Oy Vey in Spades: New Yiddish Rep presents Hanoch Levin’s The Labor of Love

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The Popoches in Bed, in Hanoch Levin's The Labor of Life by the Yiddish Rep

The Popoches in Bed, in Hanoch Levin’s The Labor of Life by the Yiddish Rep

The Labor of Life
by Hanoch Levin
New Yiddish Rep
14th Street Y
May 24, 2018

Oy Vey in Spades

You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s and you don’t have to be Jewish or speak Yiddish to enjoy The New Yiddish Rep’s production of The Labor of Life. This is a tale of existential angst although the play boils down to a man who is bored with his wife of thirty years and thinks he wants to leave her. For the umpteenth time. 

Yonah Popoch, the husband, played by Gera Sandler, displays great range and a fine sense of humor. At first I was less engaged by Leviva Popoch, the wife, played by Ronit Asheri-Sandler but, as the action progressed, her performance opened up, adding layers of depth to become both more imposing and entertaining. When Liviva suggests that she might be of more interest to her husband if she took art classes or if as a pair they take a theater subscription, it rings entirely true, in line with long-term couples anywhere. 

Overall, the play is a universal tragic/comic look at a long marriage. Some lines, i.e., “how long can we keep reheating the same chicken soup?” are (mildly ) laugh out loud as both partners give as good as they get. We know that when Yonah dumps his wife out of bed onto the floor it’s far from the first time as we also understand that the situation will be resolved happily—more or less. The ninety-minute play seemed long at times and the introduction of Gunkel, played by Eli Rosen, a neighbor in search of his hat, is welcome. In a nice directorial touch, the bed moves with each new scene so there’s a fresh take with a—literal—new angle. The script is a classic with earthy humor and a lot of physical comedy, well-handled by actors who know how to milk lines for all they’re worth.

The director, Ronit Muszablit, born in Germany and raised in Israel, is clearly aware of the cultural significance of the work and scenario. She directs LABA, A Laboratory for Jewish Culture and the Theater. I don’t know how much of the performance is her direction and how much from the contribution of the actors but together they deliver a full, if not very nuanced, entertaining work—it may not be side-splitting humor and at times the pacing is a little slow but there are funny and more somber moments that ring true. 

Playwright Hanoch Levin wrote over 60 plays, about 50 of which have been staged. His theatrical work, (he also wrote short stories, poems and a book for children), has been staged world-wide and received numerous awards both in Israel and elsewhere. 

As to the need to understand Yiddish, there isn’t any. Large, bright supertitles, designed by Moshe Lobel, are easy to read and keep up with the action. You also don’t need to be Jewish to appreciate the universal situations in this mostly entertaining performance. If Yiddish theater isn’t your thing—or if it’s something you have never before explored—give it a shot. 

About the author

Mari S. Gold

Mari S. Gold is a freelance writer who contributes to many magazines and websites. Her blog, But I Digress… , on cultural events, travel, food  and other topics is at www.marigoldonline.net. She lives in New York City.

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