Neil Simon Doesn’t Get Lost on the Israeli Stage

So what if it’s not a classic and not an original? The Be’er Sheva Theater production of Simon’s ‘Chapter Two’ is well executed, well acted and enjoyable.

Michael Handelzalts
Michael Handelzalts
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Michal Yannai (left) and Amir Krief in 'Chapter Two.'Credit: Maayan Kaufman
Michael Handelzalts
Michael Handelzalts

Rafi Niv, artistic director of the Be’er Sheva Theater and director of “Chapter Two,” sounded almost apologetic in his comments in the program. Along with classics and original plays, he explained, repertory theater also sometimes puts on “bread and butter” shows – i.e., something simple and human, maybe even a little entertaining and a little moving, with no great importance beyond that.

I can understand the urge to apologize, as theater critics like myself tend to berate repertory theater whenever it presents something that is intended merely as a pleasant spectacle and isn’t classic or original. But the real truth is that when such a “bread and butter” play is done right, it is more than enough to justify its existence; it does not require any apology. The nice thing about bread is that – like Naftali Bennett – it doesn’t make apologies. It is what it is, and is content to leave it at that.

And Neil Simon’s “Chapter Two,” which is perceived as a piece of American theatrical entertainment, good for Broadway but not for repertory, is certainly more than mere “bread and butter.” It’s a well-made play about two people trying to begin a second chapter in their lives: He is widowed, she is divorced, they are thrust into each other’s arms by well-meaning friends, they fall in love, they agonize, they lose their way momentarily and ultimately they manage to cope with life.

This play has been presented in repertory theater in Israel so many times by now that it needs no excuses and, really, the only test is in the execution. And in this instance everyone has approached the task with laudable seriousness and no little charm. Neta Haker has created marvelously realistic scenery, in which a slammed door doesn’t make the walls shake – and in Israeli theater, that in itself is quite an accomplishment. I think that Oren Dar could have been a little more careful with the costumes, especially Michal Yannai’s dresses, but also the sloppy attire of Muli Shulman. But the key to such plays isn’t the design, which is supposed to provide an unobtrusive backdrop, but the acting. And on this count a fine job is done by all, though to my taste the overtly comic side of Shulman and Adva Adani’s acting was just a tad overdone.

This play rises and falls on the quality of the acting of the two characters struggling in the second chapter of their lives. And here Amir Krief, who lately has played a number of impressive period roles (in “Ghosts,” for example), at last gets his hands on a “realistic” role and shapes it with the right blend of irony and emotion. The pleasant surprise is Michal Yannai in the female role. Like the play and the production, she also has the good sense and the courage to just be who she is and not be ashamed of that. Her long monologue rightly evokes rousing applause.

At one point in the play, Simon proves (in Ido Ricklin’s very fluid translation) that just by saying “Ahh” one can say a lot of things. So that is what I say about the Be’er Sheva Theater production of “Chapter Two”: Ahh.

Be’er Sheva Theater stages “Chapter Two” on June 2 at 17.00 and 20.30; June 3, 4 and 8 at 20.30; and June 6 at 21.00.