nytheatre.com review by Jo Ann Rosen
June 5, 2009
Motti Lerner pits love against faith in his intelligent drama entitled Hard Love, one of 16 plays in the Festival of Jewish Theater and Ideas. In the play, the love between Hannah, a 37-year-old ultra-Orthodox Jewish housewife, and Zvi, expelled from the community for his lack of faith, is recognizable and real; their love has been tested, and it is long term. Their short marriage ended in divorce, and while each remarried—he to a woman pregnant with his child and she forced to marry a man 35 years her senior—each is about to be available again. But, that is not why they meet after 20 years. The meeting is to discuss their teenage children—both from their second marriages—who have met and fallen in love. As the cycle threatens to repeat itself, Hannah tries to negotiate Zvi's son out of her daughter's life. But Motti Lerner is a smart playwright. He presents life as it is: messy.
Hannah accuses Zvi of running away from his faith. Zvi, whose mother hanged herself because, he believes, she found the ultra-Orthodox community unbearably stultifying, says he left to save his life. He points to Hannah's unhappy, wasted existence as a repetition of his mother's life, and also sees a fiery desire for him simmering below the surface. His attempts to communicate with her over the past 20 years failed, like their marriage, but now that they are face to face, he reiterates his stand. His love for her is uncomplicated, but it is little match for her faith and resourceful rationale. She has many reasons why they cannot get back together, alluding to sages such as Maimonides and Spinoza, references to the Torah, the Commandments, and the wise advice of rabbis, who grant seemingly logical dispensations, but which turn out to be unpredictable and convenient. She spins arguments around Zvi, who has only his undying love to offer. Love tugs and pulls at the two protagonists, and some issues are resolved. But Lerner has a large shovel at his disposal, and he allows his characters to dig themselves into a very deep hole, one where the lack of oxygen actually stimulates fresh thoughts in Zvi. This is no pat story with a clear ending. In fact, the play has the potential of fine tragedy were the chemistry of Mira Hirsch's Hannah and David Marshall Silverman's Zvi more fully realized.
As it is, the drama is more of an intellectual exercise—a thoughtful one. Lerner knows how to dispense information gradually, revealing critical story points at just the right time to clarify what seem like easy questions, like "C'mon, if they love each other why. . .Oh! I see!" The ten-minute intermission arrives at just the right moment—when one predicament is settled and another looms large.
Susan Reid directs a lively two-hander, pushing Hirsch and Silverman toward the many surprises that unfold, and making it evident that these characters are at a difficult crossroads. Costumes and props by Linda Patterson add credibility to the already believable script. The biggest problem is the lack of nuance in Hirsch's portrayal of a character who is at once angry, passionate, unhappy, hopeful, secretive, and very intelligent. Silverman has an easier time of it. His character is in love and straightforward about it. This is what makes Zvi's growth so vivid. By the play's end, he figures out the only way their re-marriage will work. It is up to Hannah, whose stake in this relationship rises exponentially in Act II, to seriously consider what her faith means to her and what she is willing to sacrifice to gain happiness with Zvi. There are no easy answers in this play, only difficult questions, questions that could be asked by those from any denomination.