In the beginning, a haggard woman, cigarette in hand, sits at a table in what could be a gloomy, Stone Age bunker and announces, "I'm at the end of my stories."
Not so. There are plenty of tales left to tell in "Golda's Balcony," a fine portrait of Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir during one of her most difficult times - the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
This one-woman show, which opened Wednesday at Broadway's Helen Hayes Theatre, expertly walks the line between illumination and entertainment. And negotiating this difficult path is a marvelous Tovah Feldshuh, done up in a gray wig, fake nose and fat suit as the matronly looking grandmother with a will of steel.
The play by William Gibson grew out of "Golda," Gibson's 1977 Broadway flop that featured a large cast and Anne Bancroft as the tough-minded Meir. Heavily revised and with a new title, the streamlined, 90-minute "Golda's Balcony" ended up last season at off-Broadway's Manhattan Ensemble Theater with Feldshuh in the starring role. Now this fascinating bit of history should have a whole new life. Gibson skillfully weaves together the story of the public and private Meir. We see the youthful idealist who was born in Russia but raised in Milwaukee, a woman who In 1921 moved to Palestine with her reluctant husband, Morris Myerson.
"Zionism was my whole life," announces Meir. That intense commitment was not shared by her helpmate, and their uneasy marriage and family life are two of the major threads that snake their way through Gibson's play.
The other, of course, is the 1973 war, with a put-upon Meir arguing not only with her generals but badgering and perhaps blackmailing the United States for desperately needed military aircraft.
The play's title actually refers to two balconies -one, the balcony from Meir's family apartment that overlooked the sea; the second an observation post from which she watched the secret construction of Israel's first nuclear reactor, a vantage point referred to by others as "Golda's balcony."
In between time on these two balconies, Meir tells the story of her devotion to Palestine and later to the newly formed state of Israel as she climbs the ladder of government to become prime minister. Gibson's heroine is not without flaws. She's a willful woman, often overly zealous in her dedication to her country, yet haunted at the end of her life (she died in 1978) by all the young men who died under her watch for their beleaguered nation.
That Feldshuh manages to make Meir believable and likable is a testament to the actress' skill as a storyteller. She's also a natural comedian, a talent that lets her make the most of the play's few yet choice moments of humor.
Meir's stories are often punctuated by the sounds of war, ear-shattering blasts of bombs, guns and jet planes. Director Scott Schwartz intersperses these sound effect with haunting photographic projections of many of the people who met Meir during her long career - generals and politicians alike.
Yet it is Feldshuh's portrayal of the indomitable Meir that will remain in your mind long after the curtain has come down.
Seldom has history embodied itself in one person as clearly as it did in Golda Meir.
Meir was born in Czarist Russia, where her father boarded up their windows to seal out an impending pogrom.
She lived to become the prime minister of the first Jewish state in 2,000 years, a player of international significance, her life following a trajectory quite unimaginable at her birth in 1898. William Gibson has done an amazing job of conveying this life in a one-person play that lasts a little over 90 minutes.
It is Yom Kippur, 1973, the first day of another attempt by Israel's neighbors to eradicate her. Meir, as prime minister, must not only coordinate the efforts of her generals but muster military support from the U.S. to counter what the Arabs are receiving from the Soviet Union.
An interesting footnote is that Israel pushed the U.S. to act by threatening the use of nuclear weaponry. There is apparently historical evidence to substantiate this hypothesis.
Within this framework, Gibson gives us a great understanding of Golda's personal and public life. The play is a reduction of his 1977 "Golda," which starred Anne Bancroft.
Here, that role is played by Tovah Feldshuh, who gives Golda extraordinary vigor and passion.
In some ways, her task is made difficult by the one-person show format, which requires her to imitate the people around her. She does them skillfully, but these simulations give the show a sense of artificiality. So do the many projections on the rather busy set.
Ultimately, though, these distractions do not diminish the force of Feldshuh's portrayal. She lacks Bancroft's vulnerability and nobility, but she conveys magnificently the fearlessness and dedication that made Golda so powerful a world leader.
What was a nice Milwaukee schoolteacher named Goldie Meyerson doing as prime minister of Israel? What, for that matter, was she doing on a balcony?
The story of Golda Meir - labor organizer, diplomat and one of Israel's greatest leaders - is the basic framework of William Gibson's fascinating play "Golda's Balcony," which opened last night.
It's too complex to call a one-woman show, but Tovah Feldshuh gives a blazing performance, less an impersonation - with a prosthetic nose, straggly wig, padded legs and enough makeup to sink a thousand Helens of Troy, she's a ringer for Golda - than a heroic concept.
