Eliam Kraiem’s first play, “Sixteen Wounded,” holds out no hope for any resolution of the endlessly appalling Israel-Palestine conflict. It bleakly suggests that mutual hatreds are far, far too deeply rooted. Unfortunately, Kraiem’s fraught subject — explored through the relationship between a young Arab and an elderly Jew in Amsterdam — has not been handled with sufficient skill. The play and this world premiere production are disjointed, tentative and stilted. And it’s not until the play gets right down to the two central characters’ dreadful moral dilemma about 15 minutes before it ends that it begins to exert any of the power it needs to radiate throughout.
Kraiem’s play revolves around young Mahmude (Omar Metwally) and an elderly Dutch Jewish baker, Hans, played by Martin Landau, who is returning to the stage after many years concentrating on film and television. But their meeting and eventual intimacy is never made credible.
Mahmude is banished by his uncle Saleem (Ed Setrakian) to Amsterdam because he has placed a bomb on a bus that killed a number of Jews and is being sought by the Israelis. While visiting a prostitute in the red-light district, he is beaten and stabbed by two skinheads (he automatically assumes they are Jewish). Good Samaritan Hans gets him to the hospital and offers him a job as an apprentice at his bakery.
The two grow so close that Mahmude, in effect, becomes Hans’ son. He also marries Nora (Mia Barron), the girl who works at the bakery. These events, spanning about three years, are covered in about 20 minutes of stage time via a series of short, disjointed scenes that never come together.
Eventually we learn that Hans is a survivor of Auschwitz, where his parents died, and that Mahmude’s father was murdered by Israelis (parallels between Hans’ and Mahmude’s lives are drawn throughout). It is to Gretta (Gretchen Becker), a German red-light district prostitute Hans has befriended, that he reveals the concentration camp number on his arm. But surely this revelation should be made to Mahmude — not least because Gretta is a superfluous character who actually gets in the way of the play.
Happily married to a pregnant wife (who knows of his bombing history), Mahmude seems to have transcended his past, but it is not so. On the day his daughter is born, his uncle appears at the bakery to remind Mahmude that he’s an Arab and tell him that his mother has died after being tortured by Israelis to reveal her son’s whereabouts. His uncle orders Mahmude to bomb an Amsterdam synagogue and leave his wife and child. When Hans learns of this, a confrontation leads to a literally explosive ending (a weak one, unfortunately).
The tentativeness of the