This Play Will Make You Laugh, but That Doesn't Mean You'll Enjoy Yourself

Another work by a French playwright and another brilliant performance by a veteran Israeli actor – but why is it necessary for two state-subsidized repertory theaters to hook up for a joint production of a commercial comedy, however well done?

Michael Handelzalts
Michael Handelzalts
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Sasson Gabai in 'Do Not Distrub.
Sasson Gabai in 'Do Not Distrub.Credit: Gerard Allon
Michael Handelzalts
Michael Handelzalts

A few years ago, the Beit Lessin Theater staged Florian Zeller’s play “The Truth,” about marriage and cheating and about how “the truth” does not always make you free. It was an intelligent, amusing, enjoyable production – praiseworthy theater of entertainment. I praised it. A year ago, Beit Lessin mounted a production of another Zeller play, “The Father,” which was a true theatrical gem: an original and jolting exercise about the deceptions of reality seen through the eyes of an aging man, with a superb performance by Sasson Gabai in the lead role. Praise and accolades followed from yours truly.

“Do Not Disturb” is another play by the skilled and brilliant Zeller, with Sasson Gabai again in the lead role. I find the play less interesting than the two previous ones, even if it was written after them. It’s a physical farce in which the protagonist, Michel, wants to listen to a rare jazz record that he finally got his hands on – but life, as we know, is what happens when you have other plans. His wife wants to talk about their relationship and to confess a secret that’s bothering her; a foreign worker is renovating part of their apartment and water is dripping on the head of the Polish neighbor below; his wife’s close girlfriend also wants to confess to an act of cheating about which Michel knows something; and his mother drives him crazy on the phone.

The hysteria surges and gushes. Michel, who wants only “an hour of quiet” (the play’s French and Hebrew title), watches helplessly and becomes an unwilling collaborator as his world collapses about him. It’s all done tip-top: the set falls apart as required, the actors play their parts like cogs in a well-made laugh machine. Hadas Kalderon, who plays the wife, is pleasant, restrained and businesslike, Gil Wasserman is very amusing as a Portuguese plumber pretending to be a Pole, and Rafi Tavor as the Polish neighbor has terrific comic timing (though his Polish is abominable).

But all of them are only small planets revolving around the great sun, Sasson Gabai, who has an opportunity here to show off his virtuosity as a comic actor. He can take one funny moment and stretch and develop it into a concert of hysterical funniness in which the viewer (yours truly) laughs helplessly at a bit of total nonsense. At one point the whole play broke up, and Kalderon and Ofri Prishkolnik Eldad stood with their backs to the audience as they tried to rein in their laughter and get on with the show. A moment that sticks in my mind comes shortly after the start of the play, when Gabai shifts his head five times between his wife, who wants to talk to him, and the record he wants to hear.

This is saliently theater of entertainment, and quite enjoyable, too. Except for two small things. One is that in 1975 the English playwright Simon Gray wrote a work entitled “Otherwise Engaged” (directed by Harold Pinter and starring Alan Bates) in which the protagonist wants only to listen to a new recording of Wagner’s “Parsifal,” but life (in the form of a subtenant, a brother, a friend and the wife) gets in the way. The Tel Aviv-based Cameri Theater staged it in 1977. In Gray’s play, the protagonist (played in Israel by Ilan Dar) starts off as an affable individual whom others are disturbing, and in the end is exposed as an egocentric who deserves what he gets.

Zeller’s protagonist is quite insufferable from the word go (but very funny, as I noted, in Gabai’s marvelous performance) and remains so until the end. I laughed (most of the audience laughed more than I did) and I appreciated the professional production, but that doesn’t mean I really enjoyed myself.

The second point is that this Zeller play, unlike the other two plays by him that have been produced in Israel, is a distinctly commercial work of entertainment. This perfectly legitimate genre doesn’t exist in Israel, and I can understand a state-subsidized theater (though the subsidy is not sufficient) staging such material when it’s done properly. The fact that two state-supported repertoire theaters – Haifa Theater and Beit Lessin – have hooked up in a co-production of a play that is innately commercial seems to me totally absurd.

The next performances of “Do Not Disturb” will be on Feb. 29, March 1 and March 20, 21 and 22 at Beit Lessin Theater in Tel Aviv; and on March 26 and 27 at the Haifa Theater.