NEW YORK — “It’s complicated,” goes the refrain in Aaron Davidman’s sharply observed solo show, “Wrestling Jerusalem.” The tangled mess the writer-performer is grappling with in this impassioned, elegantly assembled piece is not one any audience member is likely to be learning about for the first time. The seemingly intractable political divisions that rack Israeli society are a permanent item on international news rundowns, so much so that consumers are primed for the assumption that anything said about Israel is something they’ve heard before.
But as is often the case with oft-told stories, what’s old can seem fresh again, through the skills of a fine storyteller. And that “Wrestling Jerusalem” most certainly has going for it.
Davidman, long a San Francisco-based actor, director and playwright, takes as his model here that virtuoso of solo playmaking, Anna Deavere Smith, to stitch together a fabric of impressions about the Israel he’s experienced, over multiple visits. As in Smith’s landmark piece, “Fires in the Mirror,” about the violence between blacks and Jews that broke out in Crown Heights, Brooklyn in 1991, Davidman assumes the identities of a variety of Middle East characters, Jews and Palestinians alike. If the mosaic created from these anecdotal fragments tends to support a thesis many of us are aware of — it is indeed, a complicated place — the actor’s physically dextrous conjuring of his gallery of Middle East characters gives the show an engaging dynamism all its own.
“Wrestling Jerusalem” was developed at Washington’s Theater J, and was performed in January at the Mosaic Theater Company on H Street NE, as part of that group’s ongoing Voices from a Changing Middle East festival. I finally caught up with it during its current engagement at the 59E59 Theaters, a collection of small spaces that has become an important Manhattan haven for productions imported from around the country, as well as from Britain. I’m glad to have been exposed to the embracing performance style of Davidman, who like Smith is an accomplished mimic, both in voice and gesture. And he infuses his portraiture with the same kind of compassion that Smith displayed in “Fires in the Mirror” and her subsequent piece, “Twilight: Los Angeles,” for all sides in a seemingly insoluble conflict.
Generating empathy, of course, is a central goal of “Wrestling Jerusalem,” directed by Michael John Garces with a light and fluid touch. If Davidman can move an audience ever so gently toward acknowledging the grievances of all involved, then perhaps there is hope for all involved. Attempting to make contact with many strands of the Israeli social fabric, from Jewish intellectuals to Arab homemakers, Davidman ultimately reveals as much about what all these agitated people have in common — a desperate desire for the world to hear them clearly — as about what keeps them perpetually at each other’s throats.
Wrestling Jerusalem, written and performed by Aaron Davidman. Directed by Michael John Garces. Set and costume, Nephelie Andonyadis; lighting, Allen Willner; original music and sound, Bruno Louchouarn; choreography, Stacey Printz. About 90 minutes. Tickets, $35. Through April 17 at 59E59 Theaters, 59 E. 59th St., New York. Visit 59E59.org or call 212-279-4200.