My friend Dan once explained to me why he likes Jewish people: “In most families, you sit around the dinner table in silence until you absolutely need something from the other end. That’s when you’re forced to speak. But when I eat dinner with a Jewish family, the tiniest comment sets off an entertaining debate. Someone will say ‘I like this pasta’ and it’s immediately followed by controversy. ‘What, you didn’t like what your mother made last week?’ ”
Dan grew up in polite Alaska but moved to New York to attend acting school, where he experienced for the first time a culture and kind of dialogue that was, for me, the only way of life. In my family, every conversation was a debate complete with philosophical tangents. A discussion about the Yankees would quickly devolve into an argument about salary caps and then into a theoretical consideration of hegemony, and finally, inevitably, a shouting match about Israeli policies in the Middle East.
So for me, acting was a seamless transition from living. I would yell at my real sister at home, travel to the theater, yell at my fake sister on stage, and then head back home to apologize to my real sister. (In our house, every argument had two acts.) For Dan, the theater was a place to experience new thrills–what he would call the “exhilarating little orgasm” you get from acting when it feels, even for a moment, entirely real. Although Dan and I came to the theater from different places, we both felt the same buzz.
This raises the question: What exactly do we like so much about drama? Why do people like Dan and me, who have no real strife–who have the use of all our limbs and are not starving on the street–create fictional situations to make our lives more dramatic? Do some people need drama in their lives like others need extreme sports? Are Dan and I just bungee jumping every night on stage?
It’s possible that Dan and I pursue theater for two, virtually opposite reasons. I might enjoy drama because it resembles the way I view the world–that is, through a heightened state of argument and debate. The eternally nasty George and Martha of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? recall an average Tuesday night for my girlfriend and me. Dan, on the other hand, might enjoy drama because it provides him with a new way to interact with the world. For him, George and Martha are foreign creatures whose psyches are fascinating to explore for a few hours each night.
I always thought it was curious that Dan got such a charge from acting in extremely dramatic situations, when in real life he tries to avoid them at all costs. But I guess, in a way, acting allows Dan to sit at the Jewish table for a few hours. On a good night, he might even be able to pass for one of us.
Jesse Eisenberg’s play, Asuncion, is playing at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater until December 18.