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Melding Tiles and Theater Into 'Mah Jongg'

March 10, 2011 By:
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Pass the Tums and the tiles? From left are Ted Ford, Arnold Kendall, Seymour Kover and Rocco Amato in a scene from "The Men of Mah Jongg."

When you comin' back, Mark Medoff?

He's actually never been away, not since startling theater-goers with his rough-and-tumble "When You Comin' Back, Red Ryder" (1974) and "Children of a Lesser God" (1980), his landmark enlightened drama that opened the eyes and ears to the travails of the hard-of-hearing community that went its award-winning way from Broadway to Hollywood.

Go Southwest, young man? Medoff did; the Illinois native, Miami Beach-raised writer moved surf and turf to New Mexico, where his association as teacher/ mentor/theater guru at New Mexico State University earned him academic acolytes amid his theatrical ties.

But he relocated -- not retreated. And the writer whose "Children" fell on deaf ears -- in a positive twist of that phrase's significance -- is now serving as dramaturge for "The Men of Mah Jongg," just begun at Society Hill Playhouse in a production directed by local legend Deen Kogan.

This is no ladies who lunch; more a meeting of men who grump. Indeed, melding his many talents, Medoff's helped playwright Richard Atkins lay the foundation -- and the tiles -- for this bittersweet comedy of a group of Jewish men who gather for a game that helps them reset the rules for their own lives.

Tony Award winner and Oscar nominee Medoff knows from changing the rules. The writer who started his career with "The Wager" 45 years ago has seen his big bets pay off.

Not that he's a winner at mah jongg. Of winds and dragons -- and being dragged into play. "The only time I played the game was when I first directed the play -- and that was enough," he says with a chuckle.

Identify with the gruff, rough and alternately sweetly sensitive Jewish characters? "This is not my generation, more of my grandparents, especially my mother's father," says the 70-year-old affectionately, if not ironically, of the four grumpy old gramps who change for the bitter and better.

Nothing can be better than making it on stage, avers the writer, but movies -- his latest screenplay, "Refuge," has found safe havens in film-fests this year -- has been his money mainstay these days.

Dramaturgy at times includes some script doctoring; but then, taking a stethoscope to scripts isn't that far away from what Medoff's parents wanted for him early on.

This son of a physician dad and psychologist mom found his folks prescribing a medical path for him to follow. A nice Jewish doctor? Exit stage right: "I figure I would have become a psychiatrist and after six, eight years of that I would have gone nuts," says the writer who could have filled his own Rx of "physician, heal thyself."

Theater was the cure. "I grew up in a very smart family, one which was very open about their feelings" and of the importance that one be emotionally emotive.

Which, it can be argued, is why Medoff's many manuscripts are marvels of sensitivity.

Read into it what you may, he contends, but ... read. "I was consumed by reading and books as a kid," he recalls, "deeply influenced by novels and short stories."

Long story short: Biggest influences? "Tom Wolf, William Faulkner and Emily Bronte."

The sound and the fury of it all made him realize that bohemia would provide the bonhomie he sought after college. "After I came back from Stanford," where he earned a master's, "in 1966, I thought I would settle in Paris," sharing coffee and maybe some bubbly with the boulevardiers.

The night they invented Champagne drew the grapes of wrath back home. Medoff's dad dashed those dreams. Instead, Mark started teaching -- and learned more about himself in the process.

"I found it thrilling," but he also felt like an imposter, a poseur, "positive that someone would unmask me for what I was."

No need to; he was a natural. The masks came later when Medoff turned his talents to writing and daringly dispatched the disguises of the human condition.

As for what it has all taught him -- Medoff retired from the full time faculty of NMSU a while back and teaches part-time, with stints at other schools, such as the University of Houston -- is that the write stuff remains the right stuff. "I write every day," says the man who set his own rules long ago.

And the teacher may have been the best choice of all to help Atkinson's "Men of Mah Jongg" learns life's everyday lessons one tough tile at a time.

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