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Review: In Two Israeli Plays, the Promise of Peace Keeps Receding

As the rally ends, Leah Rabin sees the head of security and says, “Thank God, nothing has happened.”

“For the moment,” he replies. Then the shots are heard again.

There is drama in the horror of the murder and in the unadorned language, made bare by grief, that Leah Rabin uses to describe it. But these words don’t seem to satisfy Mr. Gitai, who also pops in a scene from “Julius Caesar” (itself a controversial show this summer), part of an Oscar Wilde poem and some lines from Ecclesiastes. In between, a pianist, a violinist and a soprano contribute prayers and Bach preludes. This artiness feels self-congratulatory. Worse, it feels unnecessary. A snippet of Shakespeare and a snatch of Bach don’t elevate Rabin’s death into the pantheon of classical tragedy. With its reversals and with its bitter ironies — not least that, minutes before he was shot, Rabin had congratulated the crowd, saying, “The people truly want peace” — it is a tragedy already.

At least Mr. Gitai doesn’t overstress the parallels between Israel in 1995 and the current American moment. The piece’s themes and resonances — the fragility of concord, the manifest dangers of extremist rhetoric — are blunt enough.

Photo

Foreground from left, Dror Keren, Efrat Ben Zur and Amnon Wolf in “To the End of the Land,” at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College.

Credit
Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

Another real-life tragedy haunts “To the End of the Land,” adapted from Mr. Grossman’s 2008 novel. Mr. Grossman, who attended Monday night’s performance, had nearly finished the book when his younger son, Uri Grossman, was killed on the Lebanon front days before a cease-fire. The play centers on Ora (Efrat Ben Zur), a middle-aged Israeli woman whose son has volunteered to re-enlist in a similar conflict. With her estranged husband (Amnon Wolf) and older son away in South America, Ora sets out to hike to northern Israel in the hope that if she keeps herself out of reach of any official who might notify her of his death, she can somehow protect him. For company, she brings Avram (Dror Keren), a childhood friend and former prisoner of war.

Mr. Grossman’s novel is a work of realism, but it has a hallucinatory quality marked by intensity of feeling and complicated shifts in time. The three main characters meet as 16-year-olds suffering life-threatening fevers in the midst of the Six-Day War, and Hanan Snir’s adaptation feels feverish, too. It has a sanitary, all-white setting, but no ice-bath descriptive prose to cool down the story. The first act is particularly frantic, yet its most striking moments are its quietest, as when the cast — which includes nine other actors in a variety of roles — takes a few minutes to draw the Galilee hills on the walls of the set.

The story will remain somewhat opaque to those who haven’t read the book or at least a summary, especially since the positioning of the supertitles means that non-Hebrew speakers must ignore either the acting or the translation. To leave the theater on Monday was to be caught in a scrum of people trying to explain the plot to one another and only sometimes succeeding. More legible were the emotional complexities of the characters, particularly Ora, who has nearly convinced herself that she can dodge her fate if she just keeps hiking, keep her head if she just goes on talking. In this fight with herself, détente seems unlikely.

The play moves swiftly, if not always deftly, from Ora’s worries for her son to the broader concerns of how to go on living in a place where peace keeps receding. Mr. Grossman and Mr. Snir nest Ora’s struggles in their fraught and pessimistic context, made even a little more fraught, perhaps, by the controversy surrounding the production. On the way to Galilee, for instance, Ora instructs her Arab driver, “Drive to where the land ends.”

“For me, it ended a long time ago,” he says.

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