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A Pizookie With “Bad Jews’” Raviv Ullman

All photos by Rebecca Haithcoat.

All photos by Rebecca Haithcoat.

It’s not a question of if we’ll have a pizookie, it’s when we’ll have a pizookie.

Raviv Ullman stares up at the waitress and listens politely to her spiel. “The pizookie is why I started working here,” she gushes. No need to sell us. We committed to ordering BJ’s Restaurant and Brewhouse’s signature fat-boy treat, a skillet-sized, deep-dish cookie stacked with two scoops of vanilla bean-speckled ice cream, before we even arrived. Now, it’s just a matter of which flavor combination to choose. Peanut butter, s’mores, triple chocolate, salted caramel, white chocolate macadamia nut, cookies ’n’ cream — the options are as dizzying as the post-pizookie sugar buzz.

“We should do this again next week,” Ullman says, his spoon cracking the last bit of golden crust on the gooey half-chocolate chip, half-peanut butter cookie that we just demolished. With his snapback flipped backwards and puppy-dog stare, he blends in with the fratty UCLA undergrads gliding by on their skateboards. He grins. “And the next. I’m an actor. I have a job lined up after Bad Jews, but then who knows how I’ll pay rent?”

Yes, we finished our dinner before dessert.
Yes, we finished our dinner before dessert.

Something tells me there will be plenty of ways. After all, the 29-year-old Ullman has had a manager since he was nine years old, booked a national tour of The King and I when he was 11 and moved to Los Angeles before his senior year of high school to star in the Disney Channel’s Phil of the Future. That’s not to mention the musical career he paused in order to concentrate on acting: he was a drummer for Lolawolf, the band fronted by Zoë Kravitz (yes, daughter of Lenny). And, of course, he’s currently playing Jonah Haber in the Geffen’s production of Bad Jews, which has just been extended.

“I wanted to work at the Geffen for the eight years I lived here, and it took moving back to New York to get here,” he says.

Ullman started out even further from Los Angeles. His father and mother grew up 20 minutes from each other in Connecticut, but they didn’t meet until they’d both relocated to Israel. Having moved there to attend rabbinical school, Ullman’s father eventually decamped to southern Israel to help create a Reform kibbutz, where he met Ullman’s mother. After the two married and had Ullman, they returned to Connecticut to be closer to their families.

No one was an actor, per se, but Ullman was surrounded by storytellers. His father performed as a clown for many years, his mother was a teacher and his maternal grandfather was an Orthodox rabbi. “He could make people laugh at funerals and cry at weddings,” Ullman says. “I grew up listening to him orate.”

Building “pots and pans drum sets” and putting on plays in the living room for his parents were early indications of Ullman’s creative streak. By the time he was eight years old, he had auditioned for and won the part of Peter Pan in a children’s theater production. A year later, a teacher at his tiny private Jewish school heard him singing songs from Les Misérables. She told Ullman if he were serious, she would introduce him to the manager of her daughter, who was a professional actress.

“I didn’t even know what that meant, but YES,” he recalls. “And that’s been my manager for 20 years. That was the beginning.”

Though he’d never given much thought to television and film, a random audition led to his winning the role on Phil of the Future and moving to L.A. when he was 17. The show only lasted two seasons, but he kept landing guest spots here and there, plus a role on Lifetime’s Rita Rocks. Still, something was missing. It wasn’t until he was cast in the Ahmanson Theater’s 2005 production of Dead End (he’s even quoted in this article inThe New York Times) that he realized what that something was.

“[It was an] insane experience. Cast of 45, orchestra pit filled with 10,000 gallons of water that was the East River that we jumped in and out of. I remembered theater,” he says. “I moved out here and got caught up in TV and film and wanting that. That’s the drive here — if you’re not on a billboard, there’s still room to go — and I realized THAT’s what I wanted. Movies were never the end game.”

Rita Rocks ending and a band he played in disbanding seemed like signs. He moved back to New York and began the slow process of re-familiarizing the city’s casting agents with his face.

Thank goodness for that. As reviews for the Geffen’s production of Bad Jewshave noted, Ullman’s portrayal of Jonah is nuanced, the heart of the show. Often, playing the subdued straight man, especially in a cast of boldly drawn and intentionally loud characters, is thankless. Yet Ullman’s interpretation of Jonah as the little brother who’s so much cooler than his “dweeb” family (“He probably smoked a joint a half hour before the show, right?”) that he doesn’t even have to point out he’s cooler than they are, makes the audience yearn toward him.

As we start to roll ourselves out of BJ’s, the conversation turns to the state of theater.

“I don’t think we’re in a golden age of any sort right now, and theater’s always been used to be a mirror, to talk about culture,” he says. “We are the next generation of storytellers.”

If Ullman is any indication of their ilk, theater will be just fine.

Bad Jews is currently playing in the Gil Cates Theater at the Geffen Playhouse. To purchase tickets, please click here.

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