A British Farce With a Not-so-subtle French Twist

'A Surfeit of Lovers' gets a noisy and strenuous production at Habima; our critic didn’t find it funny, but the box office may.

Michael Handelzalts
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From the farce 'A Surfeit of Lovers.'
From the farce 'A Surfeit of Lovers.'Credit: Gerard Allon
Michael Handelzalts

Robin Hawdon is an actor who writes books and serious plays (for production at non-commercial festivals or theaters) as well as plays that are much more commercial. With an acknowledged professional debt to Georges Feydeau, he fills big theaters in London and around the world. In 2006, Habima presented his play “Perfect Wedding.” It ran for 450 performances and my colleagues gave it very enthusiastic reviews (For more, see Habima’s excellent online archive). I was not quite as enthusiastic, concluding that “This material is clearly for the commercial theater, providing entertainment with a bit of feeling. It’s nice enough for a summer evening, if you forget that this is supposed to be repertory or national theater.”

But you don’t argue with 450 performances. Now it’s a winter evening and Habima is presenting “A Surfeit of Lovers,” a play that was commissioned from Hawdon by the acclaimed Polish theater and movie actress Krystyna Janda for the commercial theater she runs in Warsaw; it was performed there in 2010. To the best of my (Google) knowledge, the play has not yet been mounted in England.

Like all of Hawdon’s plays, it’s a professional piece of work: The errors in this comedy of errors pile up very efficiently. Clarice (Ayelet Robinson) has a husband named Roger (Nati Ravitz) who is having an affair with her best friend Daisy (Tali Oren). Clarice also has a French lover named Robert (Yoav Donat). Without her husband’s knowledge, she brings home a very effete interior designer named Rodney (Ami Smolarchik). Planned business trips are canceled and everyone ends up under one roof, rapidly switching identities and lying nonstop. Daisy’s jealous husband Bob (Kobi Maor) also shows up. Before long everyone is chasing everyone else; waving their hands around (Robinson, whose skirt hem gets caught in her panties at one point, and Oren, who also sneezes quite a lot); wearing peacock feathers on their head (Smolarchik); roaring unintelligible gibberish (mainly Maor but also Ravitz); and prattling away in French and/or a French accent (Donat).

So much for the acting: The cast all does what’s expected of them, as skilled and diligent crafts people toiling at their tasks. Alon Ophir directed it to be a hit (lots of precisely orchestrated noise and chaos; whether you find this appealing is a matter of taste. I found it charmless, but maybe that’s just me). Yaron Fried did the Hebrew translation, and since it’s primarily a physical farce, the wit mostly comes down to a play on words between rahmanut (compassion) and harmanut (horniness). The set design (a house in Belgravia, whose occupants never seem to close the door, for some reason) and rococo art-deco costumes both looked like something out of an opera production of “La Rondina.”

Possibly, I would have been more forgiving on a summer evening. In the winter, it seems to me just a tasteless joke that in an hour and 40 minutes manages to make pretty pathetic fun of French people, gays, plumbers, artists, husbands, lovers, men and women. In my opinion, the choice of this play by this theater is also an insult to the audience. Had I come across such a play in a commercial theater in London or Warsaw, I might have admired the professionalism, but I probably wouldn’t have wasted my time on it.

Here it is being presented by the national theater (which is very handicapped-accessible). I can only hope it will earn them some money, because it’s not earning them any respect. To be honest, I was really hoping that it would at least be harmless. I didn’t find it funny. But it wasn’t made to make me laugh or give me enjoyment. Let’s wait and see what the box office has to say about it.

Habima National Theater in Tel Aviv presents “A Surfeit of Lovers” by Robin Hawdon on Monday and Tuesday at 20.00.