To Pay the Price
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
May 27, 2009
I have to admit that I had never heard of Yoni (Yonaton) Netanyahu until I saw Peter-Adrian Cohen's new play To Pay the Price at the Festival of Jewish Theatre and Ideas. He is, though, a significant cultural hero in Israel (see this Wikipedia article), and Cohen's play explains not only what he did but why he's singularly iconic in his homeland.
Some basic facts about Yoni, as presented and explored in this docudrama: He was born in the United States, and spent his childhood shuttling back and forth between there and Israel (his father was an early settler of the Jewish state and also a prominent history professor at Cornell University). Yoni became a career military man, serving in the Six Day War, the Yom Kippur War, and then in the famous raid on Entebbe in 1976, in which a group of Jewish hostages, whose plane had been hijacked by terrorists, were rescued by Israeli commandos. Yoni was the only Israeli casualty of that operation.
Yoni's life is narrated and depicted non-linearly by four characters, who mostly sit on stools or stand and speak directly to the audience. Shlomo and Amir are two of the soldiers under Yoni's command during the Entebbe raid, and their explanations of their generation of Israelis' militant ethos—and their exciting re-enactment of the raid itself, rivetingly written by Cohen and directed by Robert Kalfin—are the highpoints of the play. Bruria is Yoni's girlfriend, and Cohen gives her the least interesting material, trying to probe a man who we understand practically from the get-go to be an enigma. Eytan is a fictional character, a composite of many of Yoni's colleagues and associates.
The fifth character in the play is Yoni himself, who speaks in excerpts from his letters or the remembered words of friends and acquaintances interviewed by Cohen. This view of Yoni offers marked counterpoint to the perspectives provided by the play's other voices, and makes To Pay the Price a fascinating study not just of one man struggling to reconcile rigorous morality with equally rigorous patriotism, but of an entire nation struggling to do the same. To Pay the Price is neither jingoistically pro-Israel or righteously anti-war but pragmatically somewhere in the gray areas between. Its contribution is to challenge audiences to consider the authentically unique circumstances of Israel with balance and compassion.
Kalfin's production, mounted for North Carolina's Theater Or, is less engaging than I would have wished: his heavy use of sound cues and music, in particular, feels reductive, as if this play were an episode of Law & Order rather than an intimate and abstract work of live theatre. Three of the actors—Roger Clark as Yoni, Frank Anderson as Eytan, and George Kareman as Shlomo—offer particularly strong performances.
The real strength of the piece, though, is the man whose story it tells. Countries choose their heroes carefully, and what the life and death of Yoni Netanyahu says to us about Israel is compelling indeed.