Legit Review: 'Paper Dolls'

New play in London is caught between fiction and the documentary on which it's based

Five Filipino immigrants in Tel Aviv work by day as live-in caregivers to elderly Hasidic men but by night they form a gleefully low-rent drag act. You couldn’t make it up, and guess what? They didn’t. “Paper Dolls,” a play by Sundance Theater Program topper Philip Himberg, is based on Tomer Heymann’s award-winning documentary. The warmth rising off Indhu Rubasingham’s world-preem production proves that its heart is certainly in the right place. The heartbeat, however, is irregular.

In a world somewhere between a tackier version of the Kit Kat Club of “Cabaret” and “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” (with a scintilla of its costume budget), all five drag queens bitch, bicker and preen their way through their intriguingly near-schizophrenic lives. They are united both as a pleasingly tacky act and as fierce individuals making lives for themselves. But Himberg gives each of them a different perspective on their position within a culture that tolerates but doesn’t fully accept them.

Their lives backstage are contrasted with their day work, mostly via scenes with Sally (Francis Jue) the most astute of the five, who cares for ailing, elderly Chaim (Harry Dickman). The arrival of Chaim’s initially resentful daughter Adina (Caroline Wildi) complicates the scenario. The growing understanding between the three of them is ultimately predictable but Rubasingham’s tender handling of this uneasy set of relationships ensures that this is the play’s emotional backbone.

However, the weight given to that underlines the thinness of most of the other storylines.

In addition to the individual trajectories of the other dolls, there is their collective desire to make it big as an act. This comes courtesy of the standard-issue, longed-for audition with a power-player (Ilan Goodman as a venal club owner) with its attendant wake-up moments of the seedy reality behind the glitz. And all of this is (unconvincingly) framed within a device of all this being filmed by their well-meaning filmmaker friend Yossi (Tom Berish, in a severely underwritten role) whose family is also brought into the story.

All of this is placed within representations of Orthodox Jewish society (with well-sung Hebrew music) and their jeopardy-heightening, fragile position as immigrants, a point hammered home by Richard Kent’s consciously brutalist, concrete set design — which may accurately reflect the location, but doesn’t help mood or pace.

Although this multiple culture-clash set-up is alive with possibilities, there are simply too many story arcs. With so many being sketchily written, the action is too diffuse. As all the plotlines play out you find yourself wishing for a stronger, more developed focus on fewer characters.

The stage show’s drag queens were, in the originating documentary, transsexuals. More radical choices like that would strengthen this potentially punchy show.

Right at the end, one of the characters makes a final entrance shrouded in black. The moment is puzzlingly illegible until you read the program afterwards and learn what happened to the character. That’s indicative of Himberg’s honorable fidelity to the real-life characters. But for the show to achieve its potential, sacrifices need to be made to turn real-life into more fully-fledged drama. As it stands, “Paper Dolls” is stranded between fact and fiction.

Paper Dolls

Tricycle Theater, London; 235 seats; £22 ($33.50) top

A Tricycle Theater in association with Stanley Buchthal and Bob & Co. presentation of a play by Philip Himberg adapted from the documentary film by Tomer Heymann. Directed by Indhu Rubasingham. Sets and costumes, Richard Kent; lighting, Oliver Fenwick; sound, Ben and Max Ringham; music, Nigel Lilley and Ringhams; choreography, Alistair David; video, Dick Straker; production stage manager, Alison Rich. Opened March 8, 2013, reviewed March 22. Running time: 2 HOURS, 30 MIN.

With Francis Jue, Ron Domingo, Jon Norman Schneider, Benjamin Wong,  Angelo Paragoso, Tom Berish, Harry Dickman, Caroline Wildi, Jane Bertish, Ilan Goodman, Noa Bodner, Shimi Goodman, Tom Oakley.

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