The play, in which the redoubtable Feldshuh starred off-Broadway, opens at the beginning of the Yom Kippur War in 1973. It was Meir's final time of trial.
With Israel attacked by Syria and Egypt, and warned by her generals that unless American aid came immediately, defeat was likely, Meir was led into a frenzy of negotiation with Washington and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.
Now a sick, 75-year-old woman, she had been called back from retirement four years earlier to become the leader of her country upon the unexpected death of Prime Minister Levi Eshkol.
Though it wasn't public knowledge at the time, she had a trump card: Israel’s atomic bomb.
Did she blackmail Kissinger into providing aid by gently threatening to light a fuse likely to fire the Cold War into World War III?
Gibson suggests she did. In any event, the United States and other Western states intervened and saved Israel's independence.
During this tight-knit story of war and peace, Gibson uses innumerable flashbacks that let Golda tell the story of her life, from her birth in Russia, her coming to the United States, settling in Milwaukee, becoming a schoolteacher and marrying Morris Meyerson.
She goes on to describe her life as a socialist Zionist, her emigration to Palestine in 1921, the birth of her two children and the breakup of her marriage.
But this is only the background to the play's examination of idealism and power.
What can you lose if you have nothing?
Pushed against the wall, would the idealist Meir have let loose the dogs of Armageddon? Thankfully, we'll never know.
Scott Schwartz's staging, which sensibly consists of letting Feldshuh have the stage to parade in on, and Anna Louizos' stark but oddly attractive bunkerlike setting and the video projections by Batwin and Robin are all handsomely serviceable.
The play's only fault is that in trying to humanize Golda Meir, Gibson has slightly diminished her with a shrugging comedy too stereotypical to be entirely lifelike.
Neither Gibson nor Feldshuh is above playing to the gallery. And talking of galleries, how about that eponymous balcony?
Well, Gibson tells us, there were two: a bright one overlooking the water in Tel Aviv from which she could watch Jewish refugees from Europe disembarking, and the dark one "into hell," Golda's observation post into the atomic preparations at Dimona.
Hell, it seems, was not too far away in 1973. But then, is it now?
In October 1973 a 75-year-old woman who grew up in Milwaukee nearly initiated a nuclear holocaust. There was one long night when she paced, sleepless, pondering her simple alternatives like a lovesick teenager picking petals off a daisy: Do I or don't I? Do I or don't I?
This is the tentpole event of ''Golda's Balcony,'' the Broadway season's first new play, a one-actor show with Tovah Feldshuh that opened last night at the Helen Hayes Theater.
The woman of course was the Russian-born, American-raised Israeli prime minister Golda Meir; the occasion was the 1973 Middle East war. According to the script by William Gibson, the bombs were loaded on planes that were awaiting Meir's order to take off, when Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon, confident that Meir would carry out her threat to wipe out Egypt and Syria rather than yield the hard-won Jewish state to its enemies, supplied Israel with the additional aircraft it needed to defend itself with conventional weapons.
This is all ostensibly true, historically accurate within the license granted any playwright, and a jaw-dropping scenario even if you were already aware of it. As a story it needs very little help from a dramatist, or for that matter from a director, a designer, an actor or any other theatrically creative type. The elements of the pure narrative are so colossally charged with tension and consequence that the argument could be made -- I would make it, in fact -- that understatement is the way to go.
But ''Golda's Balcony'' doesn't go that way. It's not the story of a crucial moment in world history. It's a ponderous essay wrapped in melodramatic autobiography.
O.K., first give Mr. Gibson a salute: he will turn 90 next year, and as the author of ''The Miracle Worker,'' whose revival was recently derailed on its way to New York, he nearly had two shows on Broadway at the same time. And within ''Golda's Balcony'' are some devastating, movingly narrated nuggets of history. But over all his script, which contrives to have Meir herself tell her story at the end of her life (she died in 1978), offers less a genuine portrait of this important figure than a mélange of show business tricks by a polished audience-pleaser.
Dancing back and forth between Meir's life in world politics and recollections of her family, it gives you just enough of this, just enough of that, to give the illusion of roundedness. It has Meir acting out scenes, doing the poses and voices of other people, from her mother to King Abdullah of TransJordan. It has her delivering the wiseacre asides of a Catskills comic.
It has her admitting to giving her family short shrift, acknowledging affairs, chastising herself for mistakes, so we know that there was a cost to her heroism and that she understood it. The clunkiest contrivance is how the play has her teasing the audience several times early in the evening with the word ''Dimona,'' which turns out to be the site of Israel's atomic weapons plant in the Negev.
