'Murder of Isaac': The Death of Israel's Conscience

Tzahi Moskovitz, center, portrays one of the patients traumatized by war.
Tzahi Moskovitz, center, portrays one of the patients traumatized by war. (Photos By Richard Anderson -- Center Stage)
By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 11, 2006

BALTIMORE -- Motti Lerner's savage "The Murder of Isaac" takes place in a convalescent ward for Israel's walking wounded, and at times the playwright makes you feel as if the entire country has been committed. Women maimed in suicide bombings, men blinded in the Yom Kippur War, amputees from the 1948 war for independence, soldiers whose personalities fragmented in the '82 incursion into Lebanon: The cast of characters is the shattering embodiment of the limitless bloodshed the nation has had to endure.

For all the heartache catalogued in this fascinating American premiere at Center Stage, though, it is Lerner's scathing denunciation of what he sees as Israel's moral collapse -- how the permanent cycle of violence has coarsened and perverted humane Jewish values -- that makes "The Murder of Isaac" such a powerful and provocative document.

The five-year-old play has yet to be performed in Israel, where Lerner is a citizen. In the artful chaos of Irene Lewis's production here, you see how the playwright's abrasive style -- he seems intent on inflaming everyone -- might come across as self-righteous, even pompous. When buses explode around you, when hostile neighbor states vote terrorists into high office, who has time for hand-wringing, for introspection?

Lerner is tough on a people who've been through a lot. He refuses, however, to view suffering as an excuse. He sneers and mocks, admonishes and sermonizes in the rambling, tongue-lashing, poignant voice of an angry prophet.

More to the visceral point, the play accuses the country of complicity in the 1995 assassination of the visionary, peace-seeking prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was shot by a Jewish extremist at a Tel Aviv peace rally. (Yitzhak is "Isaac" in Hebrew.) In a graphic final scene -- in which two young Israeli men express pitiless contempt for Rabin through a shocking act of grave desecration -- Lerner is telegraphing his own disgust. In the murder of Isaac, he seems to say, Israel's soul took a bullet, too.

His dramatic style is the opposite of reasonable: passionate, strident, one-sided. The depiction of Israeli attitudes toward Arabs, toward faith, toward war, is unsparingly blunt, all conveyed as if Lerner wants to expose every last garment in the nation's dirty laundry. "We've all been gathered here to choose between life and death," Binder, the dramatist's stand-in for Rabin (and fervently brought to life by David Margulies), tells the other patients. Indeed, in "The Murder of Isaac," Lerner issues his own bleak prognosis for the health of his country's conscience.

The work is a flashback of sorts to a 1960s style of theater and, in particular, to Peter Brook's celebrated staging for the Royal Shakespeare Company of "Marat/Sade," a play by Peter Weiss set in a French insane asylum, where inmates stage a reenactment of the assassination of French revolutionary martyr Jean-Paul Marat.

"The Murder of Isaac" unfolds in similar fashion. The institution in this case is an Israeli rehabilitation center for victims of post-traumatic stress disorder. Under the supervision of a volunteer worker (the terrific Mia Dillon), who herself has lost two sons in war, the long-term rehab residents are putting on a play. (The Marquis de Sade was the director in "Marat/Sade.") As Lerner's title suggests, the inmates dramatize the events leading up to Rabin's assassination, and through it all, the damage to their psyches and the extremity of their political differences begin to emerge. The psych ward is as vibrant a platform for political theater as the Knesset.

Lerner sometimes buries us in rhetoric. Much of the play records Binder's efforts to persuade the other "actors" to vote in favor of his plan for peace with the Arabs. The patients respond as much through their scars as through the lines they have been given: They no longer see peace as an option.

This gets a bit talky. The debate in the first act between Binder and a patient, Yuda (Olek Krupa), who assumes the role of the opposition-party leader, becomes agonizingly protracted. (The original production, staged in Germany in 2000, was less allegorical: Binder was called Yitzhak, and Yuda at the time was Benjamin -- an allusion to Binyamin Netanyahu, Rabin's adversary on the right.)

Yet the heavy-handed polemics yield to intensely affecting moments, when the tragic weight of the patients' experiences takes hold of the play-within-a-play. Some of the best moments, in fact, are expressed through song, with lyrics by Lerner and his translator, Anthony Berris, set to new music for this production by Eric Svejcar.

"We are the casualties forgotten, thrown away," the patients sing at the outset of their play. "Men from the war of '48/Women from the war of '56." It's hard to listen to their musical catalogue of siege and survival and not feel a sense of communion. There's a disorienting mixture of exhaustion, defiance and resignation in their numbers. Accompanied by a plaintive piano, the songs convey the shared pain of their pasts and the shared burdens of their futures.

Lewis, Center Stage's artistic director, has put the play in the company's industrially stark upstairs space. The set by Christopher Barreca is an immense -- and, aptly, immensely depressing -- linoleum-and-fluorescent common room, the sort that you can imagine being the site of desultory anniversary parties for inmates who have logged long, unproductive years in therapeutic limbo. All through the piece, the patients hang around, watched by uniformed guards. Sometimes they observe the strictures of putting on a play. At others, they fall absentmindedly into more casual discourse directly with us, their Israeli spectators.

Margulies brings a marvelous, anchoring humanity to Binder, the play's fading chorus of one, and Dillon is hauntingly sad as an Israeli mother whose grief is an endlessly renewable resource. Charlotte Cohn offers the striking portrait of a bombing victim given to ghoulish exhibitionism, and Lise Bruneau and Benjamin Pelteson make compelling figures of patients in whom suffering has extinguished everything except fanatical certainty.

In consigning all of Israel to a sanitarium, Lerner has written a messy, angry, bitter pill of a play, one that, admirably, is not at all that easy to swallow.

The Murder of Isaac, by Motti Lerner, translated by Anthony Berris. Directed by Irene Lewis. Costumes, Candice Donnelly; lighting, Mimi Jordan Sherin; sound, David Budries; choreography, Kenneth Lee Roberson; fight consultant, J. Allen Suddeth. With Dan Manning, Chaz Mena, Tzahi Moskovitz, Joe Zaloom, Gordon Joseph Weiss, Jeffrey Ware. About 2 1/2 hours. Through March 12 at Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St., Baltimore. Call 410-332-0033 or visit .

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