You might think, in our age of safe spaces and “cowering” from Covid (in Sajid Javid’s coinage), there’d be mileage in Hanoch Levin’s 1970s comedy about condom selling, caution and risk-aversion. But Gamayun Theatre’s revival could itself be bolder – not least by curtailing the 160-minute running time. Its first half may dramatise a humiliating case of premature ejaculation, but under Asya Sosis’ direction, The Rubber Merchants suffers from the opposite problem, thrusting wearily onwards long after the pleasure has peaked.
Forgive the coarseness – but it’s in keeping with Levin’s odd three-hander, in which two lecherous men talk endlessly about women’s beautiful backsides, and bawdy condom comedy dominates the first act. Maybe people found condoms funnier in the 1970s? (Sosis’ production is imprecise about both location and the period in which it’s set.) Certainly, the saucy humour obstructs the play’s ambition to conjure lives wistfully unlived and romantic opportunities missed.
It’s more fatal that the characters are two-dimensional at best. They’re broadly played: lascivious, money-grabbing Bella (Hadas Kershaw), who runs a failing pharmacy; her enfeebled suitor Yohanan (Tom Dayton); and swaggering Shmuel (Joseph Emms), who’s inherited 60,000 prophylactics from his dead dad. Fear keeps these characters from spending happy lives together, the play insists, contrary to the spectacle on stage of three caricatures with little in common, and not a spark of emotional connection between them.
There are highlights, and hints of what might have been, in Shmuel’s pining for Odessa, his erotic Shangri-la, and in the songs performed on an upstage dais. From the comic to the plangent, these sometimes seductive numbers (music by Dmitriy Saratskiy) allow us to feel, now and then, what is only ever asserted elsewhere.