Love-Hate Relationship

Susan Pourfar and John Hutton in Dirty Story.
Terry Shapiro

Would I have preferred not to know that John Patrick Shanley's Dirty Story was an allegory about the struggle between Israel and Palestine when I sat down to view it? If I hadn't known, the last line of the first act would have been a complete shock. Up until that moment, I would have seen an urbane treatise on writing and the function of narrative, as an eager young graduate student interrogates an older writer she admires -- one of those writers who has had a brilliant career but done nothing worthwhile in years -- about his opinion of her novel. And I'd have been astonished as that interrogation morphed into a sadomasochistic sexual relationship. Very early on, Brutus, the older writer, tells the student her work is worthless and that he agreed to meet with her only because he was intrigued by one word she used in her cover letter: damsel. A nineteenth-century kind of word, almost always followed by "in distress."

Later, despite Brutus's taunts, the young woman, Wanda, comes to his apartment in Manhattan's meatpacking district. Everything there is on wheels for easy transportability. She tells him she has never been able to settle down anywhere, because her roommates always dislike her, and she dreams of having a permanent home. Wanda was married once, and she sacrificed her own desires and needs for those of her husband. "I have boundary issues," she explains.

Brutus mocks, coaches and advises Wanda. He tricks her into donning a blond curly wig and a white dress so she'll look like Pearl White in The Perils of Pauline. Finally he pounces, tying her up, threatening her with a chainsaw. He has already told her that there are no heroes in contemporary stories, only villains and victims.

But, by George, he's wrong. All of a sudden, a great lolloping cowboy tromps on stage to rescue Wanda. Once freed, she accepts the cowboy's gun and then tells him to get lost. "Call me Israel," she says, pointing the gun at Brutus's head.

From now on, Brutus and Wanda will struggle for control, each asserting a historic claim to the apartment.

But I did know that Brutus represented Palestine and Wanda Israel, so rather than immerse myself in the events unfolding on stage, I examined each line for a secondary meaning, tried to recall the historical facts, pondered whether I was interpreting those facts in the same way as the playwright. Was Shanley implying that Brutus/Palestine was a bum who had done nothing worthwhile in decades, or was that the perspective of Wanda/Israel? Perhaps the play was arguing that the Arab states have lost their way but that colonial intervention is primarily to blame.

Oh, yes, I thought, as Brutus and Wanda argued in the park and a nearby Englishman walked away muttering, "Melodrama...? Not on my watch," England did attempt to mediate, making contradictory promises to the Arabs and the Zionists and leaving the scene after creating a monstrous mess. I watched as Wanda lugged a huge palm tree around the stage, remembering the boast of the Israelis that they had made the desert bloom.

When Brutus expostulated, "All problems aren't solved by negotiating with yourself.... Men aren't dreams that women have," I thought of how the early Zionists had negotiated with the world powers, ignoring the Arab population inhabiting the land they coveted. I went on to wonder why Shanley saw Israel as female and Palestine as male. Perhaps because -- as we find out later in the play -- the United States persists in defining Israel as a damsel in distress (an image that gets really funny if you juxtapose it with one of the hulking, ever-scowling Ariel Sharon).

Playing with these extrapolations was exhilarating -- and it must be said that Shanley seems to be an equal-opportunity mocker -- but it also distracted.

In the second act, the plot becomes broadly and hilariously cartoonish. The cowboy, Frank, played by Mike Hartman as an amalgam of Charlton Heston and George W. Bush, finds his attempts at mediation hobbled by his self-infatuation and historical blindness, as well as his slithery lust for Wanda. He also has a conflict of interest -- his passionate need and desire for a gourmet olive oil produced only by Brutus's wealthy family. Tony Blair is represented by a bartender in short pants called Watson, who alternately sucks up to Frank and attempts to set him straight, and whose remonstrances seem motivated more by a half-suppressed anti-Semitism than by any concern for justice. (And again I wondered, is this how Shanley really sees England's role, or is he channeling Israeli complaints? It's well-known that the Bush administration's single -- if halfhearted -- attempt at promoting peace, the road map, was part of the price Blair exacted for England's participation in the attack on Iraq.)

Meanwhile, Wanda has pretty much taken over the apartment, squishing Brutus and his belongings against the wall. In fact, she forces him to undergo a rectal search before she'll allow him to visit the bathroom.

Dirty Story begins with the stories Israelis and Palestinians tell themselves about who they are and their place in the world, as well as the stories they invent about each other; it ends up with devils cavorting on the stage and Wanda and Brutus exchanging blows, unable either to disengage or to come to peace. There's no possible response but a howl of horrified laughter. "You can call me Caesar, Brutus," says cowboy Frank, giving us a hint about the instability of the empire.

Under the skillful direction of Anthony Powell, Dirty Story is wonderfully acted. John Hutton gives us a fascinating and morally equivocal Brutus. Susan Pourfar's Wanda begins as an open-faced American coed and transforms into a blindly militant and triumphal Israeli soldier. Mike Hartman is uproariously funny as Frank, and Randy Moore comes up with just the right blend of arrogance and obsequiousness as Watson -- though his accent is a little shaky.

I asked Aref Nammari, a Palestinian friend, to see the play with me, and we discussed it afterward. I wondered if the central metaphor was apt, if the enmity between Palestinians and Jews could really be captured in the image of sexual obsession. I said it seemed to me that people on both sides would rather till their own gardens in peace than fight this endless, ugly, terrifying war.

Aref pointed out that the lives of the two peoples have been intertwined for centuries. They lived more or less peacefully together until the creation of the State of Israel. Even after that, despite their enmity, they depended on each other: "Israel needed the labor force; Palestinians needed the work."

Zionism brought nineteenth-century concepts of nationalism to the Middle East, and as a result, nationalistic feelings began to spread among the Arabs. "Both nationalisms developed in opposition to each other," Aref said. "Both needed the conflict in order to develop and crystallize. In a sense, Israelis and Arabs define themselves through conflict."

I am a Jew who lost almost all my relatives to Hitler's concentration camps and who has never lived in Israel; nonetheless, I feel deeply that I owe my existence, and the continued existence of my people, to that land. Dirty Story is a hot, angry, wicked, funny play that keeps both your intellect and your emotions on the boil, and it spoke to me. It also spoke to Aref, prevented by the Israelis from visiting his family and who sometimes sits alone and tries to remember the streets of Jerusalem where he grew up.

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