Hans, a real stickler when it comes to baking bread, may insist that the water for his dough always be exactly thirty-seven degrees, but Eliam Kraiem’s tremendous new play at the Long Wharf Theatre, “Sixteen Wounded,” succeeds precisely because it changes temperature.
Hans’ bakery is a warm and inviting home, built of bright tile and aging wood, insulated from floor to ceiling with freshly baked goods, flour sacks and a healthy dose of compassion. The gray streets of Amsterdam, visible through the shop’s glass door and display window, are cold and foreboding. Emotions boil late at night when Hans (Martin Landau), a Jew, and his young Palestinian apprentice, Mahmude (Omar Metwally), quarrel about religion, love and the war in Palestine. And nothing could be more chilling than the echoed refrain, “everyone hates,” as the theater literally shakes in the wake of unthinkable horrors.
Set on the periphery of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the early 1990s, Kraiem’s play, directed by Matt August, never sits still as its pursues themes of war and reconciliation on the micro level. It lurches through time, sidesteps into comedy and romance and races to a climactic — and wrenchingly beautiful — final confrontation between Hans and Mahmude. Kraiem varies the speed, heat and point of view in the drama to create a dynamic portrait of an impossible friendship.
Like the art of baking, this play requires patience. Jagged pacing early delays the point of entry into the show, but when Hans and Mahmude hit their argument toward the end of the play, you feel as if you’ve been with them the whole time, their whole lives. Their pain is ours, their desperation ours. And their convictions about how to conduct life are so much stronger and simpler than ours seem to be.
Usually when the theater engages explosive social issues, it doesn’t provide particularly useful solutions to the problems it presents. “Sixteen Wounded” is no exception. On terrorism, Hans states rather weakly, “There are better ways to be heard.” But Mahmude, easily 40 years Hans’ junior, scoffs at the idealistic suggestion. No one can win a war with “rocks and ideology,” he says. So much for a quick fix for the Middle East.
The playwright’s burden, however, is not to cure society’s ailments but rather to show us, if fleetingly, how outrageous our behavior can be, in an attempt to nudge us toward a better future. Kraiem constructs a world of hope, where prejudices are reassessed on an individual basis and cast aside. What makes his play so remarkable is that, by the end, the blind, nonsensical hatred — even violence — seems to make so much sense.
That’s not to say that Kraiem advocates death, destruction and religious persecution. On the contrary, he convincingly suggests that violence obfuscates underlying problems. But Kraiem looks at the situation from both sides. The trouble, we realize, is both the Israelis and the Palestinians see themselves as victims of “unprovoked” wrongs (“When Palestinians kill, they’re called terrorists. When Israelis kill, they’re called soldiers,” Mahmude points out.) When both sides justify their violence on moral grounds, who’s to say which fight is more warranted? More to the point, who could possibly be the first to surrender?
To further complicate the issue, hatred is a derivative of deep love; generosity is born of selfishness; and aggression stems from fear. When Hans first meets Mahmude, lying beaten and bloody on the street, does he take Mahmude to the hospital out of a kindness for strangers (or, as he later asserts, to pay off an old debt) — or does he just need a friend?
To tango with these contradictions, the Long Wharf has called on Martin Landau to extend, in a way, his film performances in Woody Allen’s “Crimes and Misdemeanors” and Tim Burton’s “Ed Wood” as an aged man, so knowing and so lost, desperately seeking an identity that fits. Landau’s shoulders have rounded slightly after 72 years, and he walks — by choice — tiredly with his feet angled out and hands shoved deep into his trench coat pockets. He exudes an attitude of, if not resignation, having seen it all, and thus his emotion is immediate and uncensored. Yet behind his crooked lips and wild eyes, underneath his scraggly white hair that sprays up in the back, he still harbors a terrific energy that surfaces as rage, utter frustration and, sometimes, childlike glee.
Omar Metwally as Mahmude is every inch his elder’s equal. Passionate and stern, Mahmude experiences a similar journey of self-discovery, and Metwally approaches the part with a visible hunger. If there’s one lost soul in Kraiem’s play, it’s Mahmude, but Metwally presents him with perfectly misplaced confidence, as if Mahmude’s sure of every step.
One of the only certainties in “Sixteen Wounded” is that its impact is much more emotional than intellectual — no small achievement for a socially-conscious play. If the show doesn’t leave you pining for the warm embrace of a loved one to shelter you from an icy blaze of terror, it will at least change your gut reaction to a news blurb reporting that a public bus was bombed in Amsterdam, killing 12, and leaving 16 wounded.