In the opening scene of The Law of Return, character Jonathan Jay Pollard explains how code breaking and surveillance programs can be devised with the use of quantum mechanics.
There are multiple universes existing simultaneously, but only one can ever be perceived by the human mind at a time. This is the crux of Martin Blank’s smart but imperfect espionage drama currently playing Off-Broadway.
If the human mind cannot, for example, picture American naval veteran and anti-terrorism Commander Steve Harris driving his car and at home making love to his wife at the same time, as this Pollard asks the audience to imagine, then society, too, is doomed to see human beings only one facet at a time.
Blank’s characters drive the play’s drama with their struggle to reconcile paradoxical beliefs. Commander Harris (Andre Ware) is a shrewd strategist but also fallible. Prisoner Pollard (Ben Mehl) is Jewish and American. Israel, a character in her own right/write, is both a land of belonging and a country riven with geopolitical strife.
The real-life Jonathan Jay Pollard was arrested in 1985 for sharing classified American information with Israel. He pleaded guilty in 1987 to espionage. Spying for an allied nation generally resulted in a term of six to eight years of imprisonment. Pollard got life.
This Pollard, desperate, in a Mitty-esque way, for a chance to work more closely with the top-secret American naval surveillance program, finds himself spending less time with his sick fiancee and more time knee-deep in information America is withholding from the Israeli government.
Pollard’s affection for Israel, which he only visited once but found to be his true home, leads him to meet with an Israeli politician and former intelligence officer Eitan (Joel Rooks) about the prospect of sharing information. What starts off as a seemingly harmless mission quickly turns into a larger, bitter feud between people and the powerful nations they serve.
It’s a tale that has long fascinated playwright Blank, a founder of Washington, D.C.’s Theater J. In an interview, he spoke of how first he discovered Pollard in a book of spy stories and why a Jewish spy was the perfect narrative vehicle for him.
“For me Jewish theater is 50 percent of my playwriting and producing life,” said Blank, “not all my plays are Jewish, but they are all about the American dream.”
It also helped that Pollard’s story made for great drama and resonated with the D.C. Blank knows from experience. “I certainly knew people just from being in D.C. as a young person, who work in the intelligence community, just as living in New York you meet people who work in theater or on Wall Street.
“Some of them can tell you [about their work] and some of them can’t. But some of them can.”
These connections, plus a powerful tale of identity and morality, made Pollard’s saga irresistible to tell on stage.
What do you do, Blank wondered, when you have a strong attachment to beliefs, morals and geography that are not the beliefs, morals and geography you legally are bound by? What happens when you find yourself pulled as much by the former as the latter? Neither side of this equation is portrayed in The Law of Return as right or wrong: Israel here is as much an arcadia to Pollard as it is a real place, tied up as it is with his meditations on Hebrew, the high holidays and his family history with the Holocaust. But it is also a country with real problems, real virtues and real wars to fight. And Eitan, who embodies Israel in this play, proves himself both a benevolent Jewish archetype (complete with a cardigan and matzah crackers), as well as a political and military powerhouse.
America also becomes a complex character: a nation committed to being God-like secret keepers for the rest of the world, drunk on power, but, at the same time, as embodied by the character of Harris, scarred by its memories of the melting flesh and dying screams of those killed by misinformation. This delicate balancing act is what makes the play so powerful.
Indeed, the play is at its best when conflicting sides come to a head and the stakes are at their highest, such as when Harris intercepts Pollard’s attempts to send real-time broadcasts of enemy movements to the Israeli navy. Harris reminds him that to reveal to any other nation, even an ally, the sensitive, real-time surveillance information America’s navy has assembled, would result in the program’s exposure. Even as Harris’ patriotic sense of duty scuffles with Pollard’s wish to save Israeli lives, other debris is dredged up and brought into the fray, exposing these people as incredibly fragile and human while real-time battles are fought and people die. The ability to alter these outcomes lies at the end of a phone, one of maybe three props on the bare, minimal set. Like Hitchcock, director Elise Thoron understands that the sound of a phone ringing can be the height of suspense.
When the play fails to maintain this tightrope act of human and political conflicts, it falters. Mehl’s performance as Pollard is at times brilliant, electric and charmingly subversive. But often, the changes that come with time or events do not register on him as quickly as they do everybody else. Even when the play’s dialogue is nuanced and mercurial, this Pollard stays stuck in a state of either near-erotic delight for his work or highly strung impatience. These are interesting feelings to work with as an actor, and he plays them well, but the ebbs and flows of the words are not always mirrored in his actions, to a degree that is distracting.
Similarly distracting is the absence of Pollard’s wife, Anne, from the stage. He talks to her through locked doors or over tape, but we never meet her. As a result, the many complex sides of her personality we are told about – harridan, committed Jew, beloved wife, sickly invalid – exist more as concepts in Pollard’s mind than in ours. Her complicity in his actions is assumed, but not explored, to the play’s detriment.
But these flaws should be overlooked given that the rest of the play is so meaty and topical. “What made the producers want to do the play and what made the play timely, ultimately, was Snowden. What information do we share? Who does it belong to?” said Blank. “It brings up questions in an information age, and now you have one person like Snowden or Pollard who can change national policy or force us to ask the questions.”
These are just the sort of Big Questions live theater was meant to take on.
The Law of Return is onstage at New York City’s 4th St Theater through Aug. 24. Tickets are $18.