Theater for New City Presents Premiere of ‘Playing Sinatra’ September 12

In “Playing Sinatra” by Bernard Kops, grown up siblings in Streatham, London, resist their lonely future by idolizing ol’ Blue Eyes. Norman can’t leave their family nest; his sister, Sandra, knows she must try. Her new friend, Philip, is drawn into their trap to escape his painful past. Theater for the New City will present the play’s American premiere September 12 to October 6, 2013, performed by Austin Pendleton, Katharine Cullison and Richard McElvain. Kelly Morgan directs.

Playwright Bernard Kops is one of Europe’s best-known and most admired playwrights. He was born in the East End of London of Dutch-Jewish working class parents in 1926. He achieved recognition with his first play, “The Hamlet of Stepney Green,” which was performed all over the world. He has written more than forty plays for stage and radio, nine novels and six volumes of poetry. He lives in London.

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L: Austin Pendleton as Philip, C: Katharine Cullison as Sandra, R: Richard McElvain as Norman. Photo by Jonathan Slaff

The play takes place in the decaying family home that has been shelter to Sandra and Norman since childhood. She toils in an office. He, agoraphobic, works a little from home as a bookbinder. Now middle-aged, they are bonded by promises made to their deceased parents and by their shared, obsessive adoration of Frank Sinatra. With posters of the crooner on the walls and his records on the sound system, they carry on each evening in a life-avoiding ritual of microwave dinners and fan talk. Their cozy status quo is shattered when Sandra brings home Philip, the “platonic lover of her dreams,” who describes himself as a “seeker” and encourages her toward independence. Phillip’s potential to finally break Sandra out of her long-suffering isolation sends Norman on a desperate scheme to prevent his life from changing, making him dangerous and unpredictable. The tense, gripping play holds holds the audience tightly as it illuminates the nature of obsession and the strength of family promises, home and the ties that bind.

When “Playing Sinatra” opened in 1991 at London’s Warehouse Theatre, Time Out (Michael Wright) wrote, “This intense, challenging and thoroughly accessible domestic tragicomedy…will surely prove to be one of the most important plays of the year…because of the psychological depth and complexity that Kops achieves in his economical but oh-so-potent three hander.” The Times (Harry Eyres) declared that the play “fills its space to the bursting-point and expands outwards with whirling centrifugal force, scattering ideas from its tight central core” and that the evening “kept the first night audience so rapt that this critic found himself unable to turn a page in a notebook.”

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L: Austin Pendleton as Philip, R: Katharine Cullison as Sandra. Photo by Jingxi Zhang

Bernard Kops explains that the play’s concept grew out of a chance encounter with siblings who lived in isolation together and fancied Frank Sinatra. But its perspective on families and obsession came out of his own life experience. Partly, it comes from the nearness of relationships in poverty. His earliest days were spent in London’s Stepney Green, which was home to thousands of immigrant Jews before the blitz. Bernard was the baby brother in an intensely close Jewish family with two other brothers and their three sisters who fought to cuddle him. With his youngest sister, he was sent away from the WWII bombings to the English countryside. Later, when it came time to break out of the nest, to leave his family behind, he was the only child who did. “It was hard,” he says. “I loved them, but I was different from them.” He knew he was an artist. “Home,” he says, “has its beauty but also its fearsome, negative things that stay with you.” He was first an actor; that’s where he learned the craft of playwriting. Now he considers himself a playwright who writes for actors.

Only three of Kops’ plays have been produced in America. “The Hamlet of Stepney Green,” his first play, was presented at New York’s Cricket Theater, which was located at 165 Second Ave. (It was one of two theaters in the old Baptist Tabernacle building at Second Avenue and Tenth Street that became the home of Theater for the New City from 1977 to 1986.) “Dreams of Anne Frank,” which looks at the famed Holocaust victim’s quiet private life while she was incarcerated, has been produced world-wide, including many places around the U.S. “Enter Solly Gold,” starring Jackie Mason, played a pre-broadway tryout at Playhouse on the Mall in Paramus, NJ. “Playing Sinatra,” which Kops regards as one of his best plays, might not have come here except that New York actress Katharine Cullison met Kops in a playwriting workshop eight years ago and he saw her as the perfect Sandra.

Kops’ other plays include “Ezra” (regarded as one of his best plays), “Who Shall I Be Tomorrow?,” “Call in the Night,” “Golem,” “Jacob and the Green Rabbbi,” “Cafe Zeitgeist,” Riverchange,” “The Opening,” “I Am Isaac Babel,” “Returning We Hear The Larks,” “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” and “Rogues and Vagabonds.”

