There are just too many traumas on Hasfari’s checklist, too little time allotted to dramatic depth.
Days of Atonement by Hanna Azoulay Hasfari. Translation by Shir Freibach. Directed by Guy Ben-Aharon. Staged by Israeli Stage at Boston Center for the Arts, Calderwood Pavilion, Deane Hall, Boston, MA, through June 25.
By Bill Marx
The Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur, in which we ask God to forgive our sins, has such a dour reputation that it is refreshing if a writer comes up with some sort of a cheery reposte. I found one in Israeli writer Etgar Keret’s 2015 memoir The Seven Good Years, in a section where Keret finds himself awkwardly explaining the Day of Atonement to some Swedes, who think it sounds like “the coolest, most sought-after holiday in the universe”:
The thought of a day when no motorized vehicles drive through the cities, when people walk around without their wallets and all the stores are closed, when there are no TV broadcasts or even updates on websites, to them sounded more like an innovative Naomi Klein concept than an ancient Jewish holiday. The fact that it was also a day when you’re supposed to ask others for forgiveness and do moral stocktaking upgraded the anti-consumerist angle with a welcome touch of ’60s hippiedom. And the fasting bit sounded like an extreme version of the fashionable low-carb diet they’d talked to me about that morning.
A touch of this kind of playful satire would have been welcome in Hanna Azoulay Hasfari’s Days of Atonement, which takes place in a city in southern Israel just before, during, and after Yom Kippur. It’s not that there isn’t humor in this dysfunctional family drama — Hasfari is too good a playwright not to spice up intense confrontations with some laughs. But this tale of four sisters taking A Long Day’s Journey into Atonement is loaded with enough teary lamentations, long-nursed grudges, near-death experiences, out-of-the-blue revelations, squabbles over the unknowable past, half-hearted confessions, male-order blues, mother-loved-you-better accusations, jealous fits, dreams of retribution, creative paralysis, self-hatred, and depression for four to five soap operas. And Hasfari crams all of this female woe in search of forgiveness into about 40 minutes.
The reunion is pegged around a mysterious disappearance. The 70-year-old matriarch (an immigrant from Morocco) has inexplicably vamoosed; on her way out of town she handed the keys of the manse over to the housing authority. Young Amira (Dana Stern), who has been living at home after abruptly leaving university (she is a budding filmmaker, so cue the inevitable video camera), calls in her sisters to help find mother. They are a schematic trio: Evelyn (Adrianne Krstansky) is Orthodox, the mother of eight girls, diabetic, and pregnant; Fanny (Ramona Lisa Alexander) is wealthy, secular, and proudly cultivates the role of the naughty seducer; Malka (Jackie Davis) is the judgmental homebody, highly possessive of her husband though yearning to escape domesticity. Freud would be proud — Superego, Id, and Ego.
As usual with these sort of internecine stand-offs, heads butt immediately and keep on butting — along the way the strong become vulnerable and the weak reveal surprising grit. Hasfari (an award-winning actress) pens meaty roles for the sisters — each is given a spotlit moment or two of preening angst or ringing defiance. But all the top-heavy wranging — over fraught relationships with each other, men, parents, children, and God — eventually tumbles over into superficial melodrama. There are just too many traumas on Hasfari’s checklist, too little time allotted to dramatic depth. (There’s a TV-ized ADD quality to the acceleration.) Also, the playwright is so intent on setting up the women for catty combat duty that she forgot to establish that they love one another — it feels like a gathering of thin-skinned strangers (or hardball debaters) until the very end. And, for me, there are too many contrivances — such as having the electric power suddenly going off at a moment in which a crucial tape made by mom is about to reveal … — to accept.
The Israeli Stage’s North American premiere staging is sturdy, elegantly stripped-down, though at times it is pitched too high for the intimacy of Deane Hall. Wouldn’t it be more powerful to have the audience members lean in? Emotional showdowns are far more effective when the fighters speak (or hiss) low rather than blare loud. Director Ben-Aharon allows one too many shouting matches. Still, the performers are passionate and strong, particularly the dependable Krstansky and Alexander, who are adept at revealing — bit by bit — the desperation that sits explosively underneath their characters brittle carapaces. (For Hasfari, neediness is elemental.) Davis and Stern are less compelling because their performances tend toward the one-note — the former is enslaved by the green-eyed monster and the latter is too resolutely perky. You don’t see the psychological complications — even when the character tells you they are there.
I alluded to Long Day’s Journey above, but Irishman O’Neill didn’t have the comfortable option of ladling out chicken soup for the soul. In a rushed final scene — engineered to hand out bowls of forgiveness to the sisters — Hasfari draws on the miracle elixir. The aim is to assure nervous audience members that, well, squabbles will be squabbles, family love conquers all. I believe in the magic of chicken soup, but some of the conflicts here — at least those revolving around matters of life, death, and religion — are pretty intractable. Atonement should not be so easy.
Note: I all am for post-production discussions with audience members. I recently critiqued David Mamet’s bullying restriction on talkbacks after the productions of his plays. (A company risks a $25,000 fine if it holds one within two hours of the end of a Mamet production.) But there is also common courtesy. People come to see a production; some may want to stay and talk about it, others, for any number of reasons, may want to leave at the end. After the applause died down for Days of Atonement, Israeli Stage director Guy Ben-Aharon appeared and announced his admirable interest in “dialogue”; then, almost immediately, he introduced representatives from WBUR and the Boston Globe, who left their seats, sat in the performance space, and began their spiel as talkback moderators. The smallness of the theater made it awkward to head for the exit if you weren’t interested in gabbing. All it would take is an announcement at show’s end that, in five minutes or so, a talkback would begin. Audience members should be able to leave without a struggle. Yes, dialogue is desirable — but it should also be voluntary.
Bill Marx is the editor-in-chief of The Arts Fuse. For over three decades, he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast, and online. He has regularly reviewed theater for National Public Radio Station WBUR and The Boston Globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine that in 2004 won an Online Journalism Award for Specialty Journalism. In 2007 he created The Arts Fuse, an online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.