It was in a motel room in Maine in the 70s that it all came together for the young Jon Lipsky.
In this unremarkable setting the young playwright with nothing to read picked up the only book there, the Bible. Mr. Lipsky opened it at random and found there, in the Book of Samuel, inspiration for what he considers his first play, Beginner’s Luck. Looking back on this work, the only one of his award-winning oeuvre that has not been performed on the Vineyard before this coming weekend, he finds threads of his politics, his ancestry, and the debut of his own true voice.
“And it’s funny,” he noted, “most importantly.”
The West Tisbury resident, author, Boston University professor, Boston stage director and writer and longtime associate artistic director of the Vineyard Playhouse has made a career of taking epic stories and humanizing them. His signature style began with Beginner’s Luck: The Story of King Saul in the Bible. On Sunday a troupe of professional actors will present a reading of the play to honor him as part of a winter cultural series at the Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center. He is looking forward to it, not least because he wants to hear the laughter.
“The story is absurd,” he said this week, and he was talking about the biblical story. “Saul is really a nobody, a guy out looking for his lost donkeys — really, his donkeys.
“So he goes to the oracle, the judge in charge, Samuel, to ask about the donkeys, and Samuel says, ‘You, you’re king.’
“[Saul says incredulously] ‘King of what?’
“And Samuel says, ‘King of everything, the whole works.’”
Mr. Lipsky explained, for those who, like himself, can’t say they are regular Bible readers, that judge Samuel was looking for someone whom he can manipulate, to lead his people during what he fears will be a testing time; “He’s worried the people are going to fight the Philistines and forget their moral background.”
But Saul isn’t even competent enough to be manipulated. Enter David, a shepherd boy, a sly guy, “very much out for himself,” who is unexpectedly lifted to power.
Machiavellian manoeuvres, with Samuel pulling strings, ensue. Things do not go well for Saul.
“During this time, and I didn’t make this up, this is in the Bible,” Mr. Lipsky hastens, “the witches are banished by Judge Samuel ... but at the end of his life Saul goes to one of the witches he’s befriended, the Witch of Endor, and asks to be shown why he’s been so mistreated, and the ghost of Samuel comes to him.”
So that is the story, though in Mr. Lipsky’s telling it involves seeming improvisations, interchange with the audience and other surprises that allow the audience to cut to the chase, as the playwright puts it, and feel themselves in the story in an intimate way. It is a style he’s toyed with in such plays as Living in Exile, a retelling of Homer’s Iliad now playing at La MaMa in a 20-seat living room as part of the Under the Radar festival in New York city.
“My movement has been toward presenting plays in most intimate situations so people in the audience feel the story is about them, not someone else,” he explained. In Beginner’s Luck, “I hope people come away thinking they’re experiencing what it’s like to be part of a country desperate for its own protection so much so it loses the values it was built on.”
He calls the play a comedy of errors, so to speak, but one about power, why and how people take power. “It’s about the decision to take power at a practical level, and how people may gain certain political power [but] lose something by making that the focus of their government ... the way Israel has lost its moral compass.
“It’s time to hear the play again,” he said, adding that because it has not previously been done here, and because it has a Jewish theme, it was a perfect choice for Sunday’s cultural showcase, where he will be honored to have his former students Brooke Hardman Ditchfield and Brian Ditchfield, and colleagues Paula Langton, head of acting at BU, and Ken Cheesman, acting professor at Emerson College, reading.
What’s more, when Beginner’s Luck first debuted, Mr. Lipsky learned that his grandfather, Louis Lipsky, a journalist and founder of the Zionist Organization of America, had as a young man written an unfinished play called, incredibly, The Witch of Endor. “It’s sort of weighted down with a style of Shakespearean tragedy ... but with the exact same incident of Saul going back to ask why all this was happening to him.
“When I later learned about his play, I felt a sense that I was following in my grandfather’s footsteps, and I was humbled.
“It’s as if this play has had three generations to be born,” he said in wonder.
What would his grandfather, who like Louis Brandeis was a president of the ZOA in its most potent era, think of the message of Beginner’s Luck, then?
“Oh, I think of myself as a Zionist,” the playwright said. “I am very much a defender of and committed to the betterment of Israeli society.
“I feel that one of the jobs of the Jewish diaspora is to question what the Israeli government is doing. This is not in any way anti-Israel. It is a cry for Israel to get back to the values it was built on,” he said.
“Particularly now in the Middle East ... I think it is very important for Jews to question where our moral compass as friends of Israel ought to be.”
He noted that in Israel the star of David has meaning akin to the Statue of Liberty to Americans. “But King David was forever doing bad things and asking for forgiveness and being forgiven,” he said. “The [biblical] story is told very much from his point of view.
“The story forgives him and assumes he has the best intentions. We forgive him his faults.
“But the symbol of Israel ... is built on some bad things.”
Mr. Lipsky pointed out a crass biblical scene where David, who has joined the Philistines because for the moment it suited him to do so, comes across Saul “in a cave taking a crap” (Mr. Lipsky’s words describing what he calls a funny scene, not those used to set the scene in the King James version). The story shows David in a good light for not killing Saul when he finds him literally with his pants down, but the playwright asks, “Why aren’t we questioning whether David should be with the Philistines in the first place?”
He sees the message in Beginner’s Luck as relevant to Americans of any creed. “As Americans we say all men and women are created equal; are we acting that way?
“Do we approach the world, with all the power that we have, for the good?”
Or, he wondered, “Will we call the Witch of Endor and say, How did we get into this mess?”
Beginner’s Luck: The Story of King Saul in the Bible will be read Sunday, Jan. 16 at 7 p.m. at the Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center on Centre street in Vineyard Haven. Admission is free. For more information, call 508-693-0745.