Does a polemic equal a play?
That question swirled in my mind as I watched the Theater for the New City/New Yiddish Rep’s production of Mario Diament’s “Land of Fire.” Based on a documentary film by a survivor of a 1978 Palestinian terrorist attack, “Land of Fire” lightly fictionalizes the story of the El Al stewardess who tracks down the man she calls “my terrorist” in the English prison where he is serving his sentence, 23 years after the shooting that wounded her and killed her friend. In the play, she is called Yael (Dagmar Stansova) and he is Hassan (Mihran Shlougian). In short scenes, Hassan explains why he joined the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and what happened to his family during the War of Independence. Yael expresses her loathing of the Israeli government, her desperate hope for some peaceful resolution, and her insistence that they view each other as human beings, not as “us” and “them.”
Neither Hassan nor Yael are fully realized characters. Nor are any of the others in the play — they are mouthpieces for differing opinions about the “situation” or are there to deliver historical exposition — but such viewpoints are so rarely heard in our current discussions about Israel that I wondered if that in itself did not make “Land of Fire” worthwhile viewing.
It’s not a good play, but perhaps it is a necessary one.
Diament was born in Buenos Aires and is one of Latin America’s leading playwrights. He has been awarded the Konex prize, Argentina’s most distinguished award, as one of the five best playwrights of the decade. He knows Israel well, having lived there for five years in the 1960s, and while he is clearly sympathetic to the Israeli left, he is not insensitive to the anger and anxiety felt by Israeli citizens subject to ongoing terrorism. “Land of Fire” premiered in Sweden in 2012 and also was produced in London, Montevideo, Uruguay and Asunción, Paraguay, as well as in Miami, where Diament now lives. It is scheduled to open in Madrid in 2016. This is its New York premiere at the Theater for the New City on First Avenue at 10th Street.
The slim plotline in the play centers on whether Yael will write a letter to the parole board recommending Hassan’s release. That is supposed to explain why she keeps coming back to London to visit him. The actual reason is so Hassan can tell the audience more about the plight of his people. After the Israelis pushed his family out of their Jaffa home and business, he grew up in a squalid refugee camp in Ramallah, regularly humiliated and brutalized. When he joined the Popular Front, he felt he “was no longer a refugee. I was a fighter.” The Jews were his oppressors, his enemy, and the star of David was the equivalent of the swastika for him.
Yael doesn’t respond directly to his accusations. That is left to another character, Geula (Marilyn Lucchi), the mother of the stewardess who was killed. Geula points out that the Arabs in Palestine hated the Jews before 1948, and the War of Independence resulted in the summary expulsion of one million Jews from Arab lands, a lot more than the number of Arabs who fled or were pushed from the new state of Israel. Yael’s father (David Mandelbaum) provides the historical background on the behavior of Israeli troops during the 1948 war.
Moshe Yassur’s direction emphasizes the debate-like quality of the play. The actors barely move; they stay on their sides and talk at each other. That may be the point. Hassan often has his arms defensively crossed over his chest. Yael and her husband Ilan (Scott Zimmerman) have their own communication problems. The standout is Naci Baybura as Walid, Hassan’s lawyer, who delivers the most natural and convincing performance. Even with better actors, the play would have a tough time being more than a performed political argument. But it may be an argument we need to keep having.