From Tenements to Hollywood to a Sagaponack Living Room

Anzia Yezierska was a writer who chronicled Jewish immigrant life on Manhattan’s Lower East Side
A reading of Dennis Moritz's play "Hungry Heart" took place in a Sagaponack living room recently.

If the name Anzia Yezierska doesn’t exactly ring a bell, you are not alone. Born in 1880 in Poland and coming to America 10 years later, Yezierska was a writer who chronicled Jewish immigrant life on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Her work employed unflinching realism to capture the poverty, prejudice, and small triumphs of the immigrant experience. Though still in print — and once the source of no less than two motion pictures — Yezierska’s work has largely fallen out of the public eye. 

Now a handful of local and regional artists are attempting to revive it. On a recent Sunday at a private residence in Sagaponack, a group of actors performed an emotional reading of Dennis Moritz’s play “Hungry Hearts,” based on her work.

Culled together from various source materials, which include Yezierska’s stories and autobiography, “Hungry Hearts” focuses primarily on her personal life. The play dramatizes her financial struggles as well as the search for American identity as she tries to balance motherhood with a compulsion to write. The trajectory spans decades — from the cramped confines of tenement life to Hollywood to her affair with the celebrated educator John Dewey. 

The afternoon’s reading began with a light lunch and wine, then moved to a handsome parlor cleverly converted to an intimate theater. As directed by Adam Judd, who teaches at the Ross School, the drama evoked humor, pathos, and at times intense pain. At play’s end, both the audience and the actors sat in a kind of stunned silence broken only by polite applause. A scheduled question-and-answer session was briefly delayed as Zillah Glory, the actress who was dazzling as Anzia, composed herself. 

“I’m sorry,” she said in between deep breaths, clearly still in the throes of her performance. Robert Craig Baum, the producer of “Hungry Hearts,” stepped in to talk about the power of Mr. Moritz’s play. “I really think it’s just so timely, with all that’s going on, all that’s being said,” he remarked — referring, no doubt, to the worldwide refugee crisis, and perhaps to our recent heated political record. “Regardless of what you think of our president!” he added eagerly, obviously trying to avoid a political scrum.

Now fully composed, Ms. Glory talked about how she had been working on the character of Anzia for some time, watching the play go through different versions. After Mr. Moritz’s original draft, the project fell into the hands of another writer, who attempted to make the material more commercially approachable. It was an incarnation that no one was particularly happy with, especially the actors. “We kept coming back to Dennis’s work,” she said, “the voices that he created.”

Asked where these voices came from, Mr. Moritz explained that his grandparents, who had immigrated from Hungary to live on the Lower East Side, were his inspiration. “Writing these characters,” he said, “was my way of visiting them.” Mr. Moritz grew up on Grand Street as a young man, two doors down from where his grandparents had lived. 

After the reading, as Mr. Moritz signed a bound collection of his dramatic works, I explained how I myself had lived on both Delancey and Mulberry Streets during much of the 1990s. It was a serendipity that seemed confirmation of the ever-evolving allure of these few blocks of New York real estate.

A few days later I spoke to Mr. Baum by phone, hoping to learn more about his relationship with Mr. Moritz. A former teacher at the Ross School and a born impresario, the verbose Mr. Baum explained how somewhere in the late 2000s, a colleague had given him a collection of Mr. Moritz’s plays to read. Mr. Baum was highly impressed. Years later, a handful of writers and producers were in a Facebook chat room discussing the idea of doing a project on 9/11, when Mr. Baum happened to notice the name of one of the participants. “You’re not the Dennis Moritz are you?” he asked. Indeed he was. A collaboration was born, and now, a shared labor of love. 

In person as well as on the phone, Mr. Baum’s excitement about the material was palpable. He referred again to the quality of Mr. Moritz’s writing and the “timeliness and importance” of Yezierska’s work. As for the play’s immediate future, he said there is talk of more readings and, at a later date, some stage productions in smaller theaters. 

His ultimate goal for “Hungry Hearts”? “A feature film,” he asserted without hesitation, stating that the director Mike Figgis has shown interest, among others. “It would not be expensive!” The material is so richly malleable, he added, that it could also be “an ‘American Playhouse’ type of thing, or even a Netflix original series.” 

For the latter he already has a name and concept. “Tenement” it would be called. Near the end of her life, Yezierska updated her writings about the Lower East Side, exploring the influx of Puerto Ricans in the 1950s and ’60s. Mr. Baum envisions a series exploring the different incarnations of Lower East Side tenement life, from Jewish immigration up to the new gentrification. 

“I’m always working on a bunch of different things,” Mr. Baum said. “But this,” he said, alluding to Mr. Moritz’s play, “is the one I keep coming back to.”