Out in the Negev, an Israeli scientist has discovered the dark side of an industrial miracle. A bustling complex of factories that has brought prosperity to the desert is creating ecological havoc, overburdening local water-treatment plants, which are filling the aquifers with toxic waste.
He has no compunction about making his findings public — even if everyone else in “Boged (Traitor): An Enemy of the People” does. The factory owner, the mayor and, yes, even the guardians of free speech, the TV and print reporters, develop qualms about the ineluctable truths that Tommy Doany (Michael Tolaydo) is eager to present to the city council.
So, as in the similarly titled Ibsen play from which dramatists Boaz Gaon and Nir Erez adapt their story, Doany ascends the halo-encircled gibbet of the whistleblower, to be persecuted and discredited for the crime of political cluelessness — and for speaking the truth.
As this recounting of the plot suggests, “Boged” clings fairly tightly to the hem of its well-known source material. Unfortunately, the piece, produced at Georgetown University’s Gonda Theatre by Theater J, never establishes itself as anything more than a bland knockoff. The wooden staging by director Joseph Megel often serves to underline the lugubrious tendencies in Gaon and Erez’s English dialogue. And no one’s cause is aided by some halting delivery, oscillating accents and the flubbing of several lines, as occurred in the Gonda on Tuesday night.
Theater J has teamed up again with Gaon, whose stage adaptation of the Palestinian novella “Return to Haifa” melted hearts in the company’s theater on 16th Street NW two years ago. (Theater J, temporarily displaced by a film festival at the D.C. Jewish Community Center, took up Georgetown’s offer of shelter for this entry in its Voices From a Changing Middle East Festival.) The earlier play, imported from Tel Aviv’s Cameri Theatre, included a cast of Arab and Jewish actors in the tale of a Palestinian family visiting its home in Haifa, and meeting its Jewish inhabitants, for the first time since Israel’s 1948 War of Independence. In the very sight of these artists sharing scenes, one felt the infiltration of hope.
“Boged” tries to speak to another facet of Israel’s political culture: a kind of voicing of dissent that seeks an outlet in almost every nation on Earth. Like Ibsen’s Dr. Stockmann, “Boged’s” Dr. Doany imagines that his inside access to power — in each play, the scientist’s brother is the mayor — will result in a faster response to the emergency he outlines. “The desert cannot swallow all this waste!” Tolaydo’s Doany declares, with the finality and arrogance of someone who is certain that remedies are at hand.
Predictably enough, Doany is in for a rude surprise. An expensive cleanup is the last thing the city wants, at least now, in middle of an election campaign. He’s viewed not as a hero but as a troublemaker, both by the town’s leading industrialist, Moddy Ekstein (Sarah Marshall, in a rather smug, obvious performance), and by his brother Simon, a wily political strongman of the Israeli south.
As the mayor, Brian Hemmingsen proves physically and temperamentally ideal. In open-necked cotton shirts soaked through with sweat and the modulated tones of a natural soother, Hemmingsen looks and sounds like the kind of person from whom you might expect bear hugs and platitudes.
Megel moves his actors stiffly around Robbie Hayes’s airy set, perched on a wooden floor that splits into jagged pieces; there’s a tentativeness to the proceedings, as if the actors were still getting to know one another — the opposite of what you would imagine in an insular desert town. Costume designer Frank Labovitz, meanwhile, dresses the cast in the suitably utilitarian daywear of modern life.
A didactic strand in Ibsen, whose play was first staged in 1882, grows into an unwieldy thread in Gaon and Erez’s version. The Israeli writers give Doany a speech just before the curtain that chastises the audience in the most hyperbolic terms, explaining to us that unlike him and his family, we, by virtue of our rejection of his warnings about the rising pollution, are no longer clean. Tolaydo struggles so mightily to infuse the lines with passion that at times he seems to lose his place. The moment comes across as the shaky capstone to an evening of enervating argument.
by Boaz Gaon and Nir Erez, based on a play by Henrik Ibsen. Directed by Joseph Megel. Set, Robbie Hayes; lighting, Brian S. Allard; costumes, Frank Labovitz; sound, Veronica J. Lancaster. With Clark Young, Nadia Mahdi, Maboud Ebrahimzadeh, Blair Bowers, Timothy Hayes Lynch, Mark Halpern. About 1 hour 40 minutes. Through Feb. 3 at the Gonda Theatre, Georgetown University. Visit www.theaterj.org or call 800-494-8497.