It's hard for me to review Suddenly Hope, currently playing at the New Denver Civic Theatre. On the evening I attended, the auditorium was filled with people who looked and sounded like my New York aunts and uncles or my cousins from Israel. Also, the musical celebrates a concept of Zionism that I held dear in my teens and twenties, when I saw Israel as the last refuge for my battered and decimated family, dated idealistic young Zionists and went door-to-door collecting money for trees to help "make the desert bloom."
So there's something I love about the spirit of this musical, the affirmation of compassionate Jewishness, the genuine yearning for peace and mutual respect between Jewish Israelis and Palestinians. Unfortunately, the plot is naive and simplistic, and the current situation in the Middle East is so corrosive that the Disneyish sentimentality of Suddenly Hope seems blind.
The play's central character, Hope, is a would-be actress. As the play begins, she's having what Judith Viorst would call a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day. She loses out at an audition, is fired from her job, discovers her boyfriend is cheating and learns that her sister Amy, who lives in Israel, has gone missing. As she deploys her "solid support system" -- a fudge brownie and a creamy, fattening coffee drink -- we're in familiar territory, enjoying the kvetchy self-deprecating Jewish humor we know from dozens of films and comic novels.
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Things get a bit more serious when Hope arrives in Israel to find Amy. She meets David, a young army officer at the airport, and falls in love -- uneasily, because the two of them live worlds apart. She attends Sabbath dinner and a wedding, and she discovers that her cousins are unembittered and joyfully life-affirming, despite the constant violence and threat of violence they endure. They love food. They dance. Charmingly, ruefully, they carry on. As in Fiddler on the Roof, a wedding is disrupted by terror, and the jarring juxtaposition of life and death is intended to be instructive. Some remarkably silly plot shenanigans ensue. There are plans for a peace dinner where Jews and Arabs will break bread together and to which, according to one character, "all Palestinian factions have accepted invitations."; Right. The vanished Amy is apparently in love with a Palestinian militant, but she is in fact working for Israeli intelligence. And finally, Hope is required to foil an attempt to bomb the Knesset.
Suddenly Hope flattens and oversimplifies both the Jewish and the Palestinian realities. For example, the script ignores all differences, animosities and complexities among Israeli Jews. Everyone here is warm, humorous and gently -- but never fanatically -- religiously observant. To do them justice, writers Gary Bonasorte, Laurence Holzman and Felicia Needleman have attempted to bring some understanding to the Palestinian cause. It's represented by two figures. Professor Alfandi is brilliant and urbane and wants to combat Arab extremism. His son, Ahmed, is a bomb-throwing terrorist, but it was the murder of his sister by a Jewish extremist that sparked his rage.
In these heated and unreasoning times, this level of empathy for the Palestinian cause feels creditable and kindhearted, yet it mirrors the kind of arrogant innocence that fostered much of the horror we see in the Middle East today. The early Zionists either ignored the Arab presence altogether, terming the territory "a land without people for the people without a land," or advocated an Iron Wall of repression. The noblest of the Zionists believed that Palestinians would welcome the civilizing Jewish presence, and it's this kind of dangerous self-satisfaction that I sense in the virtuous characters of Suddenly Hope.
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Hope herself, after all, can travel freely to Israel in search of self-actualization and a more authentic life, even though she has never visited the country before. Thousands of displaced Palestinians, however, cannot visit the places where they were born or see the relatives still living there.
Even Jewish suffering gets short shrift in Suddenly Hope. I get the point about the quiet heroism of people who continue to eat, fall in love and bear children when their lives are threatened by random violence, but the reaction to the bomb that interrupts the wedding is so casual that it feels almost dissociated. There's nothing here about fear and weeping, blood and splintered bone. It goes without saying that the demolished homes and uprooted olive trees of the Palestinians, the Israeli rockets fired into densely populated areas, aren't even on this play's radar.
There are some wonderful voices in the cast, however, and all of the performances are clean and professional. Hal Davis brings an impressive presence and a fine melodic voice to the role of Professor Alfandi, and George Dvorsky also sings and acts well as David. Jill Abramovitz is an appealingly and goofily unconventional Hope at first, but her repertoire of expression and gesture is limited, and her voice, though strong, struck me as too bright and hard-edged. Erin Maguire is a calmly convincing Leah.
The sets are minimal, and the costumes look like something unearthed from a thrift-store barrel. I loved some of the music, though; the wedding song and the prayer at the wall left me damp-eyed. Despite my reservations, the gentle-heartedness of this entire enterprise moved me deeply. It evokes a Zionism that, at least in intention, was far more humanistic than the bullying self-righteous rage that shapes Israeli politics today. Take away the dumb plot, keep the music and the spirit, and you have a prayer for peace -- and there can't be too many of those.