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Actor feels (mostly) at home in new show
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Actor feels (mostly) at home in new show

Growing up in Westfield in a home steeped in Jewish values gave Zal Owen the foundation he needed for the role he is playing this week in New York. His character, Benjamin, is a young Jew and an aspiring actor, much like himself.

“I felt I was very right for the role,” he said.

On the other hand, Benjamin faces a challenge wholly unfamiliar to Owen — a mother in love with a man almost his own age.

“But then that’s the challenge,” he told NJ Jewish News in an interview last week. “Each of the characters has some urgent need of their own, and that makes the dynamic between them so interesting.”

The play, L’Chayim, by Gaspare DiBlasi, is being premiered as part of the 2013 Dream Up Festival. It is playing at the Theater for the New City in Manhattan through Sunday, Aug. 25 (the run began on Aug. 21). Jesse Marchese is the director, and the cast includes Bonnie Black and Max Arnaud.

Owen’s parents live in Florida now, but the family lived in New Jersey all through his youth. They were members of Temple Beth O’r/Beth Torah in Clark, and the JCC of Central New Jersey in Scotch Plains. Owen attended the Solomon Schechter elementary school that used to be in Cranford. He fell in love with theater at the age of five when he saw a show — about another Jewish character — Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.

“I told my parents, ‘That’s what I want to do for the rest of my life.’ And they have never once questioned that choice.”

At 10, while studying at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, Owen was cast in a 1999 world-premiere adaptation of Wuthering Heights. He studied musical theater at the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music, and then trained with acting teachers William Esper and Michael Howard, and at the Stella Adler Studio of Acting, while pursuing singing and acting roles wherever he could find them. He is currently studying with Wynn Handman.

This past July, he appeared in The Awakening of Angel DeLuna at the New York Musical Festival.

While his roles have varied widely, a big part of his career has been in that most famous of Jewish shows, Fiddler on the Roof. Owen, now 25, has been in three productions, twice playing Motel the tailor, Tevye’s son-in-law. In one of those productions, Harvey Fierstein played Tevye. For a few performances, Theodore Bikel — one of the most famous Tevyes — took on the role. Owen said he was fascinated and moved by the contrasts in how the two actors handled the character.

As it happens, playwright DiBlasi is a practicing Catholic. He chose to make the mother and son in L’Chayim Jewish, he told NJJN, because he wanted the emotional interaction to be set in a context of clear values and traditions.

As Owen said, “There’s a clear sense of right and wrong, and a mother who wants the best for her son. That could be true of any culture that has strong values, but it’s good to have the specifics — like mentions of gefilte fish, and Shabbat services. Those things hit home for me and made me smile.”

DiBlasi wrote in an e-mail, “As a playwright I enjoy exploring different cultures and people. The most interesting thing about people is where they come from and how their culture influences who they are. Making this family Jewish has allowed me to create interesting and three-dimensional characters.”

The challenge, he continued, “was to avoid stereotypes and cliches while still providing a recognizable identity. I think it is unfair to assume that all Jewish people act a certain way. Their culture remains the same, but how each individual acts and reacts in certain situations vary.”

The title of the play, he explained, came out of one of the moments during the show. “You will have to attend the play,” he said, “to see if Benjamin can bring himself to raise a glass and say ‘L’chaim’ to his mother and her new beau.”

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