Stage Animal The Tycoon and I

In his new play 'Maxi and Me,' Hillel Mitelpunkt does what he knows best: He shines a light on the contemporary Israeli experience.

The first scene in Hillel Mitelpunkt's new play, the Beit Lessin Theater production"Maxi and Me," takes place in an elevator. Through its large open doors, which in fact constitute the back wall of the stage, comes Alex, a young Israeli man wearing a suit and carrying a briefcase. From his lines we understand he works at an investment company in this multi-story building and he is hurrying to work, as he does every morning. A moment before the elevator doors close, Maxi - whose name the building bears - manages to slip in. As the elevator ascends, Maxi tells Alex he has already made inquiries about him and offers him a job.

Since the exposition of the plot was nowhere near complete at this point, the thought went through my mind that in the course of my journeys up and down in the elevator of the Israeli theater I, a theater critic, squeeze in at the last moment before the door closes and after a short trip with a playwright or a director I tell him what I think of him and get out on my own floor.

Maxi and Me - Daniel Kaminsky - 140212012
Yigal Naor, left, as Maxi and Shlomi Tapiero as Alex, a typical Mitelpunkt protagonist, in Beit Lessin’s 'Maxi and Me.'Daniel Kaminsky

I hasten to clarify that in contrast to Maxi in the play it is not in my power to make tempting business propositions to the theater people with whom I catch a ride and perhaps even more importantly: Unlike Maxi in the play, to the best of my knowledge I have no hidden, hostile intentions to promote my own personal interests by using and exploiting them. However, I and Mitelpunkt (and a great many other theater folk ) have been riding that elevator for some 40 years now. During this period he has written (and in very many cases directed ) more than 40 plays and I have seen nearly all of them. Thus, I have become familiar with his writing and I have formulated and changed my opinion of it over the years, and I am allowing myself to say with nearly perfect certainty that he is a skilled and eloquent theater professional, who is diligently, persistently and humbly engaged in writing Israeli theater.

A professional playwright

He belongs to the cohort that began its "run" on the Israeli stage at the Haifa Theater in the early 1970s when Oded Kotler switched the engine of the Israeli theater onto the original play track: Hanoch Levin, Yehoshua Sobol and following them by a tenth of a second, Mitelpunkt. He is perhaps the most suitable person for the title "professional playwright," for this is his craft, his business and his work as his main and, as far as I can assess, his only occupation. But more important to my mind is that Mitelpunkt - and I see this as a virtue - does not deal with innovations in theatrical form and content. He writes mainly in the realistic genre, with his characters moving through the Israeli experience of today or of the recent past and he reliably presents this reality on the stage, though during the course of his career he has had excursions into stylized and period work ("Boitre" at the Cameri Theater ), two rock operas and three satires (with Yehoshua Sobol ).

Unlike his playwright colleagues he does not have a political and social manifesto. He does not write television series. He is not a public intellectual who writes for newspapers. Insofar as I know he is not working on a novel or a collection of poetry. He writes a play. And then another play. And then a third play. And he directs them. But his cumulative work has been a kind of Israeli project for mapping a certain stratum to which he belongs (as do I and those in the upper deciles of the middle class that took to the streets to protest last summer ).

He embarks on a theatrical path knowing what he wants to write, knowing to a large extent what he wants to say in the story he has chosen to tell and knowing how to shape characters who will serve the specific and the general story, in proper Israeli language, without ethnic nuances, in fluent and clever dialogue. Getting on this plane you feel that the pilot will get you to the landing strip and after the performance you will feel you are somewhere slightly different from where you were when you boarded.

Mitelpunkt recounts to an intelligent Israeli audience, in an evening of theater, certain chapters of its life. He amuses them, causes them to become involved and sends the home to think about the experience and work out what they feel about it. There is no pretense of complex spiritual elevation; with fairness and in a way that respects our feelings, without climbing barricades and without false modesty, again and again he tells an individual-personal story that is also universal-Israeli. These are the plays that reflect a shared experience, questioning it, pondering it and affirming it at the end of the evening. This is the bread and butter of theatrical writing. However, while I was watching "Maxi and I" and afterwards - and I enjoyed the performance as it conforms well to Mitelpunkt's standard and more than fulfills my expectations - I remembered that this had not always been my opinion.

