My debut play, complete with dirty bits

He played a writer opposite Clint Eastwood. Now fiction has become reality for Saul Rubinek

By John Nathan, October 6, 2011
Rubinek came up with a cunning plan to persuade his Holocaust survivor parents to accept his Catholic girlfriend

Rubinek came up with a cunning plan to persuade his Holocaust survivor parents to accept his Catholic girlfriend

It is not unreasonable to refuse a journalist a copy of a new play script before an interview with its author. These things are a work in progress after all, right up until press night. Producers might correctly calculate that it is best to keep a new plot under wraps. So everything I know about Terrible Advice when I meet its author Saul Rubinek in an empty rehearsal at the Menier Chocolate Factory has been gleaned from five pages of his script slipped to me by the publicist. When I tell Rubinek which five pages he looks aghast.

"Oh God, they gave you the first five pages? That's the dirty bit. The EDB as they are calling it here - the Excruciating Dirty Bit." And he is right. The opening exchange between the urbane Jake (played by Scott Bakula of TV's Quantum Leap) and his sexually uptight old friend Stanley (Andy Nyman), is eye-wateringly frank about the kind of sexual acts and positions that missionaries apparently never indulge in.

"It's an adult play about adult subjects" is just about all Rubinek will say. But now it has opened, it is possible to add that his play mines a neglected but surely rich seam for drama - the advice, often terrible, given by friends to each other, particularly about sex and love. The play, directed by Frank Oz - he of The Muppets and Sesame Street - has divided critical opinion, from the very good to the not so good. Perhaps it depends on whether you like your plays "dark, dirty and dangerous", which is how Rubinek describes his.

Despite the dearth of information about Terrible Advice when we meet, I am not too worried. Rubinek has had an interesting enough career for there to be plenty to talk about. He was Daphne's fiancé, Donny, in Frasier, and he has been in over 60 movies. For me, the role that sticks in the mind more than any other, and which typifies the kind of character for which Rubinek is best known - intense, nominally Jewish and maybe a little nebbish - is the eager, nervous writer who follows Clint Eastwood's bloody trail in the western, Unforgiven.

Rubinek has directed a few feature films too, plus an award-winning documentary about his parents, both of them Holocaust survivors. Called So Many Miracles, the film reunited his parents with the Polish farmers who hid them from the Nazis and other Poles. Rubinek, who was born in a German refugee camp just after the war, also wrote a book about their story, which has the same title as the film. Their incredible tale started with an act of kindness when Saul's father, Israel, who ran a shop in Poland, told one of his customers that she could pay her grocery bill another day. The customer returned when Jews were being rounded up. She took Saul's parents, who were only 22 at the time, back to her house where she hid them for over two years. Rubinek uses the story to teach American school children the value of knowing your own family history.

The Terrible Advice cast: Scott Bakula, Andy Nyman, Caroline Quentin, and Sharon Horgan

The Terrible Advice cast: Scott Bakula, Andy Nyman, Caroline Quentin, and Sharon Horgan

"To a class of 28 kids I say: 'Who thinks my background is more exciting than your background?' and of course 28 hands go up. And then I tell them that you cannot be alive on this planet if someone in your fairly recent past doesn't have a story of survival or great love or miracles. Evil, betrayal, death and murder are in your background or you wouldn't be here. It's true for all of us."

It is a good lesson. Still, as the loquacious Rubinek talks about his parents - it appears he can talk for ever about anything and without breathing - it is impossible not to think that the chances of his being born were slimmer than they were for most of us. He would have had an older sister had she not died soon after she was born while his parents were in hiding.

Rubinek is interrupted by Oz who sticks his head around the door to say goodnight and tell his author that the first scene needs cutting.Which rather brings the conversation back to the present and Rubinek tells me what goes through the mind of a first-time playwright. "You think: 'I am sh*t. I don't know why I am in this business to begin with'. Probably I have given myself lots of terrible advice all my life," he says.

The play is Rubinek's first big writing project since the book about his parents. Terrible Advice has been gestating for over 20 years and took eight years to write. But its unconventional route to a world premiere (helped by Nyman who introduced Rubinek to Oz - completing the Jewish triumvirate involved in the production) is downright normal compared to how the book came about.

That journey began when Rubinek, then aged 27, told his parents that he was living with a non-Jewish girlfriend. Rubinek's father was a liberal sort. He had turned his back on his Chasidic background for a relatively irreligious life in Yiddish theatre in Poland. In Canada, where they settled after the war, he and his wife Frania had many non-Jewish friends and they closely followed their son's burgeoning career in Canadian theatre.

So Rubinek was astonished to find that his father's response to news of his goyisher girlfriend Kate was to say kaddish. To get his parents talking to him again he came up with a cunning plan. He lied that Penguin had asked him to publish a book about his parents' story. Israel reluctantly agreed to be interviewed with the caveat that it did not mean they were talking again. But slowly the relationship thawed and Rubinek realised that by pure accident he had a great story on his hands.

"Then guess what happened?" he says. "Penguin published it."

'Terrible Advice' is at the Menier Chocolate Factory, London SE1 until November 12. Box office: 020 7378 1713/

Last updated: 11:11am, October 6 2011