nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
October 7, 2005
Though Jonathan Leaf's new play The Caterers seems earnestly to want to air some important positions regarding the troublous state of the Middle East and the world, it ends up going to war with itself, uncertain of whether it's a play of ideas or an action thriller. About halfway through, sensationalism wins out, and at the end of the evening, I felt that while The Caterers would make a terrific screenplay, as an intimate political drama it had lost its way.
The caterers of the title are David and Nina Weintraub, a married couple in their late 30s or early 40s whose vocation (and passion) is screenwriting but whose day job is to prepare and serve food and drink for functions like the one that's about to take place as the play begins—the premiere screening of a big new Hollywood film. The movie in question is written by one Sir Warren Heath, and is about the life of the prophet Mohammed. (The 1977 film Mohammed, Messenger of God is one of the inspirations for The Caterers.)
About 90 minutes before the festivities are set to begin, as David and Nina are making last-minute preparations, a Palestinian gunman bursts into their workroom. He carries two weapons and he quickly makes clear his intentions: he and his colleagues have come to stop the showing of this film that they believe to be blasphemous; while others (unseen) are getting ready to carry out their plan to blow up the building once the film's producers and audience arrive, this terrorist—who goes by the name Mohammed—will hold David and Nina hostage.
Within a few minutes, screenwriter Sir Warren turns up, and joins David and Nina as Mohammed's prisoner.
Nina and, to a lesser extent, David are angry and defiant, and also very worried about what will happen to their young daughter (at home with a sitter) if anything happens to them. Sir Warren is cool, engaging Mohammed in conversation that's intended to disarm him and also to reassure him that indeed the movie is not blasphemous: there are no visual depictions of the prophet, he tells his captor; the film is very respectful of and sympathetic to the Muslim cause. This leads to some discussions about politics, which raise valid (though very general) points about the oppression of the Palestinians, and also to some very ugly manifestations of anti-Semitism, not only from Mohammed, who blindly blames a "Jewish conspiracy" for all of his people's troubles, but also from Sir Warren (notwithstanding the fact that he is married to a Jew, or a "Jewess" as he calls her at one point).
At some point in the story, though, playwright Leaf goes off on a tangent about sexuality, and he gets himself tangled in it for a very long time. Mohammed, it is hinted, is a repressed homosexual (also possibly a virgin). He says he may release Sir Warren in exchange for sex; later he rapes Sir Warren and Nina: it appears, at these moments, that for all his righteous talk about freeing his people, what Mohammed is really interested in accomplishing here is freeing his libido. This turns out to be rather problematic in the context of Leaf's script, which starts to feel like an action movie at this point and never recovers. The second half of The Caterers is filled with fight scenes, brutality, violence, but very little logic. The characters start to behave like characters in a thriller (as opposed to real people), with their actions and reactions designed to build suspense and momentum (as opposed to reflecting realistic human behavior). The situation, which never feels particularly credible (why would Sir Warren wander into the caterers' work area? why is Mohammed trying to hold three hostages all by himself?), veers wildly into unbelievability. The play is always compelling, but its sense of purpose—beyond the vicarious thrill of watching people in a dangerous situation—drains away.
I was left wondering what Leaf intended his audience to get from the piece. Mohammed is presented as a psychological mess and a blind follower of ruthlessly bigoted ideology, so whatever case he is able to make for the Palestinian/Muslim side at the beginning of the play is pretty much voided by his subsequent statements and actions. Sir Warren, for all his calm self-assurance, is revealed to be a racist bigot himself, as well as baldly hypocritical and a coward. Nina, presented as a principled spitfire, nevertheless proves ineffective in articulating an ideological counterargument to fully support her position beyond the idea that her child deserves to have parents. David, locked in a closet for most of the play, is a cipher. Who's the hero here? What side are we supposed to take? I didn't feel that I learned much new about the issues underlying the deep tensions of Middle Eastern politics in The Caterers; the only real conclusion to come away with is that hostage-taking is bad business, which I think most of us already know. Sharper focus in terms of intention and theme would strengthen the play considerably.
The production, mounted by the Immediate Theater Company, is nevertheless very strong. It's well-staged by Jose Zayas, who never lets the tension drop, and features some very realistic fight choreography by Dan Demming. The cast, all of whom manage the intense physical action deftly, consists of Ian Blackman as David, Brian Wallace as Mohammed, Peter Reznikoff as Sir Warren, and the always remarkable Judith Hawking as Nina. Hawking, through sheer force of character, dominates the piece; moments when she screams to be released or when she is being raped by her captor are enormously affecting and excruciating to witness.