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Theater Review: The Master of the House at the Laguna Playhouse

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The floorplan that Shmuel Hasfari has laid out for The Master of the House, receiving its American premiere through April 29 at the Laguna Playhouse in Orange County, California) covers a lot of ground. Set in Tel Aviv, where its premiere would earn the 2003 Israel Theatre Academy Award for Best Play, it touches on Israel’s history from its 20th Century resurrection to the daily threats to destroy it.    

The international politics are merely background for a smaller portrait with more universal resonance. One couple, whose problems will trace in part to political unrest, is at a crossroads from which views of aging, marriage, the safety of our children, and the sanity of our parents can be explored. While Richard Stein’s staging does not show the script, translated from Hebrew by Anthony Berris, successfully balancing the relative weight of its storylines and themes, one senses a potential for greater power hidden between the lines.   

The principal metaphor in The Master of the House is renovation. How to balance the conflicting needs for renewal and for retaining links to the past is the question that underlies all the action and relationships here. This reflects back on the state of Israel, where age-old traditions are in pitched battle with changing realities, but it’s the fragile truce between husband and wife Yoel (Jonathan Goldstein) and Nava (Stacie Chaiken) that is at the center of The Master of the House.

One of the ironies suggested by the play’s title is this concept of a household having a person in charge. Who is in charge of Yoel and Nava’s home seems clear at the beginning, but is then up for grabs and ultimately decided under new terms. As is common in many households, these adults are only saying part of what’s on their minds. Yoel does this because he’s completely stopped up as a person. Nava does it because his blockage gives her nowhere to go.     

That passive-aggressive standoff results in exchanges that sound like drive-by shootings, passing without revealing much. They make the play’s action seem more circular than it may in fact be. If Hasfari’s multi-level story is going to succeed, as it apparently did in Tel Aviv, it requires the director and central actors to find an underlying logic to drive these two scattered personalities from curtain to curtain call. Here, where it should feel heartbreakingly real, it merely feels broken.   

Goldstein’s Yoel is a scruffy columnist living in the same house he grew up in. He writes about nostalgia and architecture, which reflect his own reverence for old buildings on one hand and his clinging to the past on the other. He hides his retentiveness in a transparent reverence for his father, portrayed as a great builder of early Tel Aviv (a portrait that is later undercut). Creating a retreating personality is a tough assignment for an actor: he is the thing he is not. Not surprisingly, it’s Yoel’s moments outside himself — lost in nostalgia or lightened by drink — in which Goldstein successfully shows some of who this man might have been.   

Chaiken’s Nava is a dream — Yoel's dream — come true. A woman Yoel has loved since grade school, Nava is now a beautiful, articulate, successful bread-winner who inexplicably overlooks Yoel’s incredible Farbisener routine: he treats her like a waitress, fails to tell her his plans, doesn't notice his father’s advancing dementia, doesn't even try to fix the toilet, and on and on and on. That she stays with him may be more understandable in Israel. It's not translating here. That he calls her the love of his life, yet isn’t interested in sleeping with her anymore, is a mystery the script only provides mixed answers for. If it's to be sorted out in the playing, it's not happening successfully.

Not surprisingly, Nava seizes upon a chance to renovate the house when a handyman is called in to address the ignored commode. The battle lines are drawn when Yoel, first childishly refusing to discuss it, gives an inch before returning to his refusal to budge.     

Without a viable answer to why these two are still connected, this vacuum at the center allows the secondary character of the contractor, Yigal Kadosh (Andrew Ross Wynn, a standout in A Noise Within’s As You Like It last year) stands out as such an important figure. Of course, Hasfari has given him what seems undo dimension here given some of the things he's glossed over. The pivotal character of Yoel’s mysterious older brother, for instance, is much too sketchy given that his actions are ultimately at the core of the drama. Was he married to Nava? How did Yoel’s obsession with Nava from the age of nine circumnavigate his older brother’s position?     

Kadosh arrives on the scene as if to provide comic relief, but ends up with as much definition as the central characters thanks in part to a network of subplots that feature him and his son, Ro’i, also well played by Brett Ryback. This play also takes time for side excursions into Yoel’s younger brother’s exploits (immaterial to the Yoel-Nava relationship) and the nursing home realities of Yoel’s parents (hardly essential to establishing anything).    

The parents have their own tangent about finding buried treasure. It’s not as crazy as it seems when, like so many similar messages woven into Hasfari’s script, it provides another metaphor for us: While there is gold in our pasts, we must be willing to break down our pasts in order to find it.    

CREDITS  By Shmuel Hasfari, directed by Richard Stein  WITH Joseph Cardinale, Stacie Chaiken, Jonathan Goldstein, Barry Alan Levine, Tyler Logan, Brett Ryback, lizabeth Tobias, Bryna Weiss, Andrew Ross Wynn PRODUCTION Narelle Sissons, set; Julie Keen, costumes; Tom Ruzika, lights; David Edwards, sound; Rebecca M. Green, stage management      

American Premiere  Laguna Playhouse March 27-April 29 (Opened, reviewed 3/31)  

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