I recall a review of one of his plays that hurt him personally, and a clarification discussion we held afterwards (things being what they are in the Israeli theater world, we knew each other; he studied theater at Tel Aviv University a few years after I did ). I remembered the details vaguely and I allowed myself to phone Mitelpunkt and ask him if knew which play it was. From my description of the production he identified the play: "Dramatis Personae," which he wrote and directed at the Haifa Theater Second Stage in 1979. The rest was provided by the Haaretz archive. There I found what I had written: "He sketches his generation and reveals that the lives of 30-year-olds in this country are vacuous, banal, bourgeois and petty - but the playwright apparently is cut from the same cloth as his characters and is incapable of a more profound and less banal view than 'that's life.'" When I read these lines I realized the person who wrote them (I, at that time ) believed that in reality his life at least (and he too was 30-years-old ) was not vacuous and banal and if there are 30-year-olds whose lives are like that, then it was possible and necessary to say something profound and consciousness-changing about that. I have changed since then. Today I know my life is a lot more vacuous and banal than I would like it to be. And Mitelpunkt too has changed and has become more sophisticated and today he can say "that's life" and show what it is made of and why.

Exploring what might have been

There are plays in which he takes a character or an episode from the recent past and puts it on stage ("Gorodish" at the Cameri in 1993, "Oil Town" at the Cameri in 2004, "Anda" at Beit Lessin in 2008, "A Railway to Damascus" at Habima in 2010 ) and shows not necessarily what had been but rather what might have been (as Aristotle said ), confronting the Israeli "then" with its repercussions now. And there are plays in which he confronts a social group or family - a fictional one drawn from his own socio-economic background, which he knows. Often this is the story of an outsider who wants to belong to the collective and "make it" in the Israeli experience. He manages to do this while circumventing the ethnic divides.

In current Israeli terms, Maxi is a tycoon, one of those whom last summer taught us to see as a villain. But the "I" of the play, Alex, the poor orphan who was raised by his Communist grandmother in fact wants to become a tycoon and is glad about the opportunity that has come his way. He realizes the dream for us: to enjoy wealth and power. We see him sell his soul for money and we also understand why he does this and we believe his intentions are good, even if he is sacrificing his conscience and his marriage.

Alex, played by Shlomi Tapiero, is the typical Mitelpunkt protagonist: the good Israeli who discovers, also belatedly, that out of good intentions he is doing bad things. Maxi, played by Yigal Naor, is naked power, charming in his brutal way, petty and childish in his caprices (his affection for bourekas, a kind of filled savory pastry ), slippery and happy to disdain the world. However, both Alex and the audience discover Maxi's power is his willingness to use everyone's emotions with no compunctions. Mitelpunkt reveals all this with maximal effectiveness: Alex is the only "rounded" character, with whom we are invited to identify. He is also the only one who communicates directly with the audience. The other characters are extras in his story. The two most important of them - Maxi and the grandmother - have been granted development, allowing the actors who play them to create a full and juicy stage experience. Just as Naor fills the stage with his raw and uninhibited brutality, Miriam Zohar as the grandmother, the Communist who has no illusions, fills the stage with the glow of compassion.

The rest of the characters play a smaller role - the three young women, Maxi's daughter (Tal-ya Yahalomi ), his secretary (Michal Kirzon ) and Alex's wife (Nati Kluger ). They don't need to force their respective roles to go beyond their limited scope. The relative weakness of Avishai Milstein in the role of a colleague of Alex's wife derives precisely from the fact that his performance deviates from its correct framework and size.

I do not underestimate Mitelpunkt's ability to write roles in which actors can be at their best. Indeed, thanks to his writing of the characters and the dialogue Tiki Dayan was able to shine in "Oil Town" and now in "Grocery Store" (alongside Yitzhak Hezkiya, Yossi Graber, Avi Uria and Hannah Roth ); so did Keren Tsur, Micha Selektar and Ilan Dar in "Anda;" Evgenia Dodina in "A Railway to Damascus;" Yigal Naor in Maxi and also in "Gorodish" (alongside Avi Kushnir and Itcho Avital who split the role of Adam Baruch ); and Tapiero in Maxi. At the same time, it seems to me the story Mitelpunkt weaves on the stage about and for its audience is more important. And this is where I have some doubt about "Maxi and Me."

Without going into details that would spoil the pleasure for playgoers, the play culminates in a happy ending. The villain gets his punishment and the protagonist wins the jackpot: the property, the girl and a clean conscience (relatively, with a small blot ). But Mitelpunkt knows it could end this way only in a play. In real life most probably Maxi would have come out with the upper hand. Perhaps for this reason Mitelpunkt adds a "coda" indicating the possibility that the ride in the elevator at the beginning of the play could have ended without results.

I have to admit I did not reach these conclusions about Mitelpunkt's work on my own. I was helped in this by a book containing lectures delivered on various occasions by British playwright David Hare, to whom Mitelpunkt is in many ways the Israeli equivalent. Hare writes: "To begin with the obvious: the playwright writes plays. He chooses plays as his way of speaking. If he could speak more clearly in a lecture, he would lecture; if polemic suited him, he'd be a journalist. But he chooses the theatre as the most subtle and complex way of addressing an audience he can find." And this is exactly what Mitelpunkt does. And he knows how to do this just the way he wants to. And he has been doing this continually for nearly 40 years. And this, in my opinion, is a lot.