Local writer tarnishes the golden child syndrome
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Local writer tarnishes the golden child syndrome

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Matt Biagini, Vince Gatton, and Rachel Evans in “Exquisite Potential.”

Aren’t all our children exceptional?

Nowadays, children seem to come in three varieties: just perfect, extraordinarily wonderful, and totally amazing. Then there is David Zuckerman in Stephen Kaplan’s play “Exquisite Potential.”

David is in a category all his own – divine.

David’s father, Alan, is convinced his 3-year-old son is the messiah, and he has been keeping a list of reasons that prove he is right. When Alan and his pregnant wife, Laura, go to their rabbi to discuss the ramifications of this notion, things get really weird.

Mr. Kaplan, who lives in Bogota and teaches English and drama at the Bergen County Academies magnet school in Hackensack, is pretty exceptional himself. He wrote his first play when he was 15; it won him a young playwrights’ contest and led him to write more plays, which won more awards. “Exquisite Potential” is the winner of the New Jersey Playwrights Contest, and the Project Rushmore production now at the ArcLight Theatre at 152 W. 72st Street is the third the comic play has received.

While Mr. Kaplan grew up in Los Angeles, he is not from a show business family. His parents were supportive of the arts and community theater, however, and encouraged his early interest in performing. “The first show I ever saw was a production of ‘Damn Yankees,'” Mr. Kaplan recalled, adding that children are natural performers. “You’re given permission to make believe and then applauded for it.”

At NYU’s Tisch School for the Arts, Mr. Kaplan joked that he was a double triple threat; not only could he sing, dance, and act, but he also studied directing, design, and writing.

“You’re constantly using different muscles,” he said about these varying skills. “I’m hopefully a better writer because I know what it’s like to be an actor.”

As a director, he thinks about staging and presenting a play in a new way. For instance, he said, he had seen differences in all three productions of “Exquisite Potential” and made commensurate changes to the script.

The Zuckerman family is clearly Jewish, and Alan seems well versed in the Jewish concept of moshiach, but the Christian messiah, Jesus Christ, is integral to the play. Mr. Kaplan said that neither Jesus nor any other messiah ever was discussed at the Jewish day school he attended as a boy. “In Judaism, the relationship to Jesus is very weird,” he said. “There’s this Jesus figure, who is considered to be the messiah by a whole group of people,” but Jews don’t believe he was. Perhaps Jesus became the negative standard against whom Jews measured their own ideas of messianic redemption.

The idea for “Exquisite Potential” came from Mr. Kaplan’s experience as a parent, and he identifies both with Alan Zuckerman’s pride in his son’s accomplishments and with his fears that somehow he will fail to give his son all he needs. Mr. Kaplan also was struck by the hope engendered by President Obama’s first campaign. “I was intrigued by how people viewed Obama as a kind of messiah – he’s going to change all these things,” Mr. Kaplan said, and he found himself reminding his students and friends that the campaign’s slogan was Yes, We Can, not Yes, I Can.

Mr. Kaplan and his partner send their 8-year-old son to the Solomon Schechter Day School in Bergen County. The two men are the only same-sex parents there now. “It’s been really almost a non-issue,” he said, adding that the school has a very welcoming atmosphere.

At the school where he teaches, students come from diverse backgrounds but all are excellent students by definition. “The kids are incredibly talented, incredibly gifted,” Mr. Kaplan said, but he thinks that most have been given a sense of balance. While he also was an excellent student, getting straight A’s and feeling great pressure to succeed, “a lot of that was self imposed,” he said. “I can’t imagine growing up today. It’s all about test scores and where you are going to college.”

Mr. Kaplan just came back from Texas, where his new play, “A Real Boy,” premiered. In a reverse take on Pinocchio, two puppets have a human child. While he was there, he found the house where his grandfather was born in San Diego, Texas. At two years old, his grandfather moved to the other San Diego, the one in California. Mr. Kaplan said he didn’t know how his great grandparents, who came to New York City from Russia with millions of other Jewish immigrants, landed in Texas, but he intended to find out. That story may end up in another play some day.

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