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The Israel-Palestine conflict has spawned furious arguments among friends and families at many a Jewish dinner table — even with guests who agree about almost everything else political. You'll find hardcore Zionists who call the entire area Judea/Samaria and insist that every inch of it belongs to the Jews, others who believe in a two-state solution (though the details never get spelled out), people who insist the ever-metastasizing settlements have already made a Palestinian state impossible, some who say Palestinians must be allowed to return to their homes or be compensated for what they've lost, still others who insist that peace will never come until everyone agrees to put the past aside and move forward. Even language becomes charged. The land is occupied. No, it's disputed. The 26-foot-high concrete construction that edges well into Palestinian territory is a protective separation barrier. Uh-uh. It's a wall dwarfing the one that once divided Berlin and a violation of international law. And the arguments go on. Apartheid. Survival. Oppression. Aggression. Martyrs. Terrorists. Stone-throwing kids. Islamic fanatics.
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In Two Things You Don't Talk About at Dinner, playwright Lisa Loomer has waded into these tumultuous waters. She does it with humor, setting her play at the seder of a Zionist hostess, Myriam, and placing among the guests Sam, a Palestinian and one of Myriam's oldest friends. Sam knows the score. For a long, long time he remains affable and generally silent — as he has in Myriam's presence for many years. But Sam has just returned from a mind-shattering trip to the Middle East, and in the second act he speaks out. And he does more than that. He shows photographs, including one of a Palestinian child killed by an Israeli soldier. Myriam passionately defends Israeli actions. The entire tone changes. This is a tough-minded and courageous work, and enveloping the dispute in a mantle of humor is a reasonable way of bringing people together to both engage them, and have them try to understand each other. Besides, wry humor is as Jewish as arm-waving argument. But while in many ways the jokes work, they sometimes deflect attention from important points.
Two Things isn't only about the Israel-Palestine conflict. It also brings in an array of issues and manages to touch on just about every current national neurosis. Myriam's eclectic guest list includes a bulimic girl; a disenchanted young Buddhist (this muddle-headed kid has a few genuinely wise things to say — he expresses horror at God's killing of the Egyptian first-born); a Japanese-American who converted for the sake of her Jewish-American husband; a nit-picky control freak married to an alcoholic; an evangelical work colleague of Myriam's convinced that her hostess is going to hell. There's wit and insight here, but none of the characters except Sam have much depth; you don't feel any sense of warmth and familiarity among them. And a lot of their dialogue sounds cliched, Hollywoodish or intended only to score a point. Why, for instance, with everything else going on, is there also a maid, Lupe, whose son died in Afghanistan, and who has immigration problems? Subject matter this rich should be explored further or not raised at all. The second act is much stronger than the first, however, and the play builds to a touching and believable ending.
Oddly, the reading that Two Things received at last year's New Play Summit at the Denver Center worked better than this production does. The in-the-round venue is a problem for a play that takes place primarily around a dinner table. I had excellent seats, and I still couldn't see who was saying what half the time. Perhaps to compensate, director Wendy C. Goldberg seems to have directed the cast to amp up their performances to artificial levels. The actress who read Myriam last year had a warmth and believability that made it clear why her guests loved her; Mimi Lieber's version, though, is brittle and unlikeable. Only Nasser Faris, who plays Sam, creates a character with whom you can empathize.
I do like the sense of openness and searching here, however, and the central concept is inspired: What more appropriate to talk about at a seder — that quintessential celebration of a people's escape from slavery into freedom — than religion and politics?
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