Bravo! The French Triumph Over the British on the Israeli Stage

Our theater critic takes off his beret to the Israeli production of 'A Farewell Dinner.'

Michael Handelzalts
Michael Handelzalts
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Mordi Gershon, Yael Levental and Yuval Segal in 'A Farewell Dinner.' Charm, humor and flighty enchantment.Credit: Kfir Bolotin
Michael Handelzalts
Michael Handelzalts

It was my weekend with the director Alon Ophir. On Friday I saw a matinee performance at the Cameri Theater in Tel Aviv of “Run for Your Wife” that he directed – a smart, wild, physical farce by the English playwright Ray Cooney. It has played successfully all over the world, and this is its third production in Israel. On Saturday evening, at Beit Lessin Theater in Tel Aviv, I saw “A Farewell Dinner,” also directed by Ophir, a smart, verbal, refined farce by the French playwrights Alexander de la Patellière and Matthieu Delaporte, in an Israeli premiere (an earlier play by the duo, “The First Name,” was staged by Beit Lessin in 2011).

Although “Run for Your Wife” is a well-mounted, highly professional production, I hated it for reasons having partly to do with its type of humor, its themes and the specific circumstances of Israel that week. In my opinion, “Run for Your Wife,” through no fault of its own or those involved in it, is a bad play. I wrote that Ophir “is adept at and apparently likes to direct plays like this” (he is also the director of “Panic,” by the English playwright Robin Hawden, at the Habima Theater). My apologies for assuming that he likes this material, but “A Farewell Dinner” is further proof that he knows his business.

And not just proof. True, this is entertainment theater, a plot mechanism and a sophisticated laugh machine – in a word, theater craft, an area in which many self-styled theater artists are deficient – but precisely in this case done with skill of a very high order. English farce, which Israeli theater scours for its blockbusters (nine different plays by Ray Cooney have been produced here), is a very different world from French farce, which Beit Lessin Theater has at last discovered.

Esprit de France

Where the English are crass, crude, childish, physical and vulgar (though it can all be very funny and also touch on critical human issues), the French are light, refined, adult and utterly charming. Plenty of things happen in English farces; there’s a feeling of pressure in the air. Whereas French farces are, most pleasurably, about nothing at all. A trifling conversation about this and that, and suddenly one word, and a quarter of a sentence, and a whole “episode” ensues, which under no circumstances corresponds directly with the surrounding reality. It’s full of “esprit,” a smile at the corners of the mouth, champagne.

In “A Farewell Dinner,” Pierre and Clotilde are a likable couple who pursue an active social life and meet with friends for dinner. When Pierre reaches the conclusion that some friendships have run their course, he suggests, and his wife agrees, that they hold a “farewell dinner” for one such friend. The trick is that the friend is not supposed to know what’s going on. But what happens when he discovers the scheme in real time and turns the tables? Friendships and relationships face a formidable test. I don’t believe there are theatergoers for whom this doesn’t say something – something important – about themselves.

This is a delightful production by every parameter. Dori Parnas has come up with another brilliant translation. The stage design by Neta Hacker is shot through with humor and inventiveness (ah, if only that was my house), and the dazzling lighting is by Adi Shimroni. The cast is a sheer delight, bringing to life talkers gifted with charm, humor and flighty enchantment. Mordi Gershon is Pierre, the linchpin of the plot, humane, warm, amusing, embarrassed; Yael Levental is Clotilde, his wife, who’s spunky and amusing – a considerable achievement, given that the play is mainly about male friendship; and Yuval Segal does a stylized but amazingly funny and convincing role as the friend being given the farewell dinner.

The play is filled with the wisdom of life, touches on essential matters and respects the viewers as intelligent, sensitive people, not only as material that laughs when tickled. Here Ophir directs with a delicate, tasetful touch, and with effervescent humor.

I’m known as a big fan of English theater, but when it comes to farce (whose French father is Georges Feydeau, a playwright much admired by Hanoch Levin) I take off my beret to the French. In short, a big bravo. Superb summer entertainment – a play to which you won’t want to say farewell.

The next performances of “A Farwell Dinner” are scheduled for September 7-9 at 8:30 P.M., at the Eretz Israel Museum, Ramat Aviv (03) 641-5244