'Difficult People' - but a Joy to Watch

Thanks to unique casting, Yosef Bar-Yosef's consistently popular play sparkles anew in its latest incarnation.

Of all Yosef Bar-Yosef's plays, what makes "Difficult People" the most popular? Nineteen plays by the Jerusalem-born playwright are included in the collected volume published by Dvir and Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, yet this is the fourth time this particular play has been put on by an Israeli repertory company. And its popularity is not limited to Israel: "Difficult People" has been running successfully since 1992 at various theaters in the former USSR and has been produced with great success in Warsaw, Prague, Pilsen, Brazil, Glasgow, Edinburgh and London.

When I try to articulate what it is about "Difficult People" that attracts directors and actors, I find myself attributing it to the fact that the play allows them to tell several stories on the same stage, each of which is interesting and moving enough to stand alone, while at the same time not contradicting or overshadowing the others.

Rachel and Simon are Jewish siblings, survivors of a family that perished in the cataclysm that was the fate of European Jewry. Both have built dismal lives for themselves in an English coastal city. She works in some unspecified medical profession and conducts serial romances with medical students who leave her once they finish their studies; he, who wants to redeem her from her spinsterhood and to marry her off, travels to Israel and, pretending to be someone of importance, procures her a pitiable, eccentric groom, named Eliezer "Lezer" Weingarten. The groom, however, wears his wretchedness with pride and demands only truth and integrity, convinced that wretchedness, when admitted, is an asset. The three characters are accompanied now and again, throughout the play, by a Jewish nonconformist named Benny Alter - a dreamer who lives in the Diaspora and has nothing but contempt for the notion of redemption in the Land of Israel.

On the one hand, this a very human story about loyalty between siblings, about the brother's desire to manage his sister's life and to make her respectable and happy, even as he knows that he is himself neither; and the story of a lonely eccentric set loose from one relationship and now trying to insure himself against another disappointment. It is a story of two men - each with different motivations - trying to force rules of conduct on one woman. She, more willing and able than they to adapt herself to their desires, grows progressively tougher throughout the play, until she forces her will on them, which finally brings her back to the same starting point.

On the other hand, the play also says something about Jewish life in Israel and in the Diaspora. Israel and the Diaspora are locked in a complex dance as the characters, deeply steeped in personal insecurity, seek some kind of redemption. The Jewish brother in England, who has failed to find peace in his own life, cannot accept his sister's willingness to remain single. In some way, the play's statement - if it makes one - favors separating the fate of British Jews from that of Israelis in Israel, and conceding (and it's a big concession ) to Jewish existence in the Diaspora - the condition apparently being that the characters remain honest with themselves and give up trying to manage other people's lives.

A human cuckoo clock

What allows "Difficult People" to sparkle every time it is put on is the fact that there are four characters capable of telling, with every new production, another unique story. In the case of the current version, at Haifa Theater, the casting provides a truly unique tale. One of the subplots that develops in the current production is the result of the fact that the play doesn't take place in Israel, neutralizing the viewers' attitude to the fact that two of the actors - Salim Dau and Khalifa Natour - are Arabs.

Throughout the not-insubstantial history of identity politics, people have, on the one hand, talked about a theater in which casting is color-blind (i.e., where the actors' skin color is irrelevant ), gender-indifferent (so that women can play men's roles and vice versa ) and accent-deaf. On the other hand, some have vociferously demanded that characters of a particular extraction be played by actors of the same origin. I am not sure that either approach is always correct; everything depends on the particular circumstances of the specific play and its ability to disregard, emphasize or take advantage of actors' characteristics.

In this particular case, the presence of Dau and Natour onstage, with their specific pronunciation of Hebrew, could have made things tough had this been a realistic play set in Israel, because their accents would have fixed the origins of the characters they are playing. As it did when, for example, Dau played an Arab laborer in Hanoch Levin's "Murder" and an Egyptian soldier in the film "Avanti Popolo"; and when Natour in his most recent - and excellent - couple of roles played an Arab (in his one-man show "Bitvah Yerika" and the play "Ulysses al Bakbukim" ).

In "Difficult People," both create fantastical characters that allows the audience to disregard their accents. In the role of Benny Alter, Dau, suddenly popping in with aggressive determination to put the characters in their place with a few broken words, serves as a kind of human cuckoo popping out of a cuckoo clock. From the director's perspective, he functions as a punctuation mark throughout a scene, highlighting its climax: He is the one who criticizes the brother's intention to marry off his sister, and the one who sends the choosy groom on his way, even when the latter is finally willing to be appeased and to compromise.

For his part, Natour has been blessed with a unique ability to bring resolve and strength to the stage without resorting to aggression. There is something warm about his presence that allows the audience to relate with a great deal of empathy to the quirks and demanding nature of Lezer, the groom, and even with a measure of compassion for his misery. One gets the sense that there stands before us a powerful presence capable of tackling anything and, alternately, a man with tremendous vulnerability, with a gaping, though not bleeding, wound. Even when the character he portrays is sent packing from the stage, Natour's unique presence, particularly the character's naivete, continues to linger, rebuking the siblings.

Until the outburst

Set against these two actors, the plot of the two remaining characters is especially fascinating. The brother is played by Moshe Ivgy, an actor with a stellar, prize-winning career in Israeli cinema. While he has, during his long career, also appeared on the stage, my impression over the years was that he was incapable of producing onstage the necessary aura that would carry his outstanding qualities beyond the first few rows of the theater. But in recent years, in particular after a number of roles with the Gesher Theater in Jaffa, it seems that Ivgy has reinvented himself as a stage actor par excellence. His technique is superb, allowing him to craft a very rich and well-observed role. In addition, unlike the hesitation and softness that have characterized some of his film roles to date, here he is sharp and quick, drowning the stage and his partner with a torrent of words, particularly when he's speaking a monologue.

Opposite Ivgy is Helena Yaralova, who made her debut on the Hebrew stage with another Bar-Yosef play, "This Big Sea," from which she made the leap to playing the lead role in Edan Mazya's play "Was It a Dream?" I have written before about Yaralova's unique qualities as an actress, and while her Hebrew pronunciation onstage is still somewhat Slavic it is very different from that of other Russian immigrant actors. In addition to her role in "Difficult People," Yaralova is concurrently participating in the Cameri Theater's "Richard II" and "Richard III," in Tel Aviv. There, in weighty dialogue with Israeli actors her accent is something of a drawback. But when afforded an opportunity to perform a monologue (as in "Richard III" ), her talent is striking.

Here, in Bar-Yosef's play, she is mostly required to absorb the flood of verbiage spewed by her brother, and later to confront the profound unrest generated by Natour's presence in the role of the groom. All of this is a prologue to the scene of her outburst, which, coming after the virtuosic performance of her two partners, is all the more impressive. It seems that her character absorbs insult after insult, is stepped on again and again, until she simply sweeps the stage with her outrage.

As a spectator, it is hard for me to determine what part director Moshe Naor played in the actors' triumph. I admit that the stage was, to my tastes, fairly drab and lacking in distinction, but not to the extent that it interfered with my enjoyment. In addition, it seems to me that the musical arrangement got a little carried away: When the musician-neighbor from another apartment played his instrument, for some reason the music was accompanied by an orchestra. But these are petty complaints when compared to a play that arouses interest time and time again, and four absolutely magnificent, stellar performances.