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Theatre in Review: Hard Love (The Actors Company Theatre/Theatre Row)

Victoria Mack. Ian Kahn. Photo: CLark Kim

The Actors Company Theatre, which typically specializes in revivals of notable works of the past, introduces us to a fresh face in the contemporary Israeli playwright Motti Lerner, who in turn focuses on a subject rarely seen on the New York stage, namely life inside the enclave of Jerusalem's Orthodox Jews. In the fascinating program notes, we learn that the Orthodox shun the modernity of their home country, and, indeed, many of them "refuse to acknowledge the authority of the Jewish state." Inside the community, computers and televisions are sternly disapproved of, stones can be thrown at cars belonging to outsiders, and women can be called out publicity for immodesty -- which, one suspects, would hardly be seen as immodest anywhere else.

It's an ideal stage for drama, and Lerner finds plenty of it in the sundered, but not really finished, relationship of Hannah and Zvi, born Herschel. Married in late adolescence, their life together fell apart quickly, following the death of their baby: Zvi lost his faith and departed for Tel Aviv, where he established a career as a novelist. Following their divorce, Hannah was steered by her parents into an arranged marriage with the head of the local yeshiva, a man nearly twice her age. Twenty years on, they are thrown together when his son has begun courting her daughter. Hannah intends to break them up and Zvi arrives to plead their case.

It is not a cordial encounter. Hannah cannot look Zvi in the eye, so appalled is she by his irreligious existence. Fearing a scandal, she keeps the curtains open so the neighbors can observe them; she also points out that her husband is keeping tabs on them from the kitchen. The atmosphere is thick with unfinished business, and soon the discussion of the younger generation is tabled for a round of recriminations. Zvi says Hannah blames him for their child's death. "We got divorced because you wanted to run away from here," she replies. Adding to Zvi's disaffection is the haunting memory of his mother, a not-terribly religious woman -- "The pinnacle of her spirituality was the gefilte fish she made for the Sabbath," he says -- who eventually found relief from her empty, dreary life with a noose around her neck. Yet when Zvi insists that Hannah's life has been similarly circumscribed, she insists that her scholar-husband allowed her to study the classic Jewish texts, as well as such thinkers as Maimonides and the heretical Spinoza, as a way of helping her work through her doubts.

But it soon becomes clear that they share a compulsion to hurt each other because neither the passage of time nor the acquisition of new lives has been enough to dull the pain of their parting. His second marriage is swiftly arriving at an end, and his efforts at writing a book about his mother have left him blocked. The tighter she clings to the tenets of her religious practice, the more she aches for him. The act comes to an end with them committing a rash act, which will have all sorts of consequences.

I won't tell what happens next except to note that, even in vastly changed circumstances, both are so marked by their religious upbringings that even when it looks like they might possibly make a life together, no common ground can be found between them. Hannah imagines herself privately continuing her ritual observances, but Zvi jealously cannot share her with God. The price he wants from her is a total surrender of belief.

Lerner's dramaturgy is shaky from time to time -- each act depends on missed phone calls containing important information, and the love affair of Hannah and Zvi's offspring is little more than a convenient device to bring the adults together. (The second act hinges partly on Zvi's son's out-of-nowhere decision to become Orthodox.) But the author has a fine appreciation of his characters' messy, unresolved lives, how neither Zvi nor Hannah can stop wrestling with their religious tradition, and why they can't leave each other alone.

In a production tautly directed by Scott Alan Evans, Ian Kahn and Victoria Mack make a fine pair of passionate adversaries. Kahn's Zvi is a big bear of a man, forever coming on strong, talking a mile a minute, freely owning up to his many flaws (including the 23-year-old woman who has, almost instantly, replaced his second wife), and constantly reaching for the cigarette that Hannah will not permit. He has become a writer to try to make some sense of his life, and he cannot stop himself from probing old wounds, searching for fresh evidence of pain. In contrast, Mack's Hannah physically shrinks from him, studying the floor, her arms pulled in, as if she would like to disappear altogether. Later, pushed beyond endurance, she squares off against him, fury in her face, her arms waving wildly. Despite their very different styles, one is hard-pressed to say who is the more formidable opponent.

Evans' design team has provided the show with a simple, yet stylish, look. In John McDermott's set design, Hannah and Zvi's very different living rooms are each rendered using two detached walls plus furniture arrangements. The rooms are done, respectively, in yellow and turquoise, colors that subtly blend into the three burlap drops that hang at stage right, stage left, and upstage. Aaron Copp's lighting design treats these with sensitivity. Kim Krumm Sorenson's costumes give Zvi a kind of rumpled appeal; she also buttons up Hannah in almost hysterically modest outfits that reveal little more than her face and hands. Toby Jaguar Algya's sound design blends melancholy piano passages with the sound of ocean waves for the second act, which is set in Tel Aviv.

Hard Love ends on a melancholy note, but I found myself thinking about Hannah and Zvi for hours after (always a good sign). Such are their circumstances that they are unlikely ever to be outside of each other's orbit. One imagines them continuing to hurt each other, if only sporadically, for years to come. They can't escape each other any more than they can escape their God. -- David Barbour

(20 October 2015)

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