by Margaret Croyden
Margaret Croyden is a theater reviewer and essayist for the New York Theatre Wire.
Sixteen Wounded: a Worthwhile Subject
By Eliam Kraiem
Starring Judd Hirsch
The Walter Kerr Theater, West 48th Street.
Opened April 15, 2004
Reviewed April 17, 2004 by Margaret Croyden
First of all let me say that the subject matter of "Sixteen Wounded" is the most important aspect of this production. That this is virtually the only play on Broadway dealing with a contemporary political tragedy--the Israeli-Palestine conflict is, for starters, a play that one must see. Though it is a work with many faults, it is a play that one talks and argues about afterward. In short, it has resonance unlike what we are fed today on Broadway. After "Sixteen Wounded" you want to go out for coffee and discuss it with your companion rather than instantly running for a taxi to forget what is usually an uneventful theatrical evening. That this play was not given the attention it deserved by one of our leading critics is just catering to the already dumbed down public.
Of course there are aspects of the writing that are weak. But let us consider that the playwright, Eliam Kraiem, deals with a subject--The Israeli-Palestine conflict-- that few playwrights have had the nerve to confront. The time is the present; the place is a bakery shop run by Hans, a Jew. Here in the midst of baking bread, a young Palestinian refugee, Mahmound, (Omar Metwally) comes into Hans' life. The baker befriends the man gives him a job, regardless of Mahmoud's expressed hatred for Jews. In the course of their developing friendship, Mahmoud, describes his life in Palestine, the difficulties of his family who have lost their property, the abuses of the Israelis, his virulent hatred of Israelis, and justifies his role as a bomber, responsible for the deaths of Jews. The Jewish baker refuses, until the end, to take sides. "I am a baker," he says, not a Jew," or words to that effect. In the course of the play, the Palestinian falls in love with a young bakery clerk who is carrying his child, and begins to adjust to life in Amsterdam. It would seem he is on the way to becoming part of this bakery family, even asking the Baker to be god-father to his child, who accommodates him by getting on his knees to recite an Islamic prayer (in Arabic, no less). Everything seems fine until Mahmoud's brother --plainly a radical terrorist-- appears. The brother reminds Mahmoud of his life back home, his responsibility to his family, and to the "cause," and urges him to do his duty, i.e. accept a package (that will contain a bomb and do the obvious with it.) In the end, after much angst, Mahmoud does what is expected of him: 10 dead, including himself, and sixteen wounded.
The dynamics of the play are indeed complicated. At first, the Palestinian is arrogant, swarmy, and easily disliked. As the play proceeds, he warms up to his environment and expresses his position. Which is wildly radical: he admits he is a member of an unnamed terrorist group, and has been a bomber himself, and compares the Israelis to the Nazis. He is not clamoring for peace or understanding, or for diplomatic solutions, or even for understanding the Israeli position: he is fierce, angry, and belligerent. Not very sympathetic. The Jewish Baker on the other hand, is passive, not given to passionate outbursts and, as it turns out, is a self-hating Jew. Though he experienced the Holocaust, and the death of his parents, he has tried to forget the whole thing; he is even reluctant to have a mesouza on his door, the symbol designating a Jewish house. Finally he does get angry when he realizes that he has befriended a man who has, in fact, killed Jews and is prepared to do it again, despite his his sweetheart and their unborn son. In the end, the baker recognizes that he is in fact a Jew and the Palestine realizes he is in fact a Palestinian. A gloomy picture, indeed.
Clearly, the playwright has tried to create multi-layered, conflicted characters who are doubtful about who they are, and what they believe. He wanted also to show that one's ties to the past, to family, and tradition cannot be easily broken, even if one wants to. But his main character is a Diaspora Jew, who essentially is quite different from an Israeli. Which weakens the entire story. It is one thing to have as your protagonist a diaspora Jew living in peace in Amsterdam, and other thing to have a genuine Israeli who every day can be blown up by a terrorist bomb. And this is the crux of the Israeli position which is not strongly expressed or emphasized enough. It would have been vital to hear what an Israeli has to say to a Palestinian, rather than a passive Jew who has lost his identity (though he later gets it back), and cannot confront the obnoxious situation that he finds himself in.
Another weakness is the melodramatic aspect of the plot. Though the writer 's intentions are genuine, the plot is predictable. The minute the Palestinian enters into the life of the Jew, we know that their relationship will grow. The moment Mahmoud sees the attractive clerk in the shop, we know they will fall in love. We also know that by the end, his past will catch up with him, and his life will become impossible-- his decision will tear him apart--literally.
Nevertheless, the drama does hold one's attention, though the actors do have a hard job with the material. Judd Hirsch in the role of the baker, is somewhat pallid. Although he plays an essentially passive individual, he falls into the trap of becoming passive in the performance. Omar Metwally as Mahmoud is not in the least sympathetic--at least in my eyes. As he is played, his personality (and of course his point of view) is unappealing. Waleed F. Zuaiter as the brother seems more authentic; his accent is perfect and, in a small role, he is effective. Martha Plimpton as the young girl who falls in love with Mahmoud tries hard to give life to a cliche enlightened liberal; her quick romance and motherhood is unbelievable. The baker is the most complicated character and is therefore the most interesting. In fact we would have wanted to know more about him. Was he ever married, why did he became a baker, why does he want to marry a prostitute though she is kind and agreeable; does he have siblings, what is his life outside that bakery?
With all that, I still maintain the play raises important questions. I admit I am one of those who runs out of the theater to catch a cab right after the curtain falls. But after seeing this production, my companion and I went to the nearest cafe and sat for two hours discussing the pros and cons of the play. That is the best compliment one can give to "Sixteen Wounded" and I praise the playwright, the producers, the actors, and Judd Hirsch for taking on this play. Would there were more such important subjects to reach Broadway. [Croyden]
Margaret Croyden's most recent book is "Conversations With Peter Brook, 1970-2000" published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
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