People who complain that theater critics use blunt language that doesn’t take into account the feelings and efforts of a work’s creatorshave apparently never heard themselves talking about their colleagues’ plays or even about their own plays. In a chance conversation, I heard a highly regarded veteran actress use the term “Ikea plays.” Naturally, she wasn’t talking about her theater company, but about a different one, whose name she mentioned.
Since it wasn’t the first time I’d heard this term from theaterpeople, I knew that she was referring, basically, to plays whose plot unfolds in our time, in Israel or anywhere else on the planet, with a setting that looks as though it was bought in assembly-ready parts from the popular Swedish manufacturer of domestic furniture and accessories.
In our era, in which political correctness is of the essence, it’s inappropriate to look down on the wish to accommodate as many consumers as possible, but the fact is that a broad common denominator requires a lowering of standards. To return to the original metaphor: Ikea is equal to a relatively simple object made of uniform, mass-produced parts, which anyone can assemble on his or her own. And that, to put it delicately, is the opposite of the qualities we look for in culture and art, such as singularity and originality. As we can’t generally do it ourselves, we buy a ticket to see others do it for us on the stage. Theater is not just entertainment; it’s also gourmet dishes capable of enhancing the viewers’ taste.
Still, there is a sense in which staging a play for a large audience resembles the principle by which Ikea furniture and accessories are manufactured and marketed. With the exception of original plays or a theater project that takes shape while being worked on by the participants, staging a work of theater is a process of self-assembly from existing parts. There is a ready play, translated, contemporary or classic; the casting of actors, and additional elements – human (the theater’s artisans) and mute (stage design, lighting). All these, after a process of assemblage (rehearsals) are ready for use and meet the needs of many users.
In the same breath, we have to add the experience of everyone who has ever tried to assemble an Ikea product from the accompanying instructions. Invariably, there are many parts that you don’t know where to screw in, there are usually too few or too many screws and the process is often a frustrating one of trial and error in which the item has to be disassembled because it wasn’t put together correctly (as you always discover too late) and the whole process repeated, this time to a chorus of hearty curses.
Two versions of one plot
A case in point of an “Ikea play” is “The Odd Couple” – Female Version, by Neil Simon, a new production of the Tel Aviv-based Beit Lessin Theater, translated by Shlomo Moskovitz and directed by Roni Pinkovich. Not only is this a well-known play that has proved itself on stages and screens worldwide, including Israel, it’s actually one version of a twin product with identical features. In 1968, Simon wrote a comedy about the difficulties experienced by two men who share an apartment – a divorced man who’s the epitome of chaos and his compulsively orderly friend who’s going through a crisis with his partner. In 1985 he wrote a female version of the play.
The fact that there are two versions of one plot, in response to consumers’ needs (in this case actors and actresses) fits the model of a “version for self-assembly according to an effective formula.” Proof exists that this product, even if you replace its parts and character, works as an effective piece of entertainment that can be enjoyed to pass the time and perhaps even offer some human and personal lessons.
Beit Lessin produced the female version of “The Odd Couple” in 1991 and the male version in 1999; a Habima Theater production of the male version was staged in 2010. Before proceeding, it’s important to point out that our perception of the relations between the sexes and the genders has changed considerably compared to 1970s and 1980s America. For example, Simon ignored almost completely the gay-hetero-erotic aspect – which for a contemporary viewer hovers above the play – as though an essential component is conspicuously missing from a piece of furniture that was assembled for us on the stage.
An article in the play’s program by the critic and writer Yaron Fried considers the element of pain and laughter in Neil Simon’s work. Directors and actors know that comedies work better when the dramatic situation is impelled by the distress and pain of the characters, who unavoidably find themselves in situations that seem funny to the viewers. The question is whether those who assemble a play assume that the pain is self-evident to the audience, so that they must make an effort to generate laughter; or whether they focus on creating the relations between the characters and rely on the product being assembled correctly, thus being user-friendly, entertaining and enjoyable.
Here, it seems to me, lies the crux of the problem with this production of “The Odd Couple” – Female Version. All the potentially funny elements that were inserted in the plot as amusing embellishments (female stereotypes of the odd couple’s girlfriends, or the Mexican brothers who are upstairs neighbors) were exaggerated, and not performed with impressive professionalism. In part, this is due to the director’s decision to heighten the plot’s farcical elements at the expense of feelings and relationships. But it’s also due to the problematic casting of the supporting roles.
I refer to five secondary parts in which the actors are components that can be replaced relatively easily and whose quality above a certain level doesn’t really make a difference. In this case, the minimum level was not achieved, despite charming moments by Yotam Kushnir and, to a certain degree, Lorin Mosseri. Nir Strauss, Naama Amit and Liron Ben Shushan move well (choreography by Omer Zimri; music by Ran Bagno), but they don’t really fit properly into this product and even detract from its entertainment usability.
But no theater company stages this Neil Simon comedy for its intrinsic worth. It’s usable as a playing field for two lead actresses in roles of human opposites whose bickering makes the play. Here – and it’s difficult to know whether this is due to the choice of the actress or the director’s instructions – Talli Oren, in the role of the order-obsessed abandoned woman, gives an exaggerated, overblown performance replete with facial and bodily contortions, rapid-fire speech and a type of vocal distortion. All this gets laughs, but makes the character less interesting than she could have been. Nor does the costume designer, Oren Dar, help.
In contrast, Meggie Azarzer’s performance as the bohemian apartment owner is a sheer pleasure. From her first stage entrance, she conveys the presence of one who knows where she is, both inside and outside the character. She is totally connected to her feelings, with every movement and gesture she makes seeming to be aimed at achieving a pleasurable aesthetic and emotional effect. In short, if there’s a reason to see this play, it’s to see one impressive performance.
Professional curmudgeons of my type tend to disparage the Ikea philosophy because we look down on things intended for mass consumption – because, if everyone can do it himself, the worth is supposedly diminished. I want to make it clear that I do not look down on work of this kind even in the theater. The production of Ikea plays is justified as long as there are consumers for them. But to be truly impressive, this type of production requires supreme professionalism, in which the force of personality of the actor or actress elevates the theater to the heights of an experience, and is not just something to pass the time before being instantly forgotten.
To conclude, if there are actors and actresses who were insulted because I compared them to furniture, they’re in good company. Thirty years ago, I wrote about the performance of the acclaimed actress Lea Koenig in the Habima production of a Neil Simon play, that the furniture on the stage was more convincing than she was. She did me a favor by turning it into a joke between us. In the end, the whole theater thing isn’t all that serious, and actresses and actors are engraved deeper in the memory than furniture. Or critics.
Upcoming performances of “The Odd Couple” - Female Version: March 13-15 and March 28-31, at Eretz Israel Museum in Ramat Aviv; tickets: (03) 725-5333, or via www.lessin.co.il (Hebrew only)