Jericho, the latest dark comedy from famed New York playwright Jack Canfora, will end its eight-week, nearly sold-out run at Florida Studio Theatre on June 9. Exploring themes of politics and personal pain in the aftermath of 9/11, the devastating yet humorous tale follows the lives of two conflicted survivors, a Jewish man and Palestinian woman, introduced by family during a Jewish Thanksgiving dinner. Penning the thought-provoking tale of how people deal with guilt, grief and ‘going on,’ Canfora, the award-winning writer of Place Setting (2005), masterfully examines the effects of an American trauma through a series of family feuds and intimate monologues, compelling his audience to examine America’s response to a modern tragedy, along with the lengths humans will go to find inner meaning again.
Canfora took a few moments to speak with This Week in Sarasota.
TWIS: What inspired you to write such a wonderfully tragic piece as Jericho?
Canfora: I wanted to write a play about the difficulty people have with being connected to a community, to each other and to themselves. I started looking for situations and characters in which I could bring that out. Usually, I only have a vague thought of what a play is about until I starting writing it. I figure it out at some point along the way.
TWIS: The play illustrates the private struggles of those affected by 9/11. Where were you on that day? How did 9/11 affect you?
Canfora: I live in New York. I was in the neighborhood the night before. I was 20 miles away when it happened. I could see the smoke. I was fortunate enough not to lose anyone. I don’t know if I could write about it if I had. It was a shocking, gaping tragedy. It affected me profoundly. I remember a few days afterward, there was a peculiar smell in the air. That will stay with me, along with seeing telephone poles plastered with images of the missing. On the same token, a few years out, I was amazed that our lives didn’t seem that affected by it. I felt that this aggressive embrace of normality that people tried for and the government encouraged was in a weird way alienating. After Pearl Harbor, the country came together. After 9/11, we came together for like an hour and a half and were then told to go shopping. As a culture we were told not to worry about it and to ‘mind our business.’
TWIS: Many themes surround Jericho as a whole. The play touches on the absurd amount of attention given to celebrities and reality television. What are your thoughts about America’s fascination with Hollywood?
Canfora: I’m sort of guilty as charged as well. I think that we focus far too much on it. I think it’s documented that we’re oddly fixated on the wrong things as a culture. But when you have a culture based on making the most profit the most quickly, you are going to take the path of least resistance. That’s going to involve things that are titillating or voyeuristic. That’s the most profitable.
TWIS: Are you one of those people who believes that movies, Facebook and media in general are just a way to distract people from following the important political agendas on the table in the US?
Canfora: I guess that’s true but I don’t think it’s that organized. I think these things just naturally evolve as part of capitalism and we as people play along with it.
TWIS: Was there a reason behind using so many Jewish themes in the play?
Canfora: It’s a culture I know well. One of the characters wants to forsake American ideals and embrace Jewish ones. I always found that fascinating. It may say as much about what isn’t in America as what is in Israel. I think that in Israel there is a sense of belonging and a sense of community and continuity. In America there are many different demographics and it’s about what’s new and modern. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I just think that sometimes we lose the sense of being in a community.
TWIS: How difficult was it to know where to draw the line regarding the humor in the piece?
Canfora: It’s not too conscious on my part. I try to be honest without sounding too pompous. I try to listen to what the characters are saying and how they’d respond. I think there are moments in life that are dark and bleak that you respond with humor. Other moments you can’t because you’re overwhelmed. Just because the character is making a joke doesn’t mean the character isn’t being serious. As a playwright I learned if a joke is just a joke, just to get a laugh, then you have to get rid of it. It has to serve a function.
TWIS: Your first full-length play Place Setting starred Jon Cryer. How have you grown as a playwright since that time?
Canfora: The first play was to see if I could write a full-length play. I came into writing by way of sketch comedy and improv. I’m painfully aware of my shortcomings (laughs). I like to think I’m always learning and trying to improve.
TWIS: Where do you hope your writing takes you next?
Canfora: I’ve written a few plays since Jericho, one of which is in discussions for a run in New York. I’ve written a few screenplays as well. Still, I see myself as a playwright, and that’s where I’m focusing now.
- Tickets for the rolling world premiere play are on sale through June 9 and can be purchased online at FloridaStudioTheatre.org, by phone at (941) 366-9000 or by visiting the Box Office. Anthony Paull is a syndicated columnist, author and filmmaker. His first novel Outtakes of a Walking Mistake is available now.