Cultural clashes, particularly those familiar to Israelis trying to make it in New York, are at the heart of the quirky, heartwarming and funny play “Next Stop: A Comedy of Misconnections,” currently being performed at Habima’s 4 Fun stage space in Tel Aviv.
The play is in English, which might be unusual for a performance at Habima, Israel’s national theater, but makes sense for this work. It’s written by Noga Milstein and Mili Avital, performed by Milstein and Ben creative partner Perry, a Tziporela theater group veteran, and directed by Avital, an Israeli actress who has long lived in the US with her Oscar-winning writer husband, Charles Randolph, and their two children.
But first, back to the premise, and making, of “Next Stop.”
Milstein plays Maya, an Israeli-American actress who dreams of acting on Broadway (she would happily accept Off-Broadway as well.)
After she swipes right on an unnamed dating app, she meets Hazan, an Israeli wanna-be entrepreneur (Perry), who’s just arrived in New York to sell his somewhat wacky business ideas to an American company.
The two don’t hit it off, but the audience gets to follow their journeys as they attempt to fulfill their dreams in the Big Apple, in a culture they eventually realize is harder to navigate than they initially thought.
Immigrants to Israel can relate.
The play is built of short scenes. There’s an impenetrable conversation with a phone company, job interviews that don’t make sense, dates in which every comment becomes an innuendo because of the language barrier.
Much of it comes from Milstein’s experiences as a newbie actress landing in New York and trying — desperately — to make it. She went to New York in 2014 for a two-month vacation and, uncharacteristically, canceled her ticket home, instead deciding to stay for a year and try for a part in an Off Broadway show.
“I wanted to gain some credit and experience and come back to Israel,” said Milstein, who has been on stage since age six as a dancer, attended acting school in Israel, and had previously won small roles in kids’ theater shows, commercials and other stage performances.
Milstein grew up speaking English at home and thought her English was stage-ready. It turned out she had the right accent but her figures of speech were off, which she’d never realized before moving to New York.
She lasted through just one month of auditions. But after seeing a kids’ show on Off Broadway, she had the idea to create a show for two actors.
“I wanted to make a show and not wait for opportunities,” said Milstein. “I didn’t realize it would take ten years to produce it.”
“Next Stop” started out as a version of a play by Iris Morgenbesser that Milstein saw performed in Israel. With the playwright’s blessing, she began customizing it to her own experience of being an Israeli trying to make it in New York City.
“It was about the daily situations where you think you know how to deal with something but figure out that you don’t know how to deal with it, like calling the phone company,” said Milstein, referring to a scene in “Next Stop” in which Milstein perfectly mimics the robot-like tones and script of an AT&T answering service.
She called the play “Next Stop” for the announcement regularly made on the subway, and for the city, she said, “where you can always pursue your next stop.”
During the process of writing and rewriting “Next Stop,” Milstein met actress Mili Avital at the Hebrew school afterschool program where Avital’s children were enrolled and where Milstein was working at the time.
Avital asked Milstein if she did any babysitting work.
“I did everything in those days,” said Milstein. “I did wine tasting, hosting, teaching, assistant work, I sold ‘Sesame Street’ as a telemarketer, worked at a coat check, you name it. Babysitting? I get it. You want someone who speaks Hebrew and who you feel comfortable with.”
Milstein ended up becoming a regular babysitter for Avital and the actress quickly became a reader of the script-in-progress, sending notes to Milstein and introducing her to people.
Like Milstein, Avital had her own culture clash moments when she arrived in New York in the early 1990s to study acting at the Circle in the Square Theatre School, but didn’t have to wait as long for success, after being famously discovered by an agent while waitressing and quickly cast as the female lead in the 1994 science fiction film “Stargate.”
Still, she got it, said Milstein.
“She was very on board, but in a very limited way,” said Milstein. “Deep down in my heart, I always hoped I would convince her to be more involved.”
Milstein raised money to perform “Next Stop” through a crowdfunding campaign, with her friends helping out with lighting, graphics and production for the first month of performances in the Broadway Comedy Club, a small theater with a casual vibe.
The play found an audience, and Avital thought of making Perry’s male role into a tech entrepreneur, which led to their business model of private performances for technology companies run by Israelis.
By that time, Avital had joined as producer and director and they had plans to perform the play in Israel when COVID hit. Milstein, by now romantically partnered and with a baby, returned to the idea again last fall, and returned to Israel to perform at Tzavta Theatre.
They then booked Habima for shows a few times a month, with the aim of inviting human resources executives from local tech companies to see the show and then book Milstein and Perry for private performances.
Since then, the pair have also performed “Next Stop” in fluorescent-lit conference rooms, at Tel Aviv’s Hangar 11, and at the Habima 4 Fun smaller, downstairs stage space for private clients, such as IBM Israel.
Milstein wants to think about her next project, this time for the screen because she’s tired of the battle to convince people to come to the theater.
She’s ready for her next stop, but for now, this unintentional theatrical entrepreneur is grateful to have made it this far with a work that echoes so much of her personal experience. (By the way, Milstein says she personally mirrors the experience of the male character, played by Perry.)
“Israelis really get it, deep down,” said Milstein. “I think there’s something there for everyone, for anyone who’s ever tried to make it somewhere else.”
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