debuted, and its artistic director, Joe Brancato, who nurtured the production, shepherding voluminous script changes.
The theater, he told me, was in a barn in Stony Point. It conjured visions of audiences sitting on bales of hay as they watched cows meander by, somewhere off in the middle distance. It wasn’t until a half-dozen years later that I ventured up the Palisades Parkway to see another of the Rep’s Jewish-themed productions, Jon Marans’ “A Strange and Separate People.”
It was there that I first met Brancato, who proved not only smart and knowledgeable about theater, but also extremely haimish. We spoke again recently on the occasion of the Penguin’s 40th anniversary season. This season, two of its five productions are Jewish themed: “Trayf,” set in a mitzvah tank, and “Syncopation,” about the unlikely relationship between a middle-aged Jewish butcher and a young Italian garment worker.
I asked him if people assume that he is Jewish. He laughed and said, “If they see my passion, my drive, my intelligence, my commitment to art, sure. I’m sometimes mistaken for Jewish.”
If he’s not Jewish by blood, certainly he is by culture. His father was a Yiddish-speaking division head at the Bureau of Alchohol, Tobacco, and Firearms who once went undercover at the Jewish Defense League.
“He and his sisters were raised in Brooklyn and were very close to their Jewish neighbors,” Brancato told me. “My father and his sisters were all fluent in Yiddish, and when the relatives got together and didn’t want the kids to understand what they were saying they spoke in Yiddish.
“My memories of Sunday nights were watching Ed Sullivan and eating potato latkes.”
Growing up in his Bronx neighborhood, near Gun Hill and White Plains roads, Brancato directed neighborhood kids in plays. Memories of those plays linger with some of the actors to this day. “A number of them see my name in the paper, come to the theater, and tell me how vividly they remember those shows,” Brancato said.
Brancato went on to get a degree in English and taught at North Rockland High School, where he also directed school plays. While he was there, he heard about an old barn on the grounds of the Sony Point Conference Center, a facility run by the Presbyterian Church, which agreed to let him use it.
At first Brancato ran the place as a community theater, though he was determined to transform the barn into a venue where local residents could experience professional stage productions. About three years in, he made contact with Kitty Carlisle Hart, who ran the New York State Council on the Arts. “She was very supportive of us,” he said. She provided funding, so “I was able to audition actors in New York, who at tremendous sacrifice would come up here.”
At first, Brancato produced the kinds of classics that attract people to theater — well-known plays by everyone from Chekhov to Albee to Neil Simon.
But he soon moved into original works, and that made both his and the Penguin’s reputation. For example, Brancato commissioned and directed Allan Knee’s “The Man Who Was Peter Pan,” which became the Johnny Depp movie “Finding Neverland” and subsequently was the basis for a Broadway musical of the same name.
Like “2 ½ Jews” and “A Strange and Separate People,” many other Penguin originals had long and successful afterlives, both off Broadway and around the country. “Cobb,” about the baseball player Ty, was one such play. In fact, just before I talked to him, Brancato was in Washington, D.C., where again he directed “The Devil’s Music: The Life and Times of Bessie Smith.” That is a Penguin original that always seems to be in production somewhere. From Washington he went to the 59 East 59th Theaters in Manhattan, where he’s directing “Small World,” a play that ran in Stony Point last season, about Walt Disney and Igor Stravinsky. “Small World” debuts this month.
For Brancato, theater is almost a religious experience. “Years ago we had flea markets and now we have eBay,” he said. “We used to have movies and now we have Netflix.
“Where do we have now that people come together? Churches and synagogues and theater. My preference is the theater.”