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Theatre in Review: Diaspora (Red Moon Theatre Company/The Gym at Judson)

Joe Tapper. Photo: Mati Gelman

Nathaniel Sam Shapiro lists several quotes in the program notes for his new play, including this one from the writer Joshua Cohen: "In America, now more than ever, I'm convinced that we Jews have to hold our family conversations out in the open; we have to say the private things that might publicly shame, the narrow things that might widely offend..." Fasten your seatbelts: Shapiro has certainly taken these words to heart. Diaspora has something to offend everyone, so long as they are Jewish -- and quite a few things for the rest of us, too. Less a play than an antiphonal piece for voices from two different millennia, Disapora dispenses any number of scalding opinions. Despite a superabundance of snark, the play is a cry from the heart: Shapiro savagely examines several received ideas about Jewishness, rejecting them all while plainly yearning for something to hang on to.

Whether the conflict raging in the playwright's head makes it to the stage in a satisfying way is another question. The play's minor strand is set at Masada in the year 73; the siege of the Jews in their mountain redoubt by the Roman army has often been portrayed as a heroic last stand. This isn't the whole story, however; in keeping with more contemporary scholarship, Shapiro's characters are members of the Sicarii, a group of zealots led by the charismatic and manipulative Eleazar ben Ya'ir, and if the whole setup looks like a cult, well, that's intentional. As Achinoam, one of Eleazar's female followers, notes, "When Herod died our people turned to the Romans, the powerful goyim that today rule the world," adding that, as a result, "the land we were promised burns. The temple in Jerusalem has been ransacked...None of us can hide from God, nor the Romans." There is danger closer to home, however; even as she speaks, Eleazar is busy weeding out traitors in their midst, insisting on religious purity and planning for what will become an act of mass suicide.

The lion's share of the script is devoted to a group of American college students on a heritage tour of Israel sponsored by Birthright, an organization devoted to cultivating Jewish identity. As more than one of the young tourists acidly note, the Birthright ideal would be for each of them to find an Israeli spouse and settle down somewhere on the West Bank. Fat chance with this bunch of airheads, who see the experience as a golden opportunity to get wasted and hook up. As for a sense of history, listen to Olivia, who, speaking of her grandfather, says, "Like, back in the war he was one of the only Jewish soldiers there when they freed the camps. And in Auschwitz, the weeds that grew there were kale. So he never --like, never -- will try any of my green juice. He hates it. Like, for him it just means Jews starving to death, but for me it's like I just finished a Pilates class."

And there's Jocey, who, having visited Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum, says, "I don't know if, like, your grandma died in the Holocaust or whatever, but, like, seeing those pictures, no offense, but the dead bodies were, like, not even human. Like, I know those were real people, no offense, but I kinda didn't -- honestly, it didn't even look real. They all had amazing thigh gaps. Totally unrealistic. But you can't even tell if it's a man or a woman or whatever; like, it's just dead-Jew-in-the-Holocaust."

Jocey isn't as brazen as Hannah, who regrets not copulating with the boy of her dreams at Yad Vashem. Defending herself to a nonplussed friend, she says, "I don't know, I was kind of turned on in there. It was really sad, but kind of in an intimate way where I was, like, 'Oh no, we're all going to die! Fuck me!' Plus, Jeremy's, like, great grandsomething died in the camps, so I think it would be like -- if you think about it -- like two young Jews at Yad Vashem, like, celebrating our bodies."

Mostly, Diaspora is content to jump back and forth between the embattled Sicarii -- focusing on their internecine struggles as the Romans close in -- and these American heritage trippers and their inch-deep souls. Shapiro certainly has an ear for the way the latter speak, their mangled syntax and low threshold for boredom. Other colorfully drawn characters include Brett, the leader of the tour group, with his endless stream of happy talk and frequent invitations to share, and Or and Lior, two Israeli soldiers assigned as guards, both of them unimpressed with Birthright's mistily inspirational mission. "You are Jewish, but we are Israeli," Or tells Brett when they arrive at Masada. Brett, disappointed, asks, "But all the time you've been here, you guys never felt connected?" "Sometimes the closer you are, the less you care," Or replies. As for US-Israeli relations: When Rachel, another student, brings up the Palestinians, Lior growls, "Don't feel so superior, Uncle Sam. The only reason you're not settlers is that you killed all of your Palestinians. Smallpox and guns and alcohol and reservations. If you treated yours like we did ours, I'd probably be wearing a 'Justice for Arizona' T-shirt."

Diaspora molds all of these dissonant voices into a kind of diptych of despair: One set of characters is trapped by history, the others can't be bothered to remember it. In one sequence, Shapiro intertwines speeches by Brett and Eleazar, each of whom is selling his own form of forced uplift, preaching a gospel of resistance that has nothing to do with reality. Even as the Romans surround Masada, and the Sicarii women and children (none of whom had a say in their fate) hide out in the cistern, the Birthright kids are caught in a rocket attack and take refuge in the same location. History is a loop, which, ultimately, seems to end in a noose around one's neck.

But if Shapiro's ear for dialogue is lethally accurate in the contemporary scenes, he sometimes struggles with the historical aspect, planting jarringly dumb exchanges like the following: "What was the Temple like?" "It was nice. Big fancy lobby. Chariot-accessible. Really good food court." And nothing happens in either time frame: Eleazar and his followers kill time squabbling, while the Birthright kids -- who could populate a series titled The Real World: Israel -- while away the hours complaining, gossiping, and getting into catfights. This is satire without humor, and the young people quickly become grating, especially since the playwright lets them go on at such length. Diaspora is overloaded with attitude and starving for some meaningful action.

Still, the gifted director Saheem Ali provides a confident staging that makes this querulous, discursive piece easier to take, beginning with the opening tableau, featuring everyone sprawled around the stage, looking at their devices and murmuring, and ending with the terror-filled finale, in which the sound of falling rockets segues into Miley Cyrus singing "Wrecking Ball" (courtesy of Miles Polaski's highly effective sound design). The cast is filled with striking new faces: As Olivia, Connie Castanzo manages a lengthy monologue -- a mind-numbing cascade of adolescent trivia -- with considerable verve; it's a challenge that might humble a more experienced actress. Also making an impression are Quinn Franzen, who doubles as Cameron, who is pure adolescent bro, and as the tour's blasé Azerbijani bus driver; Maggie Metnick as Rachel, who alone among the kids has an ounce of political consciousness; RJ Vaillancourt as Brett, a smooth talker and fountain of welcome-to-the-homeland clichés; and Joe Tapper, creepy and earnest as Eleazar.

Ali has also gotten a sleek and inventive production design from his creative team. Maruti Evans' extra-wide set -- it spans the length of the theatre -- has video panels built into the headers, overhead rig, and upstage wall; Caite Hevner's projections help us keep track of the changing time frames, in addition to helpfully identifying the characters. Eric Southern's lighting also provides different looks for each era, in addition to carving out a variety of playing areas. Oana Botez's costumes, working mostly with denim and military uniforms, are highly observant about the way the characters choose to present themselves.

It's easy to admire Diaspora's desire to strip away every layer of cant that has accrued to one of the world's most controversial and contested places, but Shapiro works so hard at it that he eliminates any possibility for drama. We learn all we need to know about his characters pretty much right away; after that, there's little to do but listen to them repeat themselves. For all its ferocity, the play ends up being as dry as the desert that surrounds Masada. -- David Barbour


(30 November 2017)

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