After a self-imposed exile from his homeland and his family, the great Israeli pianist returns. But in playwright Motti Lerner’s world premiere of After the War at Mosaic Theater Company, the question isn’t why Joel, the one-time piano prodigy, abandoned family and country for so many years, but how repentant he is on his return.
In the immediate aftermath of the 2006 Lebanon War, as Israel reels from bombings and civilian causalities on both sides of the dispute, Joel shows up in his aging mother’s flat. He expects life to be as it was 18 years before, when he and his then-young family fled for greener and less politically divisive ground in New York in the wake of a political dispute with his father.
Lerner is known for his incendiary works, which toe a left-leaning political line. Among them is 2014’s The Admission, which dug into an old-but-not-forgotten fictionalized incident during the 1948 Israel War of Independence that was termed a battle and a massacre, depending on one’s point of view.
He is one of a handful of Israeli playwrights — Joshua Sobol and Hanoch Levin are others — who sharply probe the nation’s politics and policies in an effort to provoke and advocate for civil discourse and negotiation rather than strong-armed tactics and rigid policies to deal with the country’s most pressing issues.
In After the War, there’s an Arthur Miller-esque setup in Joel’s return. The family patriarch has just died — “the war killed him” the family reports, though he died in the hospital after a long illness. The matriarch Bella (Barbara Rappaport, who seemingly plays every elderly Jewish mother in theaters across the region) is cared for by a Romanian émigré private nurse, Trudy, who happens to be dating Joel’s brother Freddie, a fly-by-night importer-exporter. The father’s memory and his hard-line rightist politics cast a pall over the household.
No one is happy to see Joel (played with a dollop of blind determination by Paul Morella), least of all Freddie (James Whalen), who suspects that Joel is more interested in the family apartment than reconnecting and repairing rifts. Subplots thicken this stew of familial conflict. Nurse Trudy is an aspiring pianist and took the job caring for Bella solely because of the elderly woman’s reputation as the top piano teacher in the country. Then there’s Trudy’s hanger-on ex-husband, Bernard, who shows up unkempt and sweaty, and infiltrates into this family drama.
Each family member holds tight to unsettled scores and character flaws. Matriarch Ella plays her favorites. Brothers Joel and Freddie hang on to age-old, biblical-strength jealousies. Trudy, a gold digger, sells her affections to the highest bidder; ingratiating Bernard (Michael Tolaydo) provides a semblance of comic relief.
The dispute that has riled the family and Joel’s exile draws on his outspoken and left-leaning politics. From his early years to his latest salvo, a condemnation of the Israeli military action in Lebanon and a pledge to support the wounded Lebanese children, he is a persona non grata,
The action plays out in Bella’s sparse flat. Save for a worn grand piano, a few chairs and a cabinet with an old radio, there’s little of beauty in the room, which is overshadowed by the looming glass-fronted edifice of the Frederick Mann Auditorium in Tel Aviv, recreated in the background by Israeli designer Frida Shoham.
Music serves as a subtext here, in the form of Beethoven’s “Pathetique,” while the bitterness of political and family rivalries plays in the foreground. Joel’s condemnation of Israel’s military actions becomes personal as the family traumas play out with harsh and unrepentant words. A second prodigal son, Izzy (Israeli-American actor Guy Kapulnik), returns bringing more turmoil to the household.
Ultimately, Lerner’s dark tale of a banished son returning to the nest feels, in many ways, like a self-portrait of the playwright’s struggles to pursue a civil discourse through his writings. Lerner, too, along with his long-time director Sinai Peter (see “For ‘War’s’ director Peter, a classroom act,” page 30), see the artist’s role in Israel’s troubled society as that of conscience-keeper. It’s easy to understand how Lerner might have put his own feelings of rectitude into the character of Joel, the outspoken expatriate artist. Lerner, too, has suffered a cost for his outspoken dramas, both abroad and at home in Israel.
Yet he continues to mine his own narrative and delve into that of his nation in the hopes that his words can play a part in mending divided families, factionalized parties and peoples in Mosaic’s fourth installment in its Voices From a Changing Middle East Festival. Once more, it becomes clear that our era’s artists, dramatists, musicians and choreographers are our modern-day prophets, hoping against reality that after the war, peace, indeed, will come.
After the War, by Motti Lerner, Mosaic Theater Company, through April 17, Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H Street, NE, Washington. For ticket information, call 202-399-7993, ext. 2 or visit MosaicTheater.org.
For ‘War’s’ director Peter, a classroom act
by Lisa Traiger
Sinai Peter, director of Mosaic Theater’s After the War, has been pulling double duty lately.
Since he arrived in Washington in January to work on the world premiere of Motti Lerner’s play, Peter has been moonlighting at American University, where he leads an undergraduate seminar, Israeli Society through the Arts.
At its weekly sessions, the Haifa-based Peter puts the works of Israel’s playwrights and filmmakers in both their social and historical contexts.
“When you teach something like this, you deal with your own biography,” Peter said last week. “When I share it with these very young American students, some who don’t have any Jewish background, it excites me, because I go through not only my biography but my parents’ and my grandparents’ biographies.”
The students have seen Israeli plays. They view films, read, rehearse and present scenes from translated scripts, and they share their findings with Peter. He tells stories of his own experiences creating theater in what is today a charged climate in Israel.
While there is no blatant censorship, Peter said the country’s openness to artists making challenging political works has faded.
“Look, there are still no artists going to prison in Israel and you can walk in the streets of Tel Aviv and say what you want,” he said, “but the shaming of those who oppose the government … this shaming is so dangerous, so overwhelming, that it can lead to very dangerous consequences.”
The result these days is that controversial works are not censored, they are not produced. Theater producers and managers aren’t willing to risk possibly losing government funding.
Peter, whose work was seen in Washington at Theater J in its critically acclaimed production Pangs of the Messiah in 2007 and in 2011 in the controversial Cameri Theater production of Return to Haifa, among other plays, hopes to bring After the War home to Israel following its Washington premiere.
“We already began looking for financial help in Israel and outside of Israel,” Peter said. “Artists like us who want to perform in our own country need to find new ways of funding these works.”
Alessia De Vitis, a junior international relations major at American, took the course at the suggestion of a friend living in Nablus.
“I’m not a theater student and I’m not Jewish,” she said after a class in mid-March, “so a lot of this material is new to me.”
For De Vitis, the most rewarding aspect of the class is seeing how the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is dealt with and to meet both Israelis and Israeli Arabs. “I’m able to get a sense of what it’s like [there] and I have the opportunity to explore this other narrative that we don’t really talk about much here.”
Peter said it is important to convey to his students that “although the current situation may be so painful, it is so important to remind the students how affectionate was the Zionist dream, how powerful and needed it was.”