This is, in fact, Mr. Gibson's second pass at the life of Meir: his play ''Golda'' appeared on Broadway with Anne Bancroft in 1977, though he was, he has written, ''dissatisfied with it.'' It made no mention of Dimona; he hadn't yet learned about it.
''In taking a second crack at the material,'' Mr. Gibson writes in an introduction to a newly published edition of ''Golda's Balcony,'' ''the core of my theme was in the question I put into Golda's mouth, 'What happens when idealism becomes power?' ''
This acknowledgment is underscored throughout the show: Mr. Gibson isn't telling Meir's story; he's pontificating. And though like any evangelist, he can be entertaining, speechifying makes bad drama.
The director, Scott Schwartz, doesn't help. He is of the mind that bringing loud gunfire and the shadows of onrushing warplanes into the theater (not to mention projected maps and photographs that are more distracting than helpful) lends seriousness and emotion to the proceedings. But this cheesily overwrought production, which subscribes to Jerry Bruckheimer's blow-the-morons-out-of-the-joint theory of entertainment, of course does the opposite.
Ms. Feldshuh, who was widely praised for her performance when the show appeared Off Broadway this year, gives every superficial detail its due. Wearing a prosthetic nose and a costume that thickens her legs to suggest Meir's phlebitis, she's done her homework. I didn't recall that Meir spoke English with a Milwaukee accent, and Ms. Feldshuh's is good. Her fierceness is fierce; her tenderness is tender. She does impressive voices and is adept in caricaturing the postures of male world leaders; you'll laugh at her Kissinger.
But in the end her achievement is not the animation of Golda Meir but of Mr. Gibson's artificial, overly literal imagining of her. And Ms. Feldshuh is unable to enliven a construct into a character.
If life were a follower of schedules, the William Gibson play on Broadway today would have been "The Miracle Worker," the safe, familiar and inspirational story of the deaf, mute and blind Helen Keller. But that revival, starring Hilary Swank, closed during tryouts on the road last spring.
Meanwhile, almost at the same time, another Gibson play - a solo reworked from a failed 25-year-old script - began attracting attention in a tiny, far-downtown theater.
The play, a biography of Golda Meir, was sold out into the summer and collected a pile of Off-Broadway awards for the powerhouse performance by Tovah Feldshuh.
Well, "Golda's Balcony" opened at the Helen Hayes Theatre last night.
And, considering how often we think we have heard the hagiography of the Milwaukee schoolteacher who became the prime minister of Israel in 1969, the 90-minute psychological and historical profile is, surprisingly, neither so safe nor familiar.
Instead, this is a handsomely crafted, tough-minded story of a complex woman and an international force who, despite an undeniably inspirational life, died in 1978 with a wise, bittersweet skepticism about miracle workers.
Despite the limitations of one-person biographies and the downward spiral of Middle East realities, Gibson finds an admirably pragmatic way though the emotional and literal minefields.
And Feldshuh is very strong - fervid and kindly, fierce and decent, willful and generous - as Meir. She wears a fat suit and a fake nose and a thick salt-and-pepper wig. She begins with one of those crusty old-grandmother scenes, bent over what could be a kitchen table but might soon be the desk for a war-cabinet meeting. She lights the darkness with a match for one of her cigarettes, turns to us and says, "I'm old, I'm tired, I'm sick." Since the scene has been preceded by the first of the evening's shattering background explosions, we are not surprised when the tired, sick old lady whips off her bathrobe and reveals the woman warrior in the aqua business suit, the support hose and the sensible black shoes.
Immediately, she acknowledges the world's image of her as "Mommile Golda who makes chicken soup for her soldiers ... " But she also says, in her take-no-prisoners bluntness, "At the bottom of the pot is blood."
The frame is the Yom Kippur War, 1973, and Golda has memories of two balconies. One overlooked the ocean and the immigrant Jews coming to what they believe might be sanctuary. The other balcony was really the underground platform from which she watched the creation of nuclear weapons. "I began with the redemption of the human race," she says, "to end up in the munitions business."
The theme is "what happens when idealism becomes power?" The vehicle is a fascinating, flawed, selfish and selfless rebel - born in Russia, raised in Milwaukee - who dragged her poetic, reluctant husband to Palestine in 1921 and raised two practically invisible children while becoming a world leader in an increasingly controversial world.
