Theater Review: The Labor of Living

The Labor of Living is a good way to make acquaintance with Israel’s most Israeli playwright.

‘The Labor of Living’ 370 (photo credit: Courtesy Beit Lessin)
‘The Labor of Living’ 370
(photo credit: Courtesy Beit Lessin)
Hanoch Levin’s 1980 comedy The Labor of Living might have been called “The Burden of Living” because that’s what his life seems to Yona Popoch (Sasson Gabai), waking suddenly in the middle of the night. And not just his life; it’s his entire existence he bewails – that he’s done nothing with it, that life has passed him by, that he hasn’t managed to grab even a thread of its coattails.
Is it Yona’s fault? Of course not.
He blames Leviva (Liora Rivlin), his wife of 30-odd years, peacefully sleeping beside him in their double bed. Unceremoniously he tips Leviva onto the floor, announcing to his sleep and shock befuddled helpmeet that he’s going to leave her.
Yet Levin (1943-99), a poet and most meticulous master of language, called his play The Labor of Living because it demonstrates, via laughter, the very serious effort it takes just to slog on day by day. We can all identify with that, even if some of us manage better than poor Yona.
Yona and Leviva go at each other hammer and tongs. Their existential furor is exacerbated when their even lonelier and more despairing neighbor Gunkel (Yitzhak Hiskiya) insinuates himself into the fray.
When Hiskiya, a veteran Levin actor, makes his entrance, the comedy leaps suddenly to life. He wonderfully milks Gunkel’s futile aggressions, his lanky curving tallness expressing the servile hostility that pervades his cameo. He also brings into sharp relief the compassion Levin has for his characters. The applause Hiskiya gets at his exit is well deserved.
Gabai and Rivlin are superb actors, but here they seem a little adrift. Their Yona and Leviva are earnest, involved, suitably anguished, certainly funny, but that’s not enough. What they lack is the sense of self-irony and the certain distance so essential to a Levin actor. Without these, their comedy hasn’t enough bite.
For all that, it’s an enjoyable evening of theater. And for those unfamiliar with Israel’s most Israeli playwright, The Labor of Living is a good way to make his acquaintance.