Theater Review: “Happy Ending” — A Dark Comedy About Terminal Cancer

Seeing Happy Ending a few days after the shock of the 2016 presidential election felt bracing to me, a testament to chutzpah, authenticity, and the power of good writing.

Happy Ending by Anat Gov. Directed by Guy Ben-Aharon. Presented by Israeli Stage at the Goethe Institute, Boston, MA on November 13.

Nancy E. Carroll and Will Lebow in the staged reading of "Happy Ending." Photo: Justin Saglio.

Nancy E. Carroll and Will Lebow in the staged reading of “Happy Ending.” Photo: Justin Saglio.

By Helen Epstein

What kind of person would have the audacity to write a musical comedy about refusing treatment for terminal cancer? The late playwright Anat Gov, who died at 59 of ovarian cancer in 2012, did. Born in Tiberias and descended from generations of orthodox Jews, Gov was a television writer, journalist, and translator of works by David Hare and Bertold Brecht before she turned to playwrighting at the age of 40. Working at the Cameri Theatre in Tel Aviv, she then produced in quick succession Best Friends (1999); Lysistrata 2000 (2001); Househusband (2004); Oh God (2008); A Warm Family (2009); and Happy Ending (2011). Her own mother died of cancer when Anat was 22. Seeing a staged reading of Gov’s play – minus the music – a few days after the shock of the 2016 presidential election felt bracing to me, a testament to chutzpah, authenticity, and the power of good writing.

Happy Ending is an alarmingly universal 21st century play, set in surroundings that many women all over the world have experienced first-hand. Gov gives her subject a distinctive Israeli twist. Some 20 years after Margaret Edson’s Wit presented an American English professor facing down terminal cancer alone in a hospital room, Gov shows us a different kind of woman dealing with the disease in the context of a group. Like Edson’s Professor Vivian Bearing, Talia Roth is professionally successful, intelligent, and sharp-tongued. But she is also a famous Israeli actress, instantly recognizable to the hospital staff and other patients.

Instead of having her heroine confront death and the medical establishment alone, as Edson’s protagonist did, Gov has provided three very different chemo patients for Talia to interact with, women who reflect a broad spectrum of types and personalities. One is a religious fundamentalist, with six children; the second is a divorced free spirit and natural foods freak; the third was born in Auschwitz and is committed to survival, however small the chance. The patients exchange reports on various life-prolonging therapies, foods, and supplements. They gossip about the hospital staff. None of them have questioned their consent to chemotherapy and other life-prolonging measures.

The diva-like Talia is far less informed about cancer than they are; the degree of her innocence becomes apparent when she realizes that Stage IV is not four out of ten. Once she has ascertained some basic facts, Talia is also far less inclined to co-operate with the oncology team: diligent nurse Amalia; campy wigmaker Yossi; and harried Head of Oncology Dr. Katz, who is committed to healing but, as becomes clear, is as intent as Talia in retaining control over his own life and making his own medical decisions. Gov manages to find humor as well as pathos in all her characters and their psychological defenses.

Gov’s script playfully interweaves conflicts generated by the Holocaust and the oncology ward on stage. The dialogue (via a translation by Margalit Rodgers) sparkles, sounding both natural in English yet characteristically Israeli. “To be or not to be. That is not the question,” Talia confesses. “The question is how to be.” And there’s this effectively brusque comic line: “I realize it’s possible to live with cancer, but if I’d wanted to live with an offensive and devious leech that saps all my energies, I’d have stayed married to my husband.”

Israeli Stage founder Guy Ben-Aharon has now produced over 20 contemporary Israeli plays for staged readings or full productions – an invaluable service to Boston’s  theater community that sees far too little world theater. Each time, he has been able to assemble an excellent group of local actors – this time, the cast featured Nancy E. Carroll, Alice Duffy, Jaronzie Harris, Maureen Keiller, Will LeBow, Karen MacDonald, and Bret Silverman.

Ben-Aharon was able to give Gov’s mischievous earlier play Oh God a full production last summer, and I hope he will be able to give Happy Ending, her last play, a full production as well.

Helen Epstein is the author of Joe Papp: An American Life and reviews theater and books for The Arts Fuse. Her books can be found here.


  1. Ian Thal on November 18, 2016 at 6:02 pm

    I also caught the reading of Happy Ending and while one still senses something of a sentimental streak in Gov’s work that is largely absent in the work of other Israeli playwrights that Israeli Stage has presented (her Best Friends was a little too syrupy for my taste), she still strikes a fine balance between comedy and tragedy here, much as she has with Oh God which both Helen and I have both filed reviews — and consequently, she imbues the three chemo patients who greet Talia on the cancer ward with a richness of character — including their own individual ways of facing life, death, and cancer — indeed any one of them could just have easily been the protagonist in their own play.

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