The Cameri Theater production of “The Wolves” – a new play written and directed by Hillel Mittelpunkt – seems to have a hard time deciding just what it wants to be. It changes its tune so often, one suspects it’s a deliberate ploy that’s meant to help convey a message the audience might otherwise have scoffed at or refused to even hear had it been delivered more directly.
The story begins in the not-so-recent past (forcing Tiki Dayan, in the lead role, to provide a lengthy expository monologue): The year is 1978, a year after the right’s historic general election victory (known in Israel as “the Upheaval”). The place is a failing farm owned by a Revisionist family that’s considered the lowest of the low: the lepers among the ostracized, who have at long last come to power, but don’t get to reap any of the rewards.
This section of the play looks and sounds like another nail in the coffin of the Ashkenazi elite whose time has passed – notwithstanding the fact that its representatives are actually in power. It’s like some sort of statement about a crumbling Israel of the “good old days,” which wallows in its hurt feelings even when it is still holding the reins.
From there, “The Wolves” proceeds to become a soap opera that exposes skeletons in both the closet and the somewhat moldy family bed, with melodramatic revelations slickly meted out by a writer who is very adept at crafting funny lines and constructing a play in the Ibsen-esque tradition, with some TV soap opera-type cleverness thrown in for good measure.
For a while, it seems like it’s all personal and not political: that love, money and status far outweigh ideology. But then it concludes with a message implying that the actions of our current prime minister – who wanted to make it in America, became very skilled at selling himself, wrecked his future there and returned here to build himself up on the basis of his family’s tangled history – really derive from his attempts to funnel all this into an uninhibited political career, one in which he strives to get himself and his supporters to believe all the lies he is peddling; to convince himself, and them, that he is really worth something here in the Middle East, after his failure back in America.
No, the play is not a satire (although it’s often quite funny and reminiscent of situations we read in the newspaper and see all around us). And no, it’s not meant to be seen as a deciphering of our prime minister’s motivations.
Ultimately, it’s a tale of damaged human souls, each of whom is trying to create a storythat would provide self-justification. And on this level, not the political or theatrical one – the realism of the set design is maddeningly banal, as are the attempts at “meaning,” as symbolized by the tree branches that come through the walls of the house – the play’s power derives almost exclusively from the personalities of the actors, each of whom makes very good use of the material Mittelpunkt has given them.
The ultimate Jewish mother
At the center, of course, is Tiki Dayan, the ultimate Jewish-Israeli woman/mother on the Israeli stage. She’s from the right ethnic background for these times – Sephardi (descended from Spanish and Portuguese Jews). But she’s also the embodiment of the great Israeli-Ashkenazi mother (which she played in Mittelpunkt’s previous plays “Oil Town” and “Grocery Store”). And let’s not forget her role in Hanoch Levin’s “Queen of the Bathtub,” or how she was the mother of the inculcation of the word asafsuf (“rabble”) to our political lexicon. Here, naturally, she’s superb and doesn’t miss a single nuance. And, at the moment of reckoning, she persuades us that everything she’s done and is doing stems from human compassion.
Alongside her, a trio of male actors all succeed in creating a vital moment without which this political-realist-melodramatic concoction would not work at all: As the Netanyahu alter ego, Dan Shapira is slick, amiable, eloquent, embarrassed, semi-candid and projects an air of ragged success; Alon Dahan invests the role of the good Israeli with a warm and vulnerable humanity; and, as the mother’s gay brother – the reject among the lepers, among the ostracized who have come to power – with a single hand gesture and wistful monologue, Yitzhak Hizkiya manages to steal the show with a combination of both boundless charm and melancholy.
Evelyn Genis in a tiny role, Yossi Kantz in a slightly bigger role and Tamar Keenan in the thankless role of the abandoned woman (I would suggest she ask costume designer Raz Leshem to give her a different shirt to wear in the first act; the pattern is distractingly busy) round out the casting, which is ultimately what gives the play life and makes it worthwhile.
I found myself wondering (and knowing that the playwright-director’s answer would almost certainly be a resounding no): Is Mittelpunkt essentially saying that what our prime minister is doing, for better and worse, all comes from his personal-political story? What does all this mean? In the end, the play – which continues to peel back layer after layer – somehow works, even though its drawbacks bothered me nearly throughout. I attribute this success to the cast, and the playwright who handed them these roles.