January 24, 2019

In ‘Master of the House’ at AJU, husband and wife butt heads

“Master of the House,” the new production of the Jewish Hebrew Stage, tells the story of a marriage in crisis.

The piece — which is presented in Hebrew, with an English translation running on a screen just above the stage — won the 2003 Israel Theater award for best play and opened to a full house on April 27 at the American Jewish University (AJU) in Los Angeles. It will run through May 28 at the Macha Theatre Company in West Hollywood.

“We chose a play that touches on things that speak to everyone — family, relationships, old age and infidelity,” said Ori (Dinur) Teyer, the theater’s co-founder.

Written by Israeli playwright Shmuel Hasfari, “Master of the House” starts with a disagreement between a husband and wife who live in Tel Aviv. Nava, an attorney, wants to renovate the house. Her husband, Yoel, a columnist who writes about nostalgia and architecture, is not interested. This is his parents’ house, the one he grew up in, and he likes it the way it is.

Nava, though, is not deterred. She hires a handyman to fix a clogged toilet and instructs him to create enough damage in the house so remodeling will be inevitable. There is a battle of wills, but behind the arguments whether to remodel or not lies a bigger story and a great pain that is revealed later in the play.

We also are introduced to Yoel’s parents, who live in a retirement home. His father, Shaia, is at the early stages of dementia, and his mother, Tzipa, is doing her best to hide it from the staff, fearing he’ll be sent to an assisted living facility.

This isn’t the first American production of Hasfari’s play. “Master of the House” played in English at the Laguna Playhouse in Orange County 10 years ago before 16,000 people, an impressive achievement for an Israeli play that presents Israeli culture and is set in Tel Aviv.

“It was quite amazing to see how the American audiences laugh at the same place and cry at the same place,” Hasfari said in a previous interview, speaking of the 2007 performance.

The Jewish Hebrew Stage, established in 2006, is a volunteer theater sponsored by the Israeli American Council that brings together a combination of actors, both seasoned and inexperienced. Yoram Najum (Yoel), theater co-founder, is a swimming pool contractor. Shirly Schwartzberg (Nava) worked as an actress in Israel before becoming an attorney. Shoshi Rose Strikowski, who plays Yoel’s sister-in-law, is an office manager at her husband’s plumbing company. Yuval Palmon, a mechanic, plays Yoel’s brother, and Levy Meyer (Shaia) is a real estate investor. Avigdor Mizrahi, who plays Kadosh, the contractor, is a professional actor, a veteran of shows such as “The Unit” and “Saving Amy.”

Gita Zeltzer, who directs all of the theater’s productions, plays Tzipa, who is eager to find the gold that her husband has hidden in the walls of the house.

“It’s been a while since I played onstage — 40 years — and it felt so natural,” she said. “Not everyone in the cast had experience as an actor. Some of them never played before, and it took them time to relax and be able to move around onstage. They had some resistance, but I let them show me how they see their character and I built around it while giving them my input.”

One new actor is Palmon, 50, who owns his own auto repair shop. He ended up at the theater by accident, after a dune buggy trip in 2015.

“I made a bad turn, which made me flip over,” he said. “My arm was severed completely. The doctors were able to reattach it, but of course, it’s not the same. So far, I have had seven operations and I’m going to have another one soon. I decided the play will be a good distraction from my pain and preoccupation with the injury.”

Strikowski, who works with her husband at his plumbing business and at a senior home where she organizes events and activities, said juggling her daily work with the demanding rehearsal schedule has been challenging.

“There were many times I was getting back home at 11 p.m., but still, my husband and children were very supportive and excited to see me onstage,” she said. Her role as the sister-in-law inspired her to audition for — and win — a guest appearance as an Israeli mom in the Amazon series “Transparent.”

Schwartzberg acted in Israel before her mother persuaded her to study a “real” profession. She enrolled in law school and became an attorney before moving to the United States five years ago. Still, the acting bug didn’t leave, and when she saw a Facebook post about the new play, she picked up the phone.

“I called Ori thinking it would be fun to do some theater,” she said. “It had been a while since I acted. I mainly take care of my two young children today.”

The opening night — sponsored by AJU’s Whizin Center for Continuing Education — drew mainly an Israeli audience, but Teyer is hopeful that the American-Jewish community will find its way to the theater, as well.

“Our aim is to bring the Jewish community closer to the Israeli community here,” Teyer said. “There is a total disconnect between the communities. It will also allow Israeli-American couples to enjoy an Israeli cultural event together.”

“Master of the House” plays through May at the Macha Theatre Company in West Hollywood. For information about dates and times, call (818) 689-6563.