NEW YORK — What if they threw a protest and nobody came?
The annual Lincoln Center Festival got a bit of additional publicity earlier this month when The New York Campaign for the Boycott of Israel (Adalah-NY) published an open letter with 70 artists calling for the cancellation of one of its productions. The festival’s outstanding line-up includes Russia’s Bolshoi Ballet, a concert of batuku music from Cape Verde and an oud trio paying tribute to the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish. But there are also four performances of Israeli author David Grossman’s “To The End of the Land.”
Adapted by the Ha’Bima National Theater and the Cameri Theater of Tel Aviv by Hanin Snir, the play (presented in Hebrew with projected English supertitles) is based on Grossman’s novel about a mother’s psychological duress while her son serves in the IDF during the Second Intifada in 2002.
It is far from an inflammatory work and Grossman is an outspoken critic of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and a high-profile peace activist. But that was of no consequence to the Adalah group, who felt that anything on the receiving end of Israeli government funding was tainted and should be blocked from entering US soil.
The irony is that the list of extremely talented American artists who put their name to this boycott are the exact sort of people who denounce the lack of arts funding in the United States.
Among the extremely talented list of of signatories you’ll find playwright and actor Tracy Letts, playwright Lynn Nottage, actor and playwright Wallace Shawn, director Andre Gregory and actress and writer Greta Gerwig. British musician Roger Waters and British director Ken Loach put their names on the document, too, even though they don’t live in New York, but they always have time to make their hatred of Israel known. (Even though Loach likes to tell Radiohead not to play in Tel Aviv, his films still do, but let’s not get into that now.)
The Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College, a few blocks from the main Lincoln Center campus, had an abundant police presence in anticipation of anti-Israel protests. There were about a dozen vehicles and many uniformed cops, and 59th Street between 10th and 11th avenues had barricades ready to go.
The only problem: nobody showed up.
Well, that’s not exactly true. Karen Lichtbraun of the far-right Jewish Defense League was there, ready to counter-protest if need be.
“I’m here because I support Israel,” Lichtbraun told The Times of Israel. When asked where everybody else was a mere 30 minutes before curtain time, she shrugged and said, “I guess they’re on Israeli time.”
The show goes on
All this vanished from my mind as I entered the theater, surrounded by opening night snappy dressers. I’m told that Israeli Minister of Culture Miri Regev was in attendance, but quite frankly I didn’t recognize her without her Jerusalem dress.
A number of notable journalists were in attendance, as well. Maybe they were hoping for a story similar to the disruption of the recent “Julius Caesar” in Central Park, but all they got instead was a pretty good play.
I say pretty good because this story does, unfortunately, start to fizzle out in the second act. But the beginning is quite extraordinary.
“To The End of the Land” opens in 1967 in a hospital, in which a teenage girl Ora (Efrat Ben Zur) forms a bond with two boys, the gregarious and instantly lovestruck Avram (Dror Keren) and the more stoic Ilan (Amnon Wolf). The three survive their illnesses and injuries, and continue writing letters, creating an unusual love triangle. (They are all extremely open with their feelings.) Things continue through to the Yom Kippur War and then there is a jump in time to 2002.
With just some minor changes in wardrobe our characters are all older now, and, in time, we begin to put together what’s happened in the interim. Ora has recently split up with Ilan, to whom she has been married. They’ve raised two children, but the younger of the two, Ofer (Daniel Sabbag) is actually Avram’s biological son. Avram, however, is not the man he used to be, due to a trauma he suffered back in 1973.
Ora, on the other hand, is at wit’s end, it being the end of Ofer’s service in the IDF. It’s as if she had just enough worry in her to get her through the mandated three years, but then he volunteers to reenlist during a nationwide call-up. She had planned a mother-and-son vacation around the Galilee, but after she and her Arab driver drop Ofer off with all the other conscripts (“the annual clearance sale,” she darkly calls it) she decides to take the trip by herself. And that’s when Avram, whom she hasn’t spoken to in years, calls her.
Even though Avram has been removed from the family, he’s been counting down the days to Ofer’s discharge. Clearly he isn’t over his own experiences, and the play’s second act hits rewind to investigate what exactly happened with him and Ilan.
It isn’t as juicy as you might think. In fact, it’s somewhat meandering, and Hanan Snir’s primary crutch to maintain some sort of story momentum is to literally keep the characters running in circles on the stage. (No one in this production needs to worry about getting their steps in.)
Prior to this point the rather simple set (a few chairs, wheeled in beds, animal-print rugs when needed) works well as “just enough” to keep the focus on the words and the performances. In a clever move, a scene change comes when the Greek chorus of musicians who hang around the edges in khakis and undershirts draw on the white walls to create a naturalistic background setting. A recurring motif of soldiers carrying front doors (through which they can walk and deliver bad news) represents Ora’s omnipresent motherly worry.
There’s just enough that’s crafty (a sound effects creator visible on stage) to distract from the storytelling misfires. This comes so close to being a great piece about the struggles of the homefront. (Grossman famously lost his own son to combat in the Second Lebanon War in 2006 as he was finishing the novel.)
An explosive monologue in which Ora condemns every Israeli and Palestinian politician in their shared history was the only moment that roused the audience into applause. This clarity of purpose is unfortunately clouded by additional storylines that are considerably less interesting and ultimately unfulfilling. I suspect that Snir just didn’t want to cut so many great moments from the book, and somewhat lost sight of what was working in his own play.
The myriad of police wandering the lobby during intermission were probably confused by the assignment, as no one made a peep. And I could not help but notice that the college-aged girl who took my ticket and handed me a program wore a hijab and an enormous, welcoming smile.
Despite a few minor dissatisfactions in the second half, it was still a lovely night out at the theater in New York.