“Benedictus”Written by Motti LernerDirected by Rahaleh NassriRan March 14-29, 2009Theater J, DC JCC, 1529 16th Street NW, Washington, D.C.http://www.theaterj.org/
If Iranian-Israeli relations are ever to improve, will the miracle originate amongst policymakers and trickle down to the masses, or will civilians grow so tired of the conflicts that they insist upon crafting their leadership in their own pacifistic image? This question is of course well above the pay grade of a column on Jewish arts, but it is central to Motti Lerner’s “Benedictus,” in a limited run at Theater J at the Washington DC JCC.
If the issues addressed in “Benedictus” were not so real outside the theater, it would be enjoyable to watch the play as a part of the tradition of Theater of the Absurd. Absurdist Theater, of course, is all about carefully balancing comedy with horror.
Photo by Stan Barouh. Michael Kramer
When more and more chairs crowd Eug?ne Ionesco’s stage it is amusing, because the Old Man and Old Woman are not the sort one would meet in the street, and Alfred Jarry’s Pa Ubu, even as he murders professors of polyhedra and generally makes a nuisance of himself, forever remains cartoony.
But even though America is probably less likely to attack Iran under the Obama administration than under former President George W. Bush, the play is still heavier on the scary side and lighter on the comedy.
Lerner is hardly a newcomer to this column. An April 19, 2006, column reviewed Lerner’s “The Murder of Isaac” at Baltimore’s Centerstage, and a July 18, 2007, review covered “Pangs of the Messiah,” also at Theater J. In both plays, Lerner tackled very complicated and provocative aspects of Israeli politics and culture, and “Benedictus” continues in that trajectory.
Photo by Stan Barouh. Michael Kramer and Michael Tolaydo
An Israeli arms dealer named Asher Motahedeh (Michael Tolaydo) meets an Iranian politician and clergyman Ali Kermani (Michael Kramer) to try to prevent an American attack on Iran. The two meet (appropriately) in a Benedictine Church, overseen by a monk (Richard Mancini), and each tries to sway an American diplomat named Ben Martin (Conrad Feininger), who once worked in the American embassy in Tehran, but is now U.S. ambassador to Rome. Lerner explains Asher’s and Ali’s agreement to collaborate through a back story about their shared past fighting the Shah. In fact, Asher was born in Tehran and lived there until fleeing to Israel after the revolution.
In “Benedictus,” diplomacy is presented in a very unflattering light – with such intricate webs of deceit and ego that it is almost worthy of Mad magazine’s “Spy vs. Spy,” or at least Fox’s “24.” It is hard to know of course, whether policymakers actually carry out their trade in this ridiculous manner, but even at Theater J, just blocks from the White House and the State Department, the diplomacy comes off as a bit too romanticized.
Photo by Stan Barouh. Michael Kramer and Michael Tolaydo
But Lerner is writing a play and not a white paper on Tehran, so disbelief ought to be suspended. Tolaydo plays a masterful and powerful Asher, just as he played the rabbi Shmuel Berger in “Pangs” and Binder in “Sacrifice.” He seems to be perpetually in motion, often pacing the stage and throwing his whole body into each line he delivers.
Asher fairs better in “Benedictus” than did Shmuel and Binder – the former commits suicide and the latter is shot – while by all accounts, Israel and America are the winners and Iran the loser in Lerner’s latest play. But one of Lerner’s greatest skills is writing slippery characters, which are human rather than symbols of good or evil.
Kramer plays a convincing Ali, who manages to keep up with his Israeli and American peers for the most part, until he is dramatically abandoned due, mostly, to his inability to convince his peers that he truly stands for reforming Iran and that he actually has the power to seize control of the government and implement the changes he champions.
Yet, Ali is perhaps the Muslim equivalent of Shakespeare’s Shylock. When he asks Martin, “How do you know that nuclear weapons in our hands will be more dangerous than in yours?” the only answer the American ambassador can muster is “After 9/11 we can’t gamble anymore ” Ali receives no rebuttal of Iran’s right to join the Nuclear Club; all he is told, is that his country is not trustworthy. He later tells Asher:
“We’re probably not the right people in the right place. Braver people would have already stopped this madness. But there aren’t other people here. Only us. How can we go on living knowing that hundreds of thousands died because we were cowards? Because we didn’t trust each other when their lives were in our hands?”
Photo by Stan Barouh. Conrad Feininger and Michael Tolaydo
This is of course a fundamental issue of government, where a few carry the fate of the many in their palms. In the end, though, the masses often fall prey to the petty grievances and revenge of those who are supposed to represent them.
It is impossible to predict what occurs after Lerner’s play ends. One assumes that many Iranians will be killed and the ayatollahs will be overthrown. Perhaps Ali has been lying the whole time, and Asher and Ambassador Martin are correct to distrust him. But what if he really was genuine in his devotion to peace and to political reform? What if it was racism that motivated Asher and Martin to dismiss him and to condemn his people? Lerner offers no clues as to whether the play ends with justice served or with chaos; whether the play ought to be classified as comedy or tragedy.
Sometimes this feeling is quite effective. If Frank R. Stockton told us whether the princess pointed her plebian suitor toward the lady or the tiger, the story would never have been so successful. But it is hard to know what to do with “Benedictus,” which feels somehow unfinished. It seems that equally valid arguments could be made for the failure of the characters to resolve the conflict deriving from the situation being irresolvable, or from the characters’ lack of creativity and progressiveness.
And yet, somehow the unsettled feeling of not knowing whether Lerner is pessimistic or optimistic about the chances of peace also rings true. There is so much bad information circulating and such different people’s motives and perspectives on either side of the conflict that it seems completely appropriate to be left with numbness rather than the comfort of knowing what is in store.
Menachem Wecker welcomes comments at email@example.com. He is a painter and writer, residing in Washington, D.C.