The West Wing’s Joshua Malina To Star in Provocative Play In London

The West Wing’s Joshua Malina To Star in Provocative Play In London

EXCLUSIVE: The West Wing actor Joshua Malina will make his London stage bow in the fall playing a “secular, sarcastic, anti-religious Jew” who says “the unsayable” about Israel in what’s being billed as the European premiere of Nathan Englander’s adaptation of his 2012 short story What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank.

“It’s quite exciting to have Malina making his English debut,” said the show’s director, Patrick Marber.

Described by Marber as a “serious comedy with seriously funny jokes, but its purpose is serious,” the show will run October 4-November 23 at the Marylebone Theatre in London.

Marber and his producers Oliver King, Nina Tassler, David Daniels and Craig Dorfman are hoping to transfer into the West End after its run at the Marylebone. 

And, they’re eager for the production to have “more life” after London.

“Off Broadway, Broadway subsidized — doesn’t matter,” Marber pleaded.

“We just want to see how it goes and whether people like it,” he told me.

Marber heard about the show when he was directing Malina two years ago on Broadway in Tom Stoppard’s Tony Award-winning play Leopoldstadt. 

Malina had starred in an outta town production of What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego.

Allison Janney and Joshua Malina in ‘The West Wing’ (NBCUniversal)

Paul Drinkwater/NBCU Photo Bank

Marber, who’s also a playwright, read it and then got in touch with Englander, a Pulitzer Prize finalist for his short fiction, about presenting the play in London. 

It’s about two couples sitting at a kitchen table in Florida. ”One couple are religious Jews from Israel, and the other couple are secular Jews living in Florida,” Marber explained.

Over the past year, the two men have worked closely on it, ”so it’s a whole new thing, essentially a new play,” he added.

“But since October the seventh,” Marber said, referring to when Hamas attacked Israel last year, “Nathan and I have done a lot more work on it and made it even more about current Israel politics and the government and the war.

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“It’s very hot, it’s very topical, and it’s now a play about the whole conversation of secular Jews, liberal Jews, religious Jews, right-wing Jews, Israeli Jews. It’s big,” he sighed.

He admitted that the play’s like a “tinder box.”

Laughing, he told me: ”It’ll take some brave actors and brave producers to front it up. It’s what theatre should be. It’s about now! It will annoy some people and upset some people, and hopefully get people talking.” 

Englander “just puts it all out there, every side of the argument,” Marber said.

“These two couples go to war with each other, and they say everything that is unsayable. And they say it to each other with anger and, to a degree, with love and compassion,” Marber said as he likened the play to a “sort of Jewish Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”

I got that sense just from reading the savagely funny 2012 short-story version of What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank published in the The New Yorker.

However, Marber stressed that the short story is only the inspiration for the play because on stage the piece “has to have conflict all the time. And each scene is its own little war,” though the work does have “some kind of peaceful resolution.”

The two couples are darkly hilarious.

Debbie and Lauren are old school friends from Queens. Debbie married Phil, who Marber kept referring to as “Florida Phil.” That’s the part Malina played at the Old Globe, though it’s a very different Phil now than the one he played in San Diego. “Phil’s still a secular, sarcastic, anti-religious Jew,” Marber said, but he has a lot more to argue about.

Lauren married Mark, and they now reside in Israel with their seven daughters. They have become ultra-Orthodox Jews.

However, Lauren and Mark reveal a merry side in between the launching of verbal missiles.

They have a thing for weed and vodka, and a lot of it — not the real stuff, of course — will be consumed by the characters onstage. 

That should not give the audience an excuse to light up in the orchestra seats, which is what happened when the Bob Marley musical Get Up Stand Up! played in the West End a few years ago. On one Saturday night, I watched a theater usher confront a gentlemen who puffed away on a large spliff. He was chased out of the auditorium. 

Englander and Marber are exploring the idea of keeping the play up to date with the conflict in Gaza “so that the couples are going to be arguing about everything that is right up to date,” Marber said.

However, he’s hopeful that “by the time we open, there’ll be some kind of peace, and some kind of beginning of some kind of talks about how do we resolve this seemingly intractable situation.”

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Patrick Marber (Marc Brenner)

Malina played White House counsel Will Bailey in the later seasons of The West Wing. Marber said that every now and again he “rewatches and rewatches” the entire seven seasons of the series. Every once in a while, I do the same.

Marber was quick to point out that he has watched Malina’s other TV work, including Scandal. 

Back in the day, I caught Malina in the original Broadway production of Aaron Sorkin’s play A Few Good Men, but that’s the only time I’ve watched him tread the boards. 

Dorothea Myer-Bennett, who was in the London cast of Leopoldstadt and the Young Vic production of Nachtland, both directed by Marber, has been cast as Lauren.

Casting for the show’s three other roles is ongoing.

Creatives on board so far include design by Anna Fleischle and sound design by David Gregory.

Marber, who won a Tony Award for directing Leopoldstadt on Broadway, has adapted Stoppard’s great work for a three-part TV drama that will be directed by Stephen Daldry and produced by Stephen Spielberg. 


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