Hard Love

Theatre Or

At a time when rockets are hitting Haifa and Israelis are dying, apparently for the crime of having withdrawn from Gaza, it seems the height of luxury to worry about intra-Israeli social problems like the divide between ultra-Orthodox Jews and their secular countrymen. Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah don’t care, after all, whether one faction of the Zionist enemy keeps kosher while another doesn’t. They want to wipe out everybody.

Still, if Israel’s taught the Jewish diaspora anything it’s how not to be defined by one’s enemies. Pointing out the fissures in Israeli culture may seem frivolous (and possibly dangerous) when there’s a war on, but it’s an absolutely necessary frivolity because it suggests that Israeli life–even Israeli feuds–will continue, Katyushas or no.

And so Israeli playwright Motti Lerner’s fascinatingly contentious love story, Hard Love, is welcome however surreal its preoccupations seem in the current martial environment. I only wish this production by North Carolina’s Theatre Or, reviving its own U.S. premiere, represented the play better.

A sort of Talmudic melodrama offering lots of argument along with its romantic contrivances, Hard Love tells the tale of two Israelis–Zvi and Hannah–who were married 20 years ago, when both were Hasidim living in the ferociously strict Meah Shearim neighborhood of Jerusalem. Never quite comfortable in his faith, Zvi went a little mad after their child was stillborn. He renounced God, cut his payes, changed his name from Herschel to Zvi, moved out, and started writing fiction. Hannah chose to stay put, divorcing him and marrying a pious older man. Now, wonder of wonders, the children of their second marriages–Hannah’s Orthodox daughter and Zvi’s secular son–have found each other and fallen in love. Hannah and Zvi are forced to meet for the first time since their divorce to deal with the situation. Naturally, intense feelings are unleashed.

Hard Love has “political parable” written all over it: the old Judaism and the new Israel thrashing out their endless, impossible, angry passion. Their can’t-live-with-’em, can’t-kill-’em contradictions. The device of the children falling in love is so colossally symbolic it makes The Faerie Queen look naturalistic.

And yet the script is much too vital to play like a simple parable. Lerner’s Zvi is a grand mass of mixed messages. Equal parts conniver and poet, he has a rude sexual appetite that gets hopelessly–often comically–tangled up with love’s exaltation. Zvi’s intellect as well: tangled. While priding himself on having banished all things Orthodox from his ideological universe, he nevertheless continues to argue legalistically, like the yeshiva student he once was, winning debate points even as he talks himself out of his heart’s desire.

Hannah is written with similar verve: a woman full of low cunning and high dudgeon, animal passion and moral strength. A formidable match for Zvi, capable of the most egregious manipulations but never for the wrong reasons. As written. As performed by Diane Gilboa, she’s nothing more than a plaintive wimp who seems to hide in religion when she should be wearing it like a robe. Whether because of Jeffery West’s direction or her own limitations, Gilboa seems incapable of manifesting the multifariousness that would make the character riveting. Her Hannah’s all of a piece, and that piece is unrelentingly whiny.

This ruins everything, of course. The laughs aren’t funny while the passion is. The frustration’s intense but the issues aren’t. Jeffrey Blair Cornell’s vividness as Zvi only makes things worse, pointing up how monochromatic Gilboa is. What could have played like a Jewish version of Henry and Eleanor from The Lion in Winter becomes a long, unresolved rumination on a single question: What does he see in her?

WHEN: Through 8/20: Wed-Fri 7:30 PM, Sat 8 PM, Sun 2:30 PM

WHERE: Victory Gardens Theater, 2257 N. Lincoln

PRICE: $30-$35

INFO: 773-871-3000

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Sheldon Becker.