Packed house turns out for reading featuring Ed Asner

Veteran actor Ed Asner, left, performed the title role of Frank Barth with actor Peter Smith and brought Oren Safdie's story to life with the greatest of ease.

Ed Asner and Peter Smith read through Oren Safdie’s newest work, “Frank Barth.”

By Ryan O’Quinn/Special to The Malibu Times

A packed house turned out Saturday night at the Malibu Stage Co. for the third installment of the ongoing play reading series to see local playwright Oren Safdie’s newest work, “Frank Barth,” with veteran actor Ed Asner reading the title role.

The theatre has been a good omen for Safdie in the past and this production was no different as witnessed by the standing ovation the performance received following the 85-minute play reading. Safdie’s last work, “Private Jokes, Public Places,” premiered in Malibu and went on to Broadway to receive rave reviews.

The story of Safdie’s latest work centers on Frank Barth, an aged struggling playwright trying to succeed in show business. Asner and actor Peter Smith brought Safdie’s story to life with the greatest of ease, and it was easy to forget they were on stage with a minimalist set, reading lines from a script. They injected emotion, facial expressions and the skill that only experienced actors of their caliber can pull off, and kept the audience laughing from the opening curtain.

“It’s easy to do when the play is good,” admitted Smith, who also appeared in “Private Jokes, Public Places” when it premiered at Malibu Stage Co. “I was in New York when Oren called me. Ed was already attached and I couldn’t turn it down.”

Smith said he was contemplating coming to Los Angeles for pilot season and once the opportunity arose to perform Safdie’s play with Asner as his co-star it solidified his decision.

“Any blocking you saw was spontaneous,” Smith said. “Ed is just the best. He has such a wonderful quality as an actor and has that little twinkle in his eye on stage.”

Smith said they had each read through the script and had gotten together the day prior to the performance at Asner’s office to run through it once. Safdie was on hand at the run-through to offer a few suggestions, but other than that, Saturday’s performance was the first time it had been performed and also the first time Safdie had heard it read in its entirety.

The praise seemed endless as the audience members filed out of the theatre and congratulated the actors and the playwright. Some comments overheard were, “They were a perfect match,” “The timing was so good” and “The writing really sucked you in. It was not at all cliché.”

“It was excellently written and excellently performed,” said Malibu resident David Emminger. “It held my attention the whole time.”

Safdie said the play is semi-autobiographical and is taken from his days as a personal assistant to a writer in New York City. The playwright about whom the story is based is 97 years old and still takes the subway daily to his office in Greenwich Village.

“The first reading is the most exciting,” Safdie said. “I didn’t know if it was a comedy or a drama. The point of the play is that these two people may not be the most talented, but the emphasis is on the human connection and the human spirit.”

Safdie turned a play about a job interview into a poignant, often hysterical journey of two very different generations coming together and teaching each other. The play is set in the present day and, in real time, follows the course of a New York University undergraduate applying for the job of personal assistant to a crotchety Jewish, former advertising executive who, among other things, misinterprets a computer mouse for a real rodent.

Not only is there an emotional ride the audience experiences, but there is also teaching involved from the stage to the audience. Safdie’s characters offer mini lessons and points of view on many topics from the Holocaust to girlfriend advice. The play successfully, often comically, through the course of general conversation from two opposing points of view, touches on playwrights Terrence McNally, Tennessee Williams, Stanislavsky, Beckett, Strindberg, Shakespeare, Chekhov, Arthur Miller and David Mamet.

“I think this is a great piece,” Asner said. “It’s filled with intricacies and great humor. The fascinating thing is that you have to struggle to find the tragedy in it. They are both there in great swaths.”

“This is great. This is the very first time [Oren] has heard this,” said Jacqueline Bridgeman, Malibu Stage Co. president and co-founder. “Nobody has ever seen this before. The material was just wonderful.”

The play reading series was originally a concept by the board of directors to hear plays and consider them as production possibilities for upcoming seasons. The decision was made to open it to the public and the play and the performance was first rate, confirming that high quality professional theater is available in Malibu.

The play reading series will continue for one more weekend and will conclude on Saturday with a reading of “Against the Rising Sea” by Kelly Masterson and directed by Joe Cacaci. The reading will feature Marion Ross, Jo DeWinter, Meeghan Holoway and Yefa Edelstein. Malibu Stage Co. is located at 29243 Pacific Coast Highway and tickets can be reserved by calling 310.589.1998.