The recent Theater J workshop presentation of “The Admission” (which ended April 6) stirred plenty of controversy in the Jewish community, with Israeli playwright Motti Lerner hitting a nerve by questioning Israel’s founding narrative.
On April 30, “The Admission” returned to Washington, D.C., with a limited-run production not affiliated with Theater J. Andy Shallal, owner of the D.C. restaurant chain Busboys & Poets, funded the production, renting out the intimate Mead Theater in Studio Theatre’s 14th and P Street complex for a three-week run, which closes May 18.
Lerner again challenges his audience in discomfiting ways. The story centers on the relationship between Giora, a bright rising business professor, and his father Avigdor, a well-established developer, and their encounters with Azmi, an Israeli-Arab restaurant owner, his father and his sister. A fateful encounter forces an examination of the past, specifically a military operation during Israel’s 1948 War of Independence led by a then young troop commander Avigdor. Were the Jewish fighters guilty of, as the play so bluntly puts it, a “massacre,” or, as Avigdor and long-accepted history of the battle claim, something far less ruthless?
The veracity of Lerner’s argument had already been dissected in many places by the time “The Admission” first opened at Theater J, but the question remains: Is the play dramatically sound?
Israeli director Sinai Peter (“Pangs,” “Accident” and “Return to Haifa”) has kept stage business to a minimum, particularly in this smaller space. The barest basic set — rough-hewn wooden tables and chairs set before a canvas drop — and off-the-rack costumes by designer Frida Shoham speak to the workshop nature of the production. A nice, modest touch — particularly relevant in this second showing — is the stone mock-up of an old Arab-style cluster of houses, representing the disputed events of Tantur, the fictional village outside of Haifa. Composer Habib Shehadeh Hanna adds dramatic subtext with his haunting strains featuring Middle-Eastern instruments.
The actors are blessed with Lerner’s muscular and unrestrained language and, in this bare-bones production, with little to distract from the plot, characters and acting.
On stage, Michael Tolaydo has become a familiar Theater J favorite playing the quintessential overbearing macho Israeli father, Avigdor. Tolaydo, too, has become quite comfortable with the Hebrew-like inflections and rising octaves of answering a question with a question that seems so Jewish, and Israeli. As Ibrahim, Hanna Eady provides an authenticity with his Arabic inflected accent and asides. He adds a measure of poignancy by showing that keeping the past hidden can come back to haunt him and his family.
Lerner has created a trio of strong, engaging female characters. As Samya, the Israeli-Arab Ph.D. student, and love interest to Giora, Nora Achrati (the evening I attended) was understated but not as emotionally complex as Leila Buck, who returns to the role this week. Giora’s fiancee Netta, played by Elizabeth Anne Jernigan, has the most thankless task of being second in her boyfriend’s heart. Jernigan shows both strength and vulnerability along with determination to get what she wants, which ultimately is the boss’ son.
Kimberly Schraf’s Yona, the Israeli mother, seems a little too pulled together, a little too collected and dry for the iconic role. She’s the one who, along with wounded son Giora, represents most viscerally Israel’s war losses: the mother grieving for her son Udi, blown up in a tank incident during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. And yet that level of pain doesn’t surface in expected ways. (Schraf will be replaced by Jennifer Mendenhall this week.)
As Azmi, the Arab restaurateur, this production features Joel Reuben Ganz replacing Pomme Koch. Koch enlivened the role with a level of authenticity that Ganz completely misses. His Azmi seems far too pragmatically American, too easygoing and too nice. He needs a simmer beneath the surface, as Azmi represents the Israeli Arab, who is cowed and knows his place in a society that he didn’t create.
Finally, the play’s moral and intellectual center rests on the shoulders of Giora, and Danny Gavigan has imbued him with intensity and focus that pushes him to seek his measure of truth. Giora, hampered by his own battle wounds, must drag himself around on crutches; Gavigan has the unenviable task of physicalizing a segment of Israel that could be called the walking wounded. He’s nonchalant and doesn’t dwell on his handicap, but it, like the conflicts that have wracked the nation, remains ever present.
There’s much about Lerner’s work that can be read on multiple levels. The greatest disservice, perhaps, was seeing “The Admission” as mere historic revivalism. Instead, each of these characters is deeply and irrevocably connected to the others. “The Admission” was meant to provoke.
“The Admission” is on onstage through May 18 at Studio Theatre’s Mead Theatre, 1501 14th Street, NW, Washington, D.C. Tickets, $25 to $35, are available at theadmission.bpt.me/.