American playwright Philip Himberg found the true story behind his new play with music in a documentary film he happened to see. It is a remarkable tale of strangers in a troubled land, of makeshift family and unexpected tenderness.
The “Paper Dolls” of the title are five gay Filipino immigrants in Tel Aviv. By day, they work as carers for frail and elderly Orthodox Jewish men. By night, they are a drag act, fashioning extravagant costumes out of newspaper and letting rip with karaoke numbers. The play follows their attempts to break into the big time – a dream that turns sour. It also chronicles squabbles within the group, arrest, deportation, prejudice, bad employers and the danger of bombs. It covers huge and fruitful themes, to do with crossing borders and boundaries, making a home, belonging and identity: all particularly potent in Israel.
But although Himberg’s play is big-hearted and deals with pressing contemporary issues, it is too diffuse and episodic, and uses too broad a brush stroke to fulfil its own potential. The trouble is that there isn’t time enough in the play to get to grips with all these areas properly, so it tends to skate over them, handling some in awkward, wooden little scenes. It is at its best when it focuses closely on the surprisingly tender relationship between Salvador, or “Sally” (the charismatic Francis Jue), and the elderly Chaim (Harry Dickman) – here gently and touchingly evoked.
It is in detail like this that the play really springs to life: the old man and the young immigrant joining together to fashion an unorthodox family unit, which is then threatened by the arrival of Chaim’s daughter from New York.
Indhu Rubasingham’s staging has warmth and drive, is punctuated by wild and gaudy makeshift drag numbers by the exuberant Paper Dolls (Jue, Ron Domingo, Jon Norman Schneider, Angelo Paragoso and Benjamin Wong), and revels in the curious contrasts of costume and identity on show, as black-clad Hasidic Jews rub shoulders with daintily attired drag artists. But although the play opens up a fascinating world, it doesn’t illuminate it as fully as it could.