Director Scott Schwartz and Feldshuh are scrupulously clear about the complex chronologies and the layers of contradictory emotions. The set, by Anna Louizos, surrounds the central table with piles of rocks upon which historical faces and events are projected. The sounds of the bombs are terrible, as they should be. And even a few questions are raised.
The 75-year-old woman pacing the stage at Broadway's Helen Hayes Theatre faces an unusual predicament. She needs to declare a military strategy - and not the kind that would involve her grandchildren's toy soldiers.
"How does a housewife decide between generals?" Golda Meir wonders. "All right, all right, I'm not a housewife."
Meir, the feisty, Milwaukee-bred gal who in 1969 became Israel's first and only female prime minister, certainly wasn't. And as played by the remarkable Tovah Feldshuh in Golda's Balcony (*** ½ out of four), which opened here Wednesday after an acclaimed off-Broadway run, she is every bit the force of nature that history remembers, and then some.
Feldshuh's last role on the New York stage was in another one-woman show inspired by a real-but-larger-than-life figure, Tallulah Bankhead. Meir is about as far removed in reputation from that glamorous, dissolute showbiz icon as one character could be from another. But with only a little help from a prosthetic nose and leg padding, the attractive 50-year-old actress manages to capture with utter authenticity both Meir's aged, ailing condition and the indomitable will to live that made her a natural leader for a country under constant threat.
William Gibson's thoughtful script doesn't shy away from the more complex and controversial aspects of Meir's personal and political lives. Set during crucial hours in the Yom Kippur War in October 1973, when Israel was attacked by Egyptian and Syrian forces, Balcony explores the roots of Meir's fierce Zionism and the tensions that have continued to mount in the Middle East.
Aided by Scott Schwartz's bracing direction, Gibson and Feldshuh make a refreshingly forthright, unapologetic case for Israel's right to existence and self-protection, questions that remain the subject of much scrutiny and debate. Meir repeatedly stresses the "2,000 years of exile" and persecution that fed the desire for a Jewish state. The play also conveys that it wasn't a coincidence that this dream was realized in 1948, only three years after Hitler's reign of terror ended.
Balcony also alludes to the plight of Palestinians and other Arabs, and it finds Meir sharing both sober insights and gossip about an array of noted men, whose varying accents Feldshuh expertly juggles. We learn that the Israeli warrior and defense minister Moshe Dayan was "a very busy ... lover," and that some of Pope Paul Vl's theories reminded Meir of the husband from whom she drifted.
Meir's perceived failings on the domestic front are addressed as unabashedly as her physical frailties, and Feldshuh deftly mines the repressed vulnerability and guilt that plagued the wife and mother who served her adopted nation with such fervor.
Ultimately, though, it's the strength of Meir's spirit that makes Golda's Balcony not only an entertaining history lesson, but also a moving tribute to the human capacity for survival, even under the most trying circumstances.
No one ever won a war in a housecoat -- a point shrewdly acknowledged by producers and creatives in retooling this sellout Off Broadway production for mainstream transfer. In a not-so-subtle shift from her earlier, heart-tugging treatment of Golda Meir as Big Mother in a Bunker, Tovah Feldshuh injects more steel into her portrayal of the beleaguered prime minister of Israel during the 78-hour period at the start of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when she sweated out the decision to play the nuclear weapons card.
The emphatic polemics of Gibson's script -- which finds the prime minister justifying to future generations and to her own idealistic self the decision to assemble Israel's secret nuclear war arsenal at Dimona -- play better in a showier theatrical setting. The warplanes are closer and the bombs louder in Scott Schwartz's more expansive staging of war-game exercises that looked cramped on the smaller stage. As stacked into impregnable surrounding walls, the massive stones of Anna Louizos' set not only reflect Meir's state of mind but also provide a backdrop for wraparound projections of street and battle scenes outside the war room.
Instead of being diminished by the sound-and-light-show effects, the diminutive Tovah Feldshuh gives a commanding performance. It acknowledges Meir's stature as a strong-willed politician who, at a time of international crisis, reassured a worried world that she was, indeed, in charge of her country's destiny. At the same time, Feldshuh captures the humanity of the woman, in flashbacks of domestic tranquility, in memories of an idealistic youth, and especially in soul-searching arguments with herself over the ironic absurdity of going to war in the cause of peace.
Given the nationalistic context of the play, which doesn't raise a single serious philosophical doubt about the rationale for nuclear war, it's a crowd-pleasing performance sure to please the crowd it's aimed at. As toughened up, show begs to be taken on the road -- if not to environs of Detroit, then to major cities with a high concentration of built-in Jewish audiences.