Amid the countless topical dramas staged in New York every year, plays about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict somehow manage to be the lamest. Largely unwilling to declare allegiance to one side or the other—in fact, eager to make clear that they’re above such ties—playwrights tend to stick to a middle position bounded by “A plague o’ both your houses” and “Can’t we all just get along?” In theory, that stand is noble and high-minded. In practice, it makes a virtue out of banality, yielding plays that are notable mainly for being so dull.
This month, two more playwrights try yet again to make us think or feel something new about this conflict, or at least to hold our attention for an hour and a half. Betty Shamieh’s The Black Eyed has just opened at New York Theatre Workshop, which is no stranger to the fight. (Last year, the company was pummeled for canceling its production of the pro-Palestinian My Name Is Rachel Corrie.) Shamieh’s play certainly offers a more vivid setting for the material than Corrie’s diaries did, whisking us away from the Holy Land to some pinkish celestial foyer in the afterlife. Alas, the play flashes this kind of originality everyplace but where it really needs it.
By letting us listen in on four Palestinian women from different eras—a victim of the Crusaders, Delilah (of “Samson and” fame), and two women touched by modern-day terrorism—Shamieh gives us a historical pedigree of present-day Palestinian suffering. But she gets tangled, à la late-series J. K. Rowling, in the metaphysics of her invented world: I couldn’t figure out who was in the martyrs’ room located just offstage, or why I ought to care. Even more distracting, Shamieh, like so many dramatists in this vein, has a weakness for statements that might soothe a New York audience but don’t seem especially plausible. “We do know that all religions are wacky,” say three of the women in unison, sounding an awful lot like, say, an American playwright.
Yet just when you’re ready to write off Shamieh’s play, she starts coming up with the kind of potent dilemmas that stick with you. An account of an architect’s terrible death edges away from the familiar Israeli-Palestinian clash toward a fresh look at pressures within the Palestinian community itself. A later scene focuses the tension even more, on the conflict within a single Palestinian soul. A play that really dug into either story might have done what this one can’t: turn over new ground in a relentlessly tilled field.
To put it another way, it might yield something like Masked, a vastly more compelling drama than the usual Middle East fare. Ilan Hatsor, an Israeli playwright, imagines a confrontation among three Palestinian brothers. In order to save their skins, the militant Na’im has to determine whether his brother Daoud has collaborated with the Israelis, while young Khalid tries to keep the peace. Thanks in part to the setting—a bloodstained, dirty-gray-on-dirty-gray butcher shop—the play puts you in mind of Reservoir Dogs. Sure, Hatsor doesn’t have Tarantino’s flair or narrative drive, but his play still enjoys many of the benefits of the film’s catch-the-snitch genre. You believe that these guys love each other but that, because of the world they inhabit and the choices they have made, they still might end up destroying each other.
Hatsor’s play doesn’t end as well as it starts, and director Ami Dayan doesn’t always wring suspense from what’s there. Still, this show is the real deal: a play that broadens your sympathies, leading you to imagine how you’d fare in a world where the menacing Them could be a foreign army or the militants in your own community—where you faced a constant choice whether to collaborate, resist, or flee. It’s our good luck that this seventeen-year-old play reaches New York just as the world is catching up to it. Suddenly the really crucial fault line doesn’t divide Israel and the Palestinians—it’s between Fatah and Hamas. And it’s all too easy to imagine scenes like this one in every Palestinian town.