If what you don’t know won’t hurt you, how far should you go to keep yourself in the dark? In Hanoch Levin’s black farce “Winter Wedding,” the members of a benighted Russian Jewish family are willing to do anything, including commit murder, to blind themselves from learning that a relative has died on the eve of a long-awaited family wedding. Directed by David Willinger, the play opens this weekend at the Theater for the New City in the East Village.
Levin, who died of bone cancer in 1999, was, along with Nissim Aloni and Joshua Sobol, one of Israel’s most accomplished playwrights. While he wrote more than five dozen plays, only a handful have been translated into English. Willinger and Laurel Hessing collaborated on translating the play for the TNC production.
Over the past decade, Levin’s work has become increasingly popular in Europe, especially in France and Poland; in 2008, a Polish company brought Levin’s play “Krum” to the Brooklyn Academy of Music. The last Levin play that Willinger directed was “Job’s Passion” at TNC in 2006, after the play had set off controversy in Israel for its depiction of a naked Job being impaled through his anus.
In “Winter Wedding,” Latshek Boobitchek (Tony Greenleaf) promises his dying mother, Alteh (Beth Bailis) that he and his cousins will attend her funeral, even though his cousin’s daughter, Velvetsia (Rachel Wolf) is just about to be married. But after Alteh expires, the cousins avoid all of Latshek’s efforts to inform them about their aunt’s passing. They simply refuse to have their plans spoiled, especially since 800 chickens have been roasted for the feast. Willinger, a theater professor at City College, compared Levin to Samuel Beckett in that both “use definable, individual tasty characters to write about universal themes, situations that are touchstones for everyone’s lives.” Just as Beckett’s writing is suffused with Irishness, Willinger said, Levin’s characters are “palpably Jewish with their concerns and family relationships.”
Like Beckett, Willinger said, Levin “finds worms under the rocks of people’s souls.” Through the vehicle of a wedding, the Israeli playwright “really makes it about all human barbarism. Their ferocity to achieve their goal makes them sacrifice all normal ethical values.”
Nurit Yaari, a theater professor at Tel Aviv University, is an expert on Levin. “There’s a myth that Levin can’t be translated,” she said, “because he’s too Jewish or too Israeli.” But she noted that his great accomplishment was to “make a mélange or meeting point between Jewish tradition and European traditions of theater going back to the ancient Greeks.”
According to Yaari, “Levin works with classic structures and patterns, but he infuses them with contemporary issues.” As a result, Levin “makes audiences think and rethink the problematics of contemporary life in Israel.”
“Winter Wedding” runs through May 22 at the Theater for the New City, 155 First Ave. at East 10th Street. Performances are Thursday through Saturday evenings at 8 p.m., with Sunday matinees at 3 p.m. For tickets, $12, call OvationTix at (866) 811-4111 or visit www.ovationtix.com.