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L: Katharine Cullison as Sandra, C: Austin Pendleton as Philip, R: Richard McElvain as Norman. Photo by Jonathan Slaff

London’s East End is a poor neighborhood that, in the 1950s, was rich in nascent playwrights including Harold Pinter, Arnold Wesker and Kops. Of the three, only Kops is still writing. Now 86, he has recently completed two new plays to add to his portfolio. His body of work also includes nine novels, six books of poetry, numerous radio plays and an autobiography. He has no intention of slowing down and is in fine fettle despite an auto accident this year. “I was lucky to find the right woman 60 years ago,” he reflects, referring to his wife, Erica, who is a scientist and the daughter of a Russian family. They have four children, six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. Insight on family informs his work at every level. “This play,” he says of “Playing Sinatra,” “tells about the nearness that is necessary and the nearness that is what you cherish for the rest of your days-it never leaves you.” About his own long productive life, he says, “Poverty in childhood can help enormously. I am very tough. It made me very strong.” He adds, “I would have made a great American. I am restless. That is why America is such a great country. The restless ones help a country do things and thrive.”

Austin Pendleton (Philip) has most recently appeared in New York in “The Last Will” by Robert Brustein at the Abingdon Theatre, “Suddenly Last Summer” with Mississippi Mud Productions and “Ivanov” at CSC. The first two shows he appeared in New York were “Oh Dad, Poor Dad…” (Off-Broadway) and “Fiddler on the Roof” (Broadway), both directed by Jerome Robbins. Since then he has appeared many times in New York in all sorts of venues and at many regional theaters, including the Williamstown Theatre Festival (where he apprenticed) and Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre, where he is a member of the Ensemble. He has appeared in about 150 movies and in recurring roles on television, in such shows as “Oz,” “Homicide” and “Law and Order.” He teaches acting at New York’s HB Studio. He is also a director and a playwright.

Katharine Cullison (Sandra) understudied in “Dirty Linen” by Tom Stoppard on the West End. She has appeared Off-Broadway in “Ways and Means,” “The Shewing-Up of Blanco Posnet,” “Laundry and Bourbon,” “Dead: A Love Story,” “Moonchildren,” “Searching for Hope” and “Rumcake.” Her films include Nora Ephron’s “You’ve Got Mail,” Woody Allen’s “Mighty Aphrodite,” “Husbands and Wives” and “Bullets Over Broadway”; Penny Marshall’s “Awakenings,” Mike Nichols’ “Regarding Henry” and “Big”; Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street,” Sidney Lumet’s “Power” and Martin Scorcese’s “The Age of Innocence.” Her TV shows include “All My Children” and “Law & Order.” She studied under Doreen Cannon of The Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London and is a proud member of HB Studios, where she studied with Uta Hagen, Herbert Berghof and Anne Jackson.

Richard McElvain (Norman) created the role of Mr. Donovan in the original production of “Luck of the Irish” last spring at The Huntington Theatre. He played Paulo in “Daughter of Venus” and Rand in “What the Butler Saw” at Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theatre. He has played the title roles in Brecht’s “Galileo” (with Boston’s Underground Railroad Theatre Company), “Tartuffe” and an adaptation of “The Old Man in the Sea.” He won an Elliot Norton award for The Critic in “Saint Nicholas” with the Sugan Theatre in Cambridge, MA. He played Roy Cohn in Boston Theatreworks’ award wining production of “Angels in America, Parts I and II.” He has done his own adaptation of Sophocles “Antigone,” in which he also played Creon, at Boston’s Nora Theatre and directed “A Moon for the Misbegotten” there. He has translated and directed four plays by Moliere. His film and television credits include “Mermaids,” “What’s the Worst that could Happen,” “Mister North” and “Spencer for Hire.”

Kelly Morgan (Director) was the Founder/Producing Artistic Director of the Mint Theater Company, producing and/or directing many new works. His directing credits include: “Uncle Bob” with George Morfogen, “Jeremy Rudge” with Becky Ann Baker and “Thornwood” with Rodney Scott Hudson at the Mint; “Uncle Bob” with Austin Pendleton at Steppenwolf Theater, “Medea” at the Long Wharf Theater, “A Creature Craving” at Lost Tribe Theater, “Baby Dance” and “Static” at Contemporary American Theater Festival, “Last Yankee” at Independent Theater, “The Laramie Project” at Edinburgh Festival, “The New Girl” at Cleveland Play House, and “Another Vermeer” by Bruce J. Robinson and “Love Drunk,” the last play of Romulus Linney, both with Austin Pendleton at Abingdon Theater. He is on faculty at Fitchburg State University and recipient of a Kennedy Center Directing Fellowship.

Production designer is Jeff Pajer. Costume designer is Desiree Marquant. Lighting designer is Alexander Bartenieff. Sound designer is Kevin Lloyd.

Director Kelly Morgan says, “It is incredibly exciting to be working at Theater for the New City, under the wise direction of Crystal Field, where worthwhile plays can be mounted in a full productions and seen by everyone who wishes to see intriguing art because ticket prices are kept so low.”

Theater for the New City, 155 First Avenue (East Village), presents “Playing Sinatra” from September 12 to October 6, 2013. Performances are Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8:00 PM and Sundays at 3:00 PM. Tickets are $15 general admission and can be purchased online at They can be reserved by calling (212) 254-1109.