In Hard Love at Jewish Theatre of the South, a pair of ex-spouses voice some seemingly irreconcilable differences, but Christian Boy's set design speaks louder than their words. The play opens in an apartment in the ultra-orthodox Jerusalem neighborhood of Meah-Shearim. With its old furniture and religious tchotchkes, it seems untouched by time, and you can imagine Hannah (JTS artistic director Mira Hirsch) spending a lifetime in its dust and dim light.
The second act takes place in the Tel Aviv apartment for her ex-husband Zvi (Chris Kayser), a spacious, modern room with enormous windows at the back that allow natural light to highlight the amassing clutter and lack of furniture. It's all but impossible to imagine fiercely devout Hannah or pointedly secular Zvi finding a place in the other's home, no matter what feelings they still have for each other.
It's a shame that Hard Love (by Israel's Motti Lerner) isn't as powerful or eloquent as the surroundings. In its English-language premiere, the play takes a hard look at the tension between religious faith and human desire, but spends a long time to say surprisingly little.
Lerner dramatizes Zvi's and Hannah's first face-to-face conversation since they divorced roughly two decades earlier. Zvi left the deeply religious community to become an author of worldly novels, while Hannah entered an arranged marriage with a man about twice her age. An unexpected connection between the children from their subsequent marriages inspires their meeting, which stirs up old arguments and even older attractions.
Directed by Susan Reid, Hard Love unfolds in a state of dour awkwardness that's almost bereft of humor and features mournful violin music to keep the mood downbeat. Kayser invests Zvi with a fitting mixture of self-consciousness and swagger, while Hirsch gives Hannah a downcast, almost rigid body language that seems to suit her deeply religious environs. Nevertheless, their performances come across as too formal and lacking spontaneity, and though there's tension between Hannah and Zvi, there's seldom any real chemistry.
Zvi maintains the kind of impious, resentful attitude toward religion of a college undergraduate, and he's prone to remarks such as, "I didn't have enough faith because of you." Often it seems Lerner subscribes to the same point of view, and Hard Love stacks the deck against Hannah. Neither the character nor the actor conveys the rewards of a religious life, and the conflict between the former spouses never builds up much dramatic weight. Lerner also relies on some familiar theatrical conventions, such as using a ringing telephone to shift the action, and having his characters sit on big secrets until the last possible minute.
Following its production of the comedy The Last Schwartz this spring, Jewish Theatre of the South will disband and the Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta will form a new theater company, sans Hirsch, that will reportedly focus on more mainstream plays. Hard Love marks the last serious drama Jewish Theatre of the South will produce, and it's a shame it doesn't measure up to such challenging work as Born Guilty or the company's numerous Donald Margulies productions. Still, Atlanta deserves to have more theaters willing to take bold chances, even though Hard Love doesn't reward the effort.
Hard Love. Through Feb. 23. $18-$30. Wed.-Thurs., 8 p.m.; Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m. Jewish Theatre of the South, 5342 Tilly Mill Road. 770-395-2654. www.jplay.org.