Alice and Jack and Victor

Alice and Jack and Victor

Screenwriter from New City touches on life, art, and love

Masterpiece (formerly Masterpiece Theater) is the collective name for more than 50 years of British television series rebroadcast on PBS. Often adoptions of novels and books (“All Creatures Great and Small,” for example) but also original works, the programs invariably are of exceptional quality.

In fact, just watching these shows makes you feel smart, and name-dropping one at a cocktail party — “Did you see ‘Downton Abbey’ last night?” — immediately establishes your intellectual cred.

Among the newest shows is “Alice and Jack,” a six-episode limited series that premieres on March 17. It was created and written by a first-time Masterpiece contributor, Lord Victor Levin of New Castle.

I’m sorry. My bad. It’s actually created and written by Vic Levin from New City.

What Levin created is a tortuous love story that spans 15 years. Alice (Andrea Riseborough) is a driven, highly motivated financier, while Jack (Domhnall Gleeson) is a biotech engineer. They meet through a singles app and immediately hit it off. Until they don’t.

It’s an on-again, off-again relationship over 15 years that is sometimes painful, sometimes inspiring, but always involving.

Victor Levin

Zooming with Levin, 62, I asked how well he knew the two characters. Are you one of them? Or are you both?

“I have felt many of the things these characters have felt,” he says, not wanting to reveal any spoilers. But pressed, he adds:

“She is carrying around significant trauma. And it makes it very difficult for her to connect with people. She wants to desperately, and she hopes that she will be able to, but very often she finds that the obstacles are too great.”

How relationships work is a topic “I have been wrestling with a very long time. Are the bonds that hold us together stronger than the forces that would tear us apart? Or, put another way, can love conquer all?

“It’s fair to say that I’ve been trying to work out the answer to that question for most of my adult life. If you haven’t seen my original work,” the films “‘Five to Seven’ and ‘Destination Wedding,’ this theme is running through those works as well.

“It takes a while to get the story right. While I’m not saying I got it right this time, I hope I have. That will be up to you and to the audience.”

That “Alice and Jack” wound up on PBS is not a surprise, given the current comic-book-centric love affair at the AMCs of the world. I suggest that had he wanted that, Levin might have made Alice and Jack Marvel heroes.

Victor Levin and his parents, Judith and Stanley, pose for his bar mitzvah pictures.

“Maybe so,” he responds with a chuckle. “But people are not going to stop having ideas about relationships and about what happens between people and the messiness and the trouble that we can get ourselves into. And that’s not a superhero movie. That’s not an asteroid-coming-at-the-Earth movie. But it’s got to go somewhere. And so, at the moment, in many cases, it becomes a limited series on a television network.”

Levin had his heart set on casting Riseborough and Gleeson. Originally the story was set with the pair as New York-based expats. But for financial and other reasons, the production moved to London and the show became veddy, veddy British, and a long way from Levin’s beginnings.

“I was born at Beth Israel Hospital on I believe it was 23rd Street in Manhattan,” he said. “My family lived in Riverdale at the time, on Fairfield Avenue. When I was 8 years old, we moved to New City. My father was a dentist, and my mother was a music teacher and violinist.”

I noted that he married a violinist, Jennifer Gordon, who was the concert master of the Kennedy Center Opera Orchestra. “When she came out here,” to California, Levin says, “she left that job and has been playing on films and on a freelance basis with orchestras ever since. When I told that to a friend, he answered me, ‘Dr. Freud, on line one.’”

Growing up, “we were proud members of Temple Beth Shalom on New Hempstead Road,” he continued. “The rabbi was Alan Kaplan. I had bar mitzvah lessons with Mr. Of. I confess I did not chant my haftorah but did chant my Torah portion. It went well. I remember I wore an orange tallis. I might still have it. Hang on a second.”

Levin goes offscreen for a moment and comes back and says, “Actually, I think I gave it to my daughter. But it was multicolored, made for the occasion, 1976 vintage.”

His first job after Amherst College was as a copywriter for the Y&R advertising agency. The company’s CEO, Edward Ney, “started something called the copy training program. If you wanted to be an advertising copywriter, you didn’t have to have a portfolio. You could send in a play or a novel or a screenplay or something that you felt was a good indicator of your abilities.

“People from various schools in the Northeast would do this, and they hired, I don’t know, a half dozen of us a year. And if you were hired, they would pay you $13,500 a year. Also, you’d get $7 as a dinner allowance if you stayed until 7 o’clock and $9 for a taxi if you stayed ’til 9 o’clock. All of us would leave at 9:01, our work magically concluded.”

He won awards and had the prospect of a good career in front of him. Still, he wrote scripts at night and on weekends. A childhood buddy, the TV producer Alan Kirschenbaum — who was the son of comedian Freddie Roman — preceded him to Hollywood. “He called me and said, ‘I think I can get you a job here,’” Levin  said.

The rest is history. He started on the short-lived “Baby Talk” but moved on to far more successful shows, including “The Larry Sanders Show” and “Mad About You.”

On the surface, “Mad About You,” a comedy that starred Helen Hunt and Paul Reiser, and the drama “Alice and Jack” seem totally dissimilar. But, I say, I think they’re really the same. Both are about couples whose relationship seems beshert but can’t always click.

“I couldn’t agree more,” Levin  responded.  “In fact, I think you just made probably the most important point of all. In all love stories, there are obstacles. The obstacles in ‘Mad About You’ are more benign,” but they’re still obstacles that have to be overcome. Like in life.”

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