Curtain call for our funniest neighbor

Posted on Fri, 02/01/2019 - 11:30am

By Ron Cohn

Jim Sherman An actor, playwright, screenwriter, director, teacher – it sounds like the start of a “five guys walked into a bar” story – but it’s all one guy, James Sherman, who walked into Malibu East a year ago.

The versatile performer could still be convincingly cast as a suburban dad or middle management exec despite a career already spanning five decades of achievement in the entertainment world. James is best-known as the author of more than 15 plays. The Chicago Tribune dubbed him “The Neil Simon of Lincoln Avenue,” recognizing his string of acclaimed comedies at Victory Gardens Theater, which has enshrined him as a member of their Playwrights Ensemble Alumni.

The Neil Simon comparison was particularly gratifying for our celebrated neighbor, who said that Simon, whom he considers one of America’s great playwrights, was an important influence on his work. “To see my name in print connected to his was quite an honor,” he said.

James’ career got a rocket launch when, at age 20 and on vacation from studies as a theater major at Illinois State, he enrolled in a class at Second City with iconic improv director Del Close. Over the course of the summer he got a surprise chance to audition and was hired as a performer in the touring company.

I had to call my folks and tell them I was dropping out of college” he said. “It was the dream of a lifetime. Second City was the ‘Harvard of Comedy’ and George Wendt, Shelley Long and Jim Belushi were among my cohorts. I was the youngest in the company,” he continued. “I was there for three years and it was an education not only just in theater, but in life.”

Later, by now well-established in his profession, James received his master’s degree in fine arts from Brandeis University and, more recently, a master’s in library and information science from Dominican University.

Among his catalog of plays, besides being performed locally, a number have been published and are regularly produced by theater companies around the globe. Beau Jest, Magic Time, The God of Isaac, Mr. 80%, Jest a Second!, Romance in D, From Door to Door, Affluenza!, Half and Half, and Jacob and Jack have been performed throughout the United States, and have also been seen in Canada, Mexico, South America, England, Germany, Austria, Turkey, South Africa, Australia, China and Korea. The God of Isaac, James told us, will be produced this summer in Jerusalem.

His plays have given him opportunities abroad, as well. He was invited to be a visiting professor at the Korea National Theater for the Arts for a semester and he also conducted an improv workshop at a distinguished theater school in Kent, England, where, he said, the subject is rarely taught.

James’ most successful play, Beau Jest, ran for nearly a year at Victory Gardens and for three years Off-Broadway to great acclaim. In greatly simplified form, it’s the story of Sarah Goldman, a young Chicago schoolteacher whose Jewish parents are eager to meet her supposed Jewish doctor boyfriend. She has to hire an actor, non-Jewish, to play the role of the perfect boyfriend she has invented for a dinner with her family. And the laughs continue throughout the classic three-acter as the original non-Jewish boyfriend is sup­planted by the actor, and a nosy brother threatens to uncover her ruse.

If it sounds like a good plot for a “rom-com” movie, James thought so, too, and expected for years that a producer in his New York and L.A. orbit would approach him for the rights. Finally, in the wake of My Big Fat Greek Wedding’s success and after a few dashed hopes, he was given the chance to not only sell his property but to write the screenplay adaptation and direct the movie. Although James had directed Beau Jest and some of his other plays from time to time, directing was not a major interest of his, so he said “it was a big leap of faith for everyone” but it “was a great experience.” Lainie Kazan of My Big Fat Greek Wedding was perfectly cast as the mother, Seymour Cassel of The Royal Tenenbaums as the father, and Robyn Cohen, who had played the role on the stage, was Sarah.

Like many indie films, Beau Jest never achieved a theatrical release, but it was shown at a number of festivals and was booked for a week at the Wilmette Theater, where it enjoyed a great audience reaction and was held over for an additional week.

James has said that the play was part of a “romantic comedy” of their own for him and his former wife, who played Sarah in the original stage production. They have two sons in their early 20s, both of whom already have extensive experience as actors and singers.

James “loves Malibu East,” its staff and its amenities – even buying his own pool cue to give him an edge in the Billiard Room. Before moving here, he owned a three-flat in Lakeview but says he has been very glad to give up being a landlord. “Another thing I love here is being surrounded by so many small theaters. I thought I’d lose that when I left the Lincoln and Belmont area,” he said, “but here we have Jackalope, Redtwist, City Lit, Raven and more within walking distance.”

James has been honored to serve as a member of the Joseph Jefferson Committee, the definitive arbiter of excellence in Chicago theater, and as such actually sees virtually every theatrical production mounted locally. He estimates that in 2018 he saw “between 150 and 160 plays.”

It’s difficult to see how he has the time, but currently James has been performing a one-character play he wrote, titled The Ben Hecht Show, at Evanston’s Piven Theatre and at other venues around the country. Portraying the colorful journalist and author, perhaps best-known as the co-author of The Front Page, James says he was influenced by reading Hecht’s book Guide for the Bedevilled. “I think he deserves to be remembered,” James said, “and because the issues he raises about the history of the Jews and anti-Semitism are remarkably relevant to today’s world.”

For more than 12 years, besides acting and writing, our busy neighbor has been on the adjunct faculties of both DePaul University and Columbia College. At DePaul, he teaches a course intriguingly titled “American Funny: American Comedy from Groucho Marx to Tina Fey,” and at Columbia he teaches playwriting and improvisational acting. Students enrolling in those courses are treated to a likable, witty and impressive teacher who debunks the old saw “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.” It’s hard to imagine anyone who has done more or can bring a wider array of successful experiences to the lectern than James Sherman.