Actor takes on nine roles, including a rabbi, in new play

Sit down for a one-on-one interview with actor-playwright Charlie Varon and the room soon becomes crowded.

With no notice, one of the many characters inhabiting Varon’s whirring mind might interrupt him and go on a rant. Varon is not crazy. He gets paid for this.

His new play, “Rabbi Sam,” stars Varon in the title role as well as eight supporting roles of varying ages, genders and temperaments. The comedic plot involves a small congregation in a fictional California town, and the controversial new rabbi who has a habit of rattling cage

“Rabbi Sam” will have a six-week premiere run, beginning Feb. 19 at the Marsh theater in San Francisco.

“Some love him, some can’t stand him and some can’t stand each other,” says Varon of the various congregants and their attitudes toward Rabbi Sam. “We begin to see this man, who wants to save American Judaism.”

Rabbi Sam is a tax-attorney-turned-charismatic-spiritual-leader who comes into Congregation B’nai Am with change on his mind. Not everyone embraces that change or his pulpit style, which Varon describes as a form of jazz improv riffing on tradition.

“We go back and forth hearing the rabbi in services doing his sermons,” Varon says. “He’s not reading from a piece of paper, but discovering his words in the moment.”

Varon as Rabbi Sam soliloquizes, “Synagogues are stuck in the past. Museum Judaism. And the worst is when they throw in a little of that shtetl kitsch. I will never indulge in nostalgia.”

The idea for the play sprung up when Varon’s real-life rabbi asked him to write and deliver a High Holy Day sermon. Turned out, he liked it.

Charlie Varon rehearses for new play. photo/ted weinstein

Little by little, he developed a fictional rabbi, along with a coterie of supporters and detractors on the temple board. Several of them he named after his favorite Bay Area rabbis, with surnames like Lew, Baugh, Richman and Goldblatt.

Each began with a voice.

“It grows from voice to story to the dynamics between characters,” Varon explains. “That was the huge challenge: What is it like with nine people in a room where each sees things differently? You pull from different strands and you trust intuition to guide you.”

During his years developing the play with director David Ford, Varon gave work-in-progress performances in synagogues and Jewish community centers. He says some people came up to him afterward and said they wanted Rabbi Sam to be their rabbi.

“Others said, ‘Never!,’ ” Varon adds.

Varon has been a fixture on the Bay Area theater scene for years, mostly as a monologist and creator of one-man plays including “Rush Limbaugh in Night School” and “Ten Day Soup.”

“Rabbi Sam” is his first new full-length play in nine years.

Though Sam is fiction, Varon’s concerns about modern Judaism are real. He is a regular attendee of services and Torah study at Or Shalom Jewish Community in San Francisco.

“I don’t think this is a stable moment in American Judaism,” Varon says. “Underneath there are these inklings, questions, disquiet and, maybe above all, a yearning for a Judaism that speaks to us in a more foreground way. What if we invited science and modern cosmology into the sanctuary? What part of tradition is a gift; what part is a trap?”

He appreciates that “wrestling with God” aspect of Judaism, and says many of his non-Jewish friends envy Judaism’s tolerance for varying levels of belief.

At the same time he wonders about Jewish identity –– or any ethnic self-identification. “The ‘tribe’ is a real problem when you look at universal ethics and what it is to be an American in mixed community,” he asserts. “If you hold diversity as a value, which I do, how do you put that together with Judaism?”

How much of Varon’s take on Judaism makes it into “Rabbi Sam” is debatable. In many ways, his characters took on lives of their own, sometimes even teaching him lessons he didn’t know he needed to learn.

“That’s why I write plays,” Varon says. “They have messages that I cannot get to any other way. And occasionally they make me laugh.”

“Rabbi Sam” plays Thursdays through Sundays, Feb. 19 through April 5, at the Marsh, 1062 Valencia St., S.F. $18. Information: (800) 838-3006 or


Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.