Does humor translate? Are one country's characters so unique to that place that no other nation would understand them? Or are people the same all over the world?
Judging by the experience of the Israeli play, "I'm Here Because of My Wife" -- a comedy about three couples from different social backgrounds who undergo group therapy with "Dr. Happy Marriage," -- it all depends on the translation.
Now running in English through Oct. 27 at the Tamarind Theatre in Hollywood, "Wife" was performed some 900 times in Israel in front of a collective audience of more than 400,000 people. It is now in development for a sitcom there. (The Hebrew version of the play sold out for its large, single performance in Los Angeles in 1998.)
But the first attempt at a transplant -- to London in 1995 -- was an abysmal failure, and it never got off the ground after producers Avishai Dekel, Eli Mantver and Menachem Asher were unhappy with the translation. The three -- who funded the show in Los Angeles -- had long given up their dream of bringing the play to theaters outside Israel, when, last year, they were approached by another translator who wanted to stage it in America. "I was skeptical and I didn't want to start that whole business again," Dekel said.
But the translator, Judy Yacov, was persistent, offering the services of her daughter, Tamar, a director in Los Angeles. "In the end, it was good that she pushed for it," Dekel admitted.
Tamar Yacov, 31, who works part time at the Skirball Cultural Center, is the translator, director and associate producer of "Wife" here in Los Angeles. One of the unique talents she brings to the table is her dual nationality. "I'm Israeli enough to recognize the characters in Israel, but I lived in New York for six years and another four in Los Angeles," she said. A graduate of New York University's Tisch School of the Arts, Yacov has a grasp of both cultures. Although her mother tongue is Hebrew, Yacov was raised in Ramat Hasharon by a South African mother and an Israeli father, Rony, a producer who has worked on several Israeli and American films, including "Triumph of the Spirit" (1989) "The Delta Force" (1986) and "Barfly" (1987).
Yacov's first task was to translate the inherently Israeli personality types: the macho Moroccan, his subservient wife, an income tax bureaucrat, a snotty model, an struggling actor and a housewife. In Israel, each of those characters tapped into something quintessentially Israeli and represented different segments of Israeli society. Yacov's job was to find the equivalent, American style.
"When I read the play in Hebrew, I immediately thought of Edith and Archie bunker as the main characters in the play" -- for the macho Israeli and his wife -- "I was thinking about what are the cultural icons that people can relate to in America." The other characters weren't hard to Americanize: an income tax bureaucrat becomes an Internal Revenue Service employee, a commercial actor becomes a Midwesterner in the big city.
Yacov set the story in Manhattan's Upper West Side. "I saw them as East Coast, with Jewish or Italian accents in New York because it's such a melting pot," Yacov said.
Once the logistics were worked out, the biggest challenge was the humor. In comedy, timing is everything and different cultures work on different beats. "The comedic timing -- sometimes it's a matter of ending a sentence with a question mark rather than an exclamation mark," she said. "A lot of what makes it funny are the gestures, human physical things," and those have to translate as well.
"It's having a cultural sensibility ... knowing how different people respond to different phrases or ideas, and knowing the equivalent -- it's colloquial," Yacov said. "I think the experience of speaking the American dialect and living the culture here really gives you the sense of how things sound."
Some lines are reworked for American audiences. For example, instead of the threat, "I'll see you at the rabbinical court," -- a typical Israeli threat for divorce -- the line is: "Tomorrow morning at my lawyer."
Dekel, who's in his late 50s, came to Los Angeles with his wife, Israeli entertainer Tzipi Shavit, was not sure how it would all turn out. "I had no idea if it would be funny at all. I asked Tzipi and she also said, 'I don't know if Americans will laugh at it.' I had butterflies in my stomach and didn't sleep all night," he said. "On opening night I sat on the side and thought, 'We invested $100,000 to buy the rights and ship it to America, and now the audience will come, they'll sit and not laugh for two hours -- and I won't have anywhere to turn.'"
But Dekel's fears proved unfounded. On the crowded opening night the play received three standing ovations, and the humor seemed to be, well, funny.
Yacov hadn't doubted it. "I told [Dekel], 'You know the play so well in Hebrew that it's too hard for you to separate from it. I have an American ear, and I know these types here in America.' I was certain it would work.
What works is the universal themes of the play, of relationships, marriage and divorce, which are relevant to everyone in every country.
Now that they have seen that "Wife" works in Los Angeles, they are hoping to take to -- where else? -- New York. "We are planning to film it to send tapes to New York," Dekel said. "We are starting at the bottom of the ladder -- we have no idea who to turn to and who to trust, but it's very moving. If we succeed big time, maybe we will get very rich. And if not, at least we tried."