Theater Pointing the Wrong Finger

It's hard to imagine a more appealing casting for 'The Sunshine Boys' than Shlomo Bar-Abba and Moni Moshonov, two actor-entertainers with a long career spent on the same stage playing two actor-entertainers with a long career spent on the same stage.

In the last scene of Neil Simon's "The Sunshine Boys," Al Lewis says to his comedy-duo counterpart, Willie Clark: "You've been doing comedy on stage for 43 years, but you never enjoyed yourself." To which Clark responds: "If I wanted to enjoy myself, I would have bought a ticket."

It's tempting to buy a ticket to "The Sunshine Boys" with Shlomo Bar-Abba and Moni Moshonov. It is hard to imagine a more appealing casting - two actor-entertainers with a long career spent on the same stage playing two actor-entertainers with a long career spent on the same stage. The superb choice of actors blends reality with thespian fabrication - a merger that Simon's play is all about.

All the same, I did not enjoy the play directed by Ilan Ronen. True, the audience laughed, and for a few moments so did I; but something was missing. To be more precise, the play plainly has too much - too much physical comedy and too little stage credibility, the only thing from which true comedy can spring.

In Simon's play, the two comedians who had once been a successful vaudeville team - Lewis and Clark - get together for a one-off performance after a long 12-year split. Lewis had decided to retire and break up the team, essentially ending his partner's career. In the first scene, Clark explains to his nephew why he is so angry with Lewis - not only for having broken up their act, but also because he used to spit at him and poke his finger at Clark's shoulder. Clark tells his nephew and the audience that he still feels as if he has a hole there in his shoulder, and that his wife was convinced until her dying day that he had a tattoo. After 11 years, the shoulder still hurts.

In the Habima play, Clark tells his nephew that Lewis used to poke him in the left shoulder with his right-hand finger. But here, in the re-encounter between Clark and Lewis, Moshonov pokes his left-hand finger at Bar-Abba's right shoulder. On the face of it, this is a trifling flaw that does not justify the wagging of a critical finger at the play. But even if this was an isolated matter, the fact that it happens is indicative of a larger problem. The finger-poking is a stage gesture, a convention, a parable of the sort of relationship the two men have; but at the same time - and perhaps primarily - it is about real pain. And real comedy can spring forth only from a background of real pain, as all of the great comic artists have demonstrated.

The transition of entertainers from the "light" stage on which they appear as themselves, or as they brilliantly switch parts from one comedy sketch to the next, is no easy matter. Few comics are capable of pulling this off, and not merely because the audience has a hard time accepting a well-known entertainer taking on a dramatic role.

The members of the Hagashash Hahiver comedy trio never appeared in a play (although there were overtures to cast them in "Waiting for Godot," it didn't happen, which might be a good thing). Of the three, only Yisrael Poliakov resumed his stage career as an actor, and he too has had to contend, not always successfully, with being a "Gashash." Orna Banai has made an effort to sustain a theatrical career along with her television role, and it is still early to assess if she will be able to completely shake off her "Limor" character. Rami Heuberger and Dov Navon were wonderfully successful in "Waiting for Godot," so evidently the crossover is possible.

In the past few years, Moshonov has been making a concerted effort to earn his dramatic colors. He was particularly impressive in Yehoshua Sobol's "The Strangers" and Ionesco's "The Chairs" (which he also directed), and less convincing as Willy Loman in "Death of a Salesman." Bar-Abba played the Good Soldier Schweik and the main role in "The Witch" without sacrificing his qualities as a practiced entertainer, and perhaps even with emphasis of said qualities.

Bar-Abba and Moshonov's joint appearance in "The Sunshine Boys" constitutes a sort of trap: How can they, and the audience, be helped to differentiate between a vaudeville show with Moni and Bar-Abba and a play in which they are acting (the subject of which is how to differentiate between Lewis and Clark's vaudeville show and their lives). Ilan Ronen directed the play as a vaudeville show starring Moshonov and Bar-Abba - placing emphasis on the laughs because of a seeming lack of confidence that the plot and the relationship between the play's characters could stand on their own two feet. This is why Ronen was not so scrupulous about having the right finger poking the left shoulder real, as per the actors' own lines. There is laughter, yes, but it emanates from the stomach instead of where it should come from - the heart.

"The Sunshine Boys," Habima. By Neil Simon, translated and directed by Ilan Ronen. Cast: Moni Moshonov, Shlomo Bar-Abba, Oshri Sahar, Annabella, Hila Ofer DeBer, Gera Sandler. Scenery and costumes: Efrat Fas; music: Oren Eldor; lighting: Misha Chernievski