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Taking Sides

Halpern & Johnson

By • West End
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Joe Halpern is alarmed to see a blue-eyed stranger wearing a suit and bearing a nosegay at his wife’s funeral. “You never bring flowers to a Jewish funeral” he says, but eventually he allows the blond man to place the flowers on the grave, turning aside with a mere vestige of a shudder when he crosses himself.

He soon finds out that the stranger is Dennis Johnson, that he was no stranger to Florence Halpern and in fact they had a close relationship that Joe knew nothing about. He had been her boyfriend when she was seventeen, years before she and Joe had even met. The barriers were too great for them to marry. Johnson’s Roman Catholic parents would not have welcomed a Jewish girl into the family and memories of the war were still strong in Florence’s father, “We just don’t trust anyone any more. We all had a whiff of that gas”. Though they both married other people, they kept their friendship going, meeting three times a year for lunch and conversation.

This is a poignant, occasionally melancholy comedy, beautifully written with great humanity and expertly performed by the two actors. Writer Lionel Goldstein has directed this production himself, using a completely black acting space which puts into relief the faces of the actors – the dark Jewish face of Bernard Kay as Joe Halpern, an actor of great dignity even in his rages and the blond Aryan looks of Ian Barritt as the charming and sophisticated Dennis Johnson.

The two men meet again eight weeks later in a park, drink together and after many bursts of fury and comic misunderstandings, they begin to know each other, exchanging confidences, discussing their marriages and children, their peccadilloes and the state of their bladders.

Goldstein has much to say about married life, human relationships and how little we know about the person we are closest to. It is as if Joe’s Flo and Dennis’s Florence were two completely different people. Dennis’s Florence discusses art, opera and politics, whereas Joe says “Flo is a housewife, she knows nothing of politics”. And yet each man in his own way helped Florence to be the woman they both loved.

Goldstein’s play was originally written for HBO in 1983 starring Laurence Olivier and Jackie Gleason. It was adapted for the stage in Israel in 1995 and has since been welcomed all over the world.

- Aline Waites


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