"It was a historic landmark, something to do with the Haganna, and I found it so impressive that I took a photo of it," he said. "Little did I know what significance it really had for me."
The next day he met for the first time with Israeli playwright Shmuel Hasfari to discuss the adaptation of his play, "Master of the House," from the Hacameri Theatre in Tel Aviv, where it first premiered, to the Laguna Beach playhouse.
"Shmuel took me on a walking tour of the neighborhood and when he got to that same street corner he pointed at the house, the same house I photographed the day before, he said 'That's the house where the events in the play take place.' I was stunned and I showed Shmuel the picture that I took earlier. What a coincidence," Stein said.
It was a sign that he was drawn to Hasfari's play for the right reasons.
"It was love at first sight," Stein admits, talking about his decision to bring the play here and show it to American audiences. "Master of the House," originally titled, "Woman, Husband, House" in Hebrew, debuted March 31 as the first Israeli play to go on stage in the Laguna Playhouse. Stein first encountered the play following a trip to Israel in 2005, his first in 30 years. He met with different theater professionals, including Hacameri Theatre head Noam Semel.
"I mentioned to him that agents send us plays from all over the world and asked how come a play from Israel had never come my way before. Subsequently, they sent me about a dozen plays in three batches," he said. In the last batch was "Master of the House," which took the 2003 Israel Theater Academy Award for best play. Stein was immediately taken by its depth and universal themes.
The play tells the story of Nava and Joel Ben-Ephraim, a midlife Tel Aviv couple who argue over remodeling their home. Successful attorney Nava wants to turn it upside down, while newspaper columnist Joel is obsessed with preserving its Bauhaus architectural heritage. But underneath this argument, bottled-up tension burst forth every time the contractor chisels his way through the tiles, releasing a turbulence of resentment and hostility.
Hasfari is one of Israel's leading playwrights, known for controversial work that presents Israeli society in a harsh light. He says that he drew some of the inspirations for the story from real-life events.
"I discovered how powerful and destructive remodeling can be when we remodeled our own house in Tel Aviv," he said. "One thing led to another and eventually the remodeling was blown out of proportion and cost about $50,000, a fortune in Israeli terms. But the amazing thing was that it wasn't even our own apartment -- it was a rental. So it was crazy. And one day I remember coming back home, and standing in the living room, amidst a total chaos and I couldn't recognize a thing. It's like you're peeling your life away. That's when fear takes over." Hasfari believes that two things interested the Laguna Playhouse in his play. "On the one hand there is a plot that deals with couples wherever they are and the erosion of their marriage; this is a universal theme. On the other hand, this is all happening when Israel is being challenged with the most severe terrorist attack, which makes it a very Israeli play," he said.
From the beginning, Hasfari and Stein agreed it was important to maintain an almost word-for-word translation of the original play.
"We thought that the original conflict is the real deal and there is no reason to change locations, names or contexts within it," Hasfari said. "My experience in these cases is very clear and it shows that you can't really write a 'universal' play, happening anywhere you want in the world. My belief is that people will adhere to the original storyline."
Stein agrees, saying that the few changes that were made were slight. "For example when the city Petah Tikva is mentioned we changed it to Jaffa, which the American crowd is more familiar with, and the same goes with ex-Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, which was switched to the more famous Golda Meir," he said.
Will the audience have a hard time accepting the straightforward, bad-mouthing, impatient Israeli characters in "Masters of the House"?
Stein thinks that some of them will be taken a bit aback. "Here, in California, people sometimes don't realize that American Jews and Israelis are not exactly the same thing," he said.
"In fact they are quite different from each other. I think some of the viewers will be surprised to see that the people in the play don't talk like Seinfeld or Woody Allen. There is something unpleasant in the demeanor of Shmuel's character. This is not 'Fiddler on the Roof.'"
Stein believes that more than others, members of the Jewish community might feel uncomfortable watching the play. "Sometimes Jewish people here are such Zionists that they don't like to see Israel being criticized and don't understand why Israelis are so hard on themselves. It's hard for us to grasp the idea that people in Israel feel that their life is short and can terminate any second, and this constant fear and pressure creates straightforwardness, impatience and even rudeness among the sabras," he said.
But Stein said he's glad he's creating uneasiness among his viewers. "I think that ultimately, even if they feel somewhat uncomfortable, they will find it a riveting play," he said.
"Master of the House" plays through April 29 at the Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach. For more information, call (949) 497-2787 or visit www.lagunaplayhouse.com/onstage/2007/master-of-the-house/.
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