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March 29, 2018 1:15 pm

New Yiddish Rep Brings Hanoch Levin to Off-Broadway

avatar by Thane Rosenbaum

A production photo from The Whore From Ohio. Photo: provided.

In what was avant-garde Off-Broadway theater at its finest, the New Yiddish Rep just wrapped up several weekends of repertory performances of The Labor of Life and The Whore from Ohio, two short plays by Hanoch Levin, one of Israel’s most celebrated and controversial playwrights, in both the original Hebrew and in Yiddish, with English supertitles at the Theater at 224 Waverly.

The production of The Whore from Ohio in Hebrew, featuring internationally acclaimed storyteller and stage actress Vered Hankin, was a true revelation — but not the kind Moses discovered on Mount Sinai. Levin, who wrote 56 plays over a long career that mirrored the birth and growing pains of his country, specialized in depicting not Jewish prophets and redeemers, but the kind who danced around the Golden Calf — wayward, lost, licentious — seduced by false idols despite the many Signs and Wonders that liberated them from Egypt.

Levin’s tribe of Israelis, who have populated his many plays, are finally home in the reconstituted Promised Land, but they are as spiritually and existentially homeless as their biblical ancestors — a new form of bondage, this one of desperation and longing. In this rendition, Israel did not fulfill its promise, a delusion that could never be realized, the milk and honey more like warm beer and stale pita. And its people are unworthy of the national image the new state wishes to project.

Levin’s lot are comprised of deceivers and hypocrites, sinners and degenerates, dreamers and scammers. The Israel he mounts for the stage has all the broken Bauhaus charm of Times Square in the 1960s — replete with homeless vagrants and the smeared graffiti of gritty urban life.

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Who are these Jews?

The Whore from Ohio is a signature Levin conceit.  An old homeless man (David Mandelbaum) spends a lifetime fantasizing about a high-class prostitute selling her charms at some mythical mansion in Ohio. It’s his birthday, he’s a pauper, and he’s in a grimy section of Tel Aviv, so he decides to celebrate locally with a street whore.

His son (Eli Rosen), yet another vagrant, makes an appearance, fearing that his father will squander the younger man’s inheritance, which he bizarrely believes is invested in stock certificates, factories, and real estate, despite the fact that his father sleeps on a mattress in the street.

Meanwhile, the prostitute is dreaming of a sugar-daddy Hollywood producer who will transport her from the low-rent shores of the Mediterranean to the Pacific palaces in Malibu.

Only God knows how these three ended up this way, and he’s not talking either.

There is much cheating and betrayal among this odd-lot band of grifters. The honor among these thieves only reveals itself in moments of longing and desperation when the comedy of their lives is no longer so funny. They want to be rescued, but they only know each other, and they are ill-suited to almost any task other than self-delusion.

These three fine actors showcase Levin as an Israeli version of Pinter and Beckett at their best. Beckett with his foreboding sense of desolation (this play could have been titled Waiting for Ohio) and the internal claustrophobia of Pinter’s characters, hemmed in by dark forces and even darker demons, and his biting wit, are very much present in Levin’s work.

Downtrodden father and son both believe that the other will improbably strike it rich someday, if they haven’t already. One imagines either of them breaking out into song with “If I Were a Rich Man” — a meta universe where Tevye the Dairyman is high on crack.

Hankin’s performance was rich in complexity and color: a hard-bitten prostitute working the streets of a nation loathe to admit that people like this trio even exist, a natural survivor with no real prospects of escaping this rut that can only lead to ruin. With her graceful movements and expressive face, deftly alternating between daughterly and demonic, one is reminded how much she has been missed on a New York stage since her move to Chicago.

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