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Hard Love

A rare and troublesome look into an ultra-orthodox Jewish community and its control over its members.

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Victoria Mack and Ian Kahn in a scene from “Hard Love” (Photo credit: Clark Kim)

Victoria Mack and Ian Kahn in a scene from “Hard Love” (Photo credit: Clark Kim)

Joel Benjamin

Joel Benjamin, Critic

Motti Lerner’s Hard Love takes us into the rarified, rabidly exclusionary world of the ultra-orthodox Jewish enclave known as Me’ah She’arim in Jerusalem.

As Hard Love opens we are in Hannah’s (Victoria Mack) plain, undecorated apartment in Me’ah She’arim.   She warily opens her door to her ex-husband Zvi, aka Herschel (Ian Kahn), a successful writer, from whom she has been divorced for two decades after a scandalous breakup that still resonates in her community.  Ostensibly, Hannah wants to discuss the relationship of her daughter from her second marriage with the son of Zvi, also the product of a second marriage.  Hannah was forced into a second marriage with a much older, enfeebled ultra orthodox man.  Zvi married a modern woman from whom he is divorced.

They hash out old grievances, rant about their religious, spiritual and secular differences, but mostly, and tellingly, realize that they are still passionately attracted to each other despite the passage of time which took them on such separate paths. Their grievances are momentarily forgotten in a passionate moment.

The second scene takes place in the more modern apartment of Zvi in Tel Aviv (the telling stage designs by John McDermott) a few months after the first scene.  Hannah, wonderstruck at the sights of a modern city and the unrestrained movements of the female population, has been widowed and offers herself to Zvi.  Zvi, at first happily overwhelmed by the prospect of being reunited with his true love, slowly comes to a number of more sober realizations as the scene wears on.

Hannah hasn’t been honest about her reasons for reconnecting with Zvi and he soon ferrets out her ulterior motives.  Also contentious is the quick-moving relationship of their two offspring which involves Zvi’s son embracing Jewish orthodoxy and the resulting angry, religious-driven disintegration of the father/son relationship.  Further complicating matters is Zvi’s current relationship with a very understanding and patient lady whom he seems too willing to put out to pasture.

Ian Kahn and Victoria Mack in a scene from “Hard Love” (Photo credit: Clark Kim)

Ian Kahn and Victoria Mack in a scene from “Hard Love” (Photo credit: Clark Kim)

Again, the arguing becomes a passionate back and forth, involving secular versus religious ideals.  Hannah has dispensation from the Me’ah She’arim rabbinical court to remarry Zvi, as long as he rejoins the community, which, of course, he is reluctant to do.  The terrible swiftness of events throws Zvi into an angrily confused state, leading to a whirlwind of recriminations towards Hannah, the rabbinical court, his son and, lastly, God whom he claims to hate.  Hannah, her mission unrequited is forced to make her own, life altering decisions as the play ends.

The revelation of the play is Mr. Lerner’s detailed knowledge of both the orthodox sect and its place in modern Israeli society.  He manages to make the age-old arguments of secular versus religious fresh and human scaled, not judging either of the characters, but observing them.

Ms. Mack, despite a touching fragility, conjures a backbone of steel and amazing passion.  When she lays down the law to Zvi (whom she calls Herschel) and reaches out to him for love, her fervor is overwhelmingly palpable.  Mr. Kahn makes his thoughts and feeling eminently visible.  Watching him sort out the morass of his confused feelings in Scene Two is almost exhausting.  He finds all the weakness and anger in Zvi whose back is up against a wall that is about to tumble on him.

Scott Alan Evans, the artistic director of TACT/The Actors Company Theatre, helms the play with a feel for its rhythms.  He keeps the two actors in constant motion, allowing their personal fields of gravity to attract the other.  Evans understands the social milieu and personal idiosyncrasies of the ultra-orthodox depicted in Lerner’s writing.

This production represents a change for TACT which has specialized in reviving classics of the second half of twentieth century theater.   The company has succeeded admirably in branching out to include new dramas in its repertory, if this production is an example of what’s to come.

Hard Love (through October 31, 2015)

TACT/The Actors Company Theatre

Beckett Theatre at Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street, in Manhattan

For tickets call 212-239-6200 or visit http://www.telecharge.com

For more information visit http://www.tactnyc.org

Running time: 90 minutes including one intermission.

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Joel Benjamin
About Joel Benjamin (323 Articles)
JOEL BENJAMIN was a child performer on Broadway and danced with leading modern dance and ballet companies. Joel has been attending theater, ballet and opera performances ever since childhood, becoming quite opinionated over the years. He was the founder and artistic director of the American Chamber Ballet and subsequently was massage therapist to the stars before becoming a reviewer and memoirist. He is a member of the Outer Critics Circle.

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