Autumn has arrived in full force. The high holidays are behind us, succahs have been taken down and stashed away, the longer nights are becoming a bit cooler, and the Tel Aviv Community Theater (TACT) is gearing up for yet another annual stage production. This year's offering is "Chaim's Love Song," a Jewish-American comedy written by Marvin Chernoff. The play, which premiered Off Broadway to a glowing review from the New York Times, has been staged elsewhere in the US and the UK, but this is the show's Israeli premier.
Set in Brooklyn, New York, the play involves a chance meeting on a park bench between Chaim Slotsky, a retired Jewish mailman, and Kelly Burke, a young, gentile teacher visiting New York from Iowa. In the course of their long conversation, Chaim tells Kelly the story of his life. Vignettes from his memories form the two-act play's scenes. We meet Shayna, Chaim's first wife who died in childbirth; Tzawrah, Chaim's second wife, a Holocaust survivor; Chaim's children, as well as a host of other characters that have drifted in and out of Chaim's life.
The use of a New York City park bench as dramatic anchor for a series of memory scenes will doubtlessly remind many experienced theatergoers of Herb Gardner's 1984 hit play, "I'm Not Rappaport." Like Rappaport, "Chaim's Love Song" successfully strikes the necessary balance between comedy and some rather grim drama. A lot of this success is due to the sensitive handling of the play by this production's actors and director.
The play is directed by Michah Himmelman, 51, a 30-year veteran of the theater in Israel who has acted in several previous TACT productions. From the beginning, Himmelman approached his directing duties in a very contemporary way. Although he and playwright Marvin Chernoff have never met face-to-face, the two developed a close working relationship "online" through Facebook.
"I just searched for Marvin Chernoff and, lo and behold, we became Facebook friends," Himmelman recalls. "I started writing to him about ideas and opinions I was getting from some of the actors, and he's been very kind and welcoming of our ideas. These have mostly been about changes in the play to make it more relevant to an Israeli audience. He's very excited about having 'Chaim's Love Song' premier here in Israel, and he is actually sending us a number of people who have performed in the play, one of whom has also become my friend on Facebook."
Most theater actors - including many professional ones - also hold down a "day job" to keep food on the table and pay the rent. When not involved with TACT, Himmelman is the founding CEO of a high tech company that enables any cell phone to make cash payments and money transfers, and that will soon produce an electronic dictionary to enhance writing skills. Amateur theater, however, is his first love.
"I actually think that amateur theater brings out the best in theater," he says. "Professional theater is under too much pressure to deliver a production on time, on budget. There are so many limitations and demands. People are getting salaries. In amateur theater, people are there just for the love of the theater, and that brings out a unique, special quality. Everyone knows that this is their time, their moment and they give that moment 150 per cent. It's like the difference between the professional NBA and college basketball."
PLAYING THE title role is Bronx, New York native Doug Kook, 56. This is his second TACT production. Kook anticipates no problems depicting a character almost 20 years his senior.
"The part has been a lot of work, with a tremendous amount of lines, but it's not someone I'm unfamiliar with," he says. "Having grown up in New York City around plenty of blue collar Jewish people, I'm very familiar with the type. It's not hard for me to put him together with actual people I knew. Plus I raised three kids myself and went through periods of difficulties with them, so I can also understand the issues Chaim has with his son and daughter. There's a lot of things I can easily identify with."
Kook has been in Israel for the past four years - along with his wife Miriam, who is also in the show - on a foreign service posting, involved with what he describes as "information management" at the US Embassy. The Kooks will return home to Maryland next year, to be with their children and grandchildren.
Making her debut performance with TACT is Tamar Frumkin, a recent arrival to Israel from West Virginia, who plays Chaim's park bench interlocutor, Kelly.
"Yes, there are a few Jews in West Virginia, but now with me being here, there's hardly any," she says, laughing.
Although new to TACT, she is hardly new to theater. "There's an amazing Equity theater there, in Morgantown, West Virginia, that a lot of Broadway actors and actress go to in the summer - it's a beautiful place - and do summer stock theater there. I had a lot of experience there as a child, and my mom's a theater teacher."
Asked how she is preparing to play a young gentile woman who has never met Jews and knows absolutely nothing about them, she replies - again with laughter, "Well, I am from West Virginia. I'm drawing on lots of experience."
As a recent immigrant to Israel, Frumkin is also drawing on the sensitivity she has acquired moving from one culture to another. "I'm Jewish, but living in Israel is a lot different from living in the United States." Frumkin makes a clear comparison between Israeli and American men. "I have a boyfriend. They're very different from American men - strong, macho, sometimes stubborn, always a challenge. It's nice."
Frumkin's day job involves working in public relations for an online foreign exchange company.
Idy Friedman, who was actually "born, bred and befuddled" in the New York City borough of Brooklyn - where "Chaim's Love Song" is set - is playing Tzawrah, Chaim's second wife. For Friedman, 33, the character poses some wonderful challenges to a young actress.
"Tzawrah is a Holocaust survivor from Eastern Europe, who comes to the United States very traumatized, basically like a dead woman," Friedman says. "We see her transform throughout the play. We see her very young, unable to raise her children, unable to deal with emotion. And then something happens to her. As an older woman she visits Israel, she meets a childhood friend, and she opens up in a nice way. She becomes more humorous. She's finally able to love her husband, and she's finally able to say it. Of all the characters in the play, Tzawrah changes the most."
Friedman says she can draw on extensive personal observations to fill out her character. "There was no shortage of elderly female Holocaust survivors in Brooklyn when I was growing up there."
A former standup comedienne in Brooklyn, Friedman has been in Israel for ten years. Employed at an export company, she does theater, she says, just for fun, and is also involved with a Yiddish cultural group. She has previously performed in two TACT summer showcase productions.
Those who saw last year's TACT production, "Checking In," will see some familiar faces in this year's show. Rita Tasini is back again, directing her considerable talent to the role of Pearl Brisky, the Matchmaker. Quite convincing in his role last year as a retired New York City policeman, Yisrael Levitt returns to play Reuben, Chaim's son. And Dalia Librus, who delighted all and energized most of the males in the audience in her role as Sharon the exercise instructor, is back this year playing Rachel, Chaim's daughter.
"Chaim's Love Song" is produced by TACT's driving force and guiding spirit, Madeleine Mordecai - known to one and all as "Maddy." This production caps a busy year for the group, which she says included both a summer Broadway musical singing workshop and a colorful, but mostly green, joint Purim and St. Patrick's Day celebration. Held in conjunction with the Israel-Ireland Friendship League, festivities included Irish music and dancing - fueled by an abundant supply of Guinness and green hamantaschen - along with the production of a short play, "The Irish Hebrew Lesson."
2010 promises to be an even busier year for TACT, according to Mordecai. "We're looking forward to a very packed schedule, with a lot of interesting stuff planned."
'Chaim's Love Song' will open on October 20, 2009 and will run on October 21, 22, 24 and 25 at Yad Labanim, 63 Pinkas Street, Tel Aviv. Curtain for all performances is at 8:30 pm. Tickets can be ordered Sunday through Thursday, 9:00 am - 3:00 pm at 03-604-1707 or 03-546-7404.