nytheatre.com review by Jeffrey Lewonczyk
October 19, 2005
Hanoch Levin (1943-1999) is one of those international playwrights whose work is of paramount importance in his home country, while remaining virtually unknown in the United States. In a sense this is surprising, since Levin hails from the fraught nation of Israel, with which America is so closely associated throughout the world. A Google search reveals that he was incredibly prolific, and his work spanned a multitude of genres and styles. His discovery by a wider audience in this country seems overdue, but unfortunately, the Personal Space Theatrics production of his play Murder is probably not the best place to start.
Maybe it’s not entirely negative to say that Murder is alternately repulsive and boring—since that’s just what actual life on the civilian frontlines of a seemingly endless war must be like. As written, the play takes place in an unnamed country enmeshed in a struggle not at all dissimilar from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and consists of three violent scenes—each of which contains, yes, a murder—plus a coda. In the first scene, soldiers kill a teenager they’ve been interrogating, and are then confronted by the youth’s bereaved father. In the second scene, the father appears at a wedding on the seashore, where he seeks revenge for his son’s death. The third scene finds a drunk laborer attacked by prostitutes and suburban homeowners who believe him responsible for the carnage at the beach. Are all of these situations as open-and-shut as they seem?
That the laborer is played by the same actor (Jerry Zellers) who played the father only raises more questions. There’s an interesting—and, I believe, intentional—bit of theatricality here involving the time-honored stage practice of double-casting: the circumstances of each scene force you to question whether the actor is playing the same character he or she was playing in the previous scene.
Unfortunately, this is where the allure ends. Almost everything compelling about the production begins and ends with the tricky structure of Levin’s script, which has been adapted by director Michael Weiselberg (from a translation by Kurt Beals and Liel Golan). By contrast, the dialogue as it appears here is almost a blunt weapon in itself, studded with such chestnuts as “He was just like you! He had dreams!” and other habiliments of stage grief. There is a maudlin use of child actors, and a denouement which should be shattering, at least in melodramatic terms, but which feels tacked-on and artificial instead. Whether this hokum is part of Levin’s intention—an exposure of the banality that accompanies death—or a clumsiness in translation is not made readily apparent by the production surrounding it.
The actors all approach their roles with an unremitting seriousness of purpose, which, rather than energizing the action, has the perverse effect of draining away its humanity. This overall sense of high moral principle paradoxically causes the performance to feel both toothless and distasteful at the same time. If the motive for presenting onstage simulated murders and rapes is to shake a potentially complacent audience into challenging realizations, they need to be fiercely committed. Instead, the director and cast approach the material with such constrained, self-satisfied respect that we’re not shocked, just made skeptically queasy as we wonder what it’s all about.
I will admit that many of these shortcomings arise from the necessity of working with an off-off-Broadway budget. The first-floor space at P.S. 122 is small, and at such close quarters—with the stage bisecting an audience that sits right next to the action at either side—the fight choreography appears ginger and reticent. The upshot is that the murders never feel like murder, just acting. This is something that might have been overcome by a professional, well-conceived use of blood or a few more weeks of rehearsal—both luxuries that small companies rarely have the resources to indulge.
Personal Space Theatrics is trying something ambitious with Murder, and for that I salute them. But in the end, they’ve distilled what might have been a more complex statement on the part of Levin to the simple platitude that “violence is bad”—and even then they merely underline this blunt statement without deeply imagining what it means onstage. Murder may be a fascinating play, but the fact that I’m saying “may” rather than “is” doesn’t speak well for the production.