Two Jewish scam artists star in San Jose play about hatred

In his 35 years as an actor, Larry Block has played a multitude of Jews — from the despised Roy Cohn in "Angels in America" to the lovable Schlemiel in the original production of "Schlemiel the First."

He's now adding a new role to his personal Jewish congregation as the bottom-feeding Hollywood "producer" Davis Mizlansky in "Mizlansky/Zilinsky or `schmucks.'" The play, written by Jon Robin Baitz, opens the San Jose Repertory Theatre's 1998-99 season today.

Mizlansky and his partner Zilinsky spend their time making tapes of Bible stories as a tax-shelter scam. Block describes the play as a raucous comedy that becomes serious when one of the characters takes offense at another character's anti-Semitism.

"It's possible for people to think of it as two separate plays," Block said.

Primarily a New York stage actor, Block was attracted to the San Jose production because he was the understudy to Nathan Lane's Mizlansky in New York.

"I got to play the part nine or 10 times during its New York run. It's a great role and I wanted to do it again with some real preparation," he said.

A self-described secular Jew, Block appears regularly in productions of New York's American Jewish Theater and the Jewish Repertory Company.

Last year, he co-wrote and performed in "Uncle Phillip's Coat." The one-character play focuses on several generations of a Jewish family that arrives in America in the early 1900s to escape the pogroms of Russia.

"Uncle Phillip's Coat," he said, "is about the Jewishness of the characters. There are other plays whose characters may be Jewish, but their Jewishness is not important to the meaning of the play."

"Mizlansky/Zilinsky" seems to fit between those two types of plays. The central characters are Jewish, but not much is made of it until the anti-Semitic remark forces them to make difficult ethical choices.

Block, who lives in New York City with his wife and two teen-aged children, has acted for regional theater companies throughout the country, including the Seattle Repertory Company, the Guthrie Theater of Minneapolis and the Dallas Theater Center.

Unless an actor is a star, he acknowledges, it's a struggle to make a living. But he can't imagine a different career for himself.

"It's easy enough to make a life commitment when you're 20 years old. Now I'm 55. There was no question, from that moment to this, that that's what I was going to be doing — that is be an actor."

The San Jose Repertory Theatre's "Mizlansky/Zilinsky or `schmucks'" runs today through Oct. 11 at the Sobrato Auditorium, 101 Paseo de San Antonio, San Jose. Tickets: $16 to $32. Information: (408) 291-2255.