- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 12, 2006

Director Irene Lewis’ brash, feral staging of Israeli playwright Motti Lerner’s drama, “The Murder of Isaac,” is daring on many levels. But one of the nerviest moves might be the presence of a working clock onstage.

Your eye is irresistibly drawn to the timepiece, making the two-and-a-half hour work seem even longer.

Some audience members did not return after intermission, which may speak to the provocative nature of the piece, but most likely has more to do with its unwavering high-pitched tone and a script in dire need of tightening and focus.

“The Murder of Isaac” is a ferociously political play that explores religious and xenophobic zealotry, the tyranny of war and peace, and whether we fear God or condemn him, within the confines of a hospital ward in Israel specializing in post-traumatic stress disorders. It is 1998, three years after the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, and the various patients gather in a drab community room to put on a play expressing their feelings about the murder and the dwindling prospects for peace in the Middle East.

Mr. Lerner’s play was too controversial to be produced in his native country, but was staged in 1999 in Germany. Centerstage’s anarchic and mostly well-acted production is the first time “The Murder of Isaac” has been presented in the United States.

While the work introduces American audiences to a vivid, imaginative voice, “The Murder of Isaac,” despite its incendiary political views, is too frenzied and unsteady to make a durable impact. You feel assaulted rather than challenged by the play; its shrillness grinds you down quickly.

This off-putting quality is furthered by musical numbers in the Kurt Weill/Bertolt Brecht vein, with lyrics so obvious the songs verge on parody.

Mr. Lerner professes to be influenced by Peter Weiss’ play “Marat/Sade,” which is set in an asylum. Yet, the motley assortment of mentally disturbed patients also puts you in mind of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” only set in Israel and with no Nurse Ratched.

The patients’ play is part of their therapy, an effort to help them cope with events that landed them in this facility in the first place. The calm patriarch of the ward, Binder (David Margulies), portrays Rabin as a conscience-stricken man of reason, and Mr. Margulies brings quiet strength and ardor to the role, as does Mia Dillon playing both Rabin’s concerned wife and a compassionate hospital volunteer. His opponents are the rabid and fixated assassin Yigal (Benjamin Pelteson) and the resistance leader, Yuda (the thankfully subdued, yet impassioned Olek Krupa).

The rest of the inmates’ behavior tests the audience’s tolerance. A garish musical number by Shulamit (Lise Bruneau), a Jewish woman whose husband and children were murdered by terrorists, is a vulgar, NC-17 version of “Honeybun” from “South Pacific.” Charlotte Cohn has moments of fragile command as an inappropriately sexual patient traumatized after a suicide bombing, but her unmasking of her true self in the second act is so showy you almost have to turn away. In a show marked by extremes, Jeffrey Ware’s manic portrayal of a rabbi is an overblown standout.

Christopher Barecca’s cavernous set is also off-putting, although, in fairness, the Head Theatre space can be daunting. Much of the action is relegated to the far corners, and the constant reconfiguring of hospital beds and gurneys becomes distracting rather than the manifestation of the patients’ hectic imaginations. The inclusion of the Vietnam Memorial, IRA terrorists and victims, and images from the Holocaust on the back wall of the set unnecessarily hammers the point home once again.

“The Murder of Isaac” presents dangerous views about political and religious fanaticism in Israel with a stridency that ultimately estranges the audience. Is a truly involving play about unrest in the Middle East possibly as unattainable as lasting peace?

WHAT: “The Murder of Isaac” by Motti Lerner

WHERE: Centerstage, 700 North Calvert St., Baltimore

WHEN: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, 7:30 p.m. Sundays, 2 p.m. March 1 and 8. Through March 12.

TICKETS: $10 to $60

PHONE: 410/986-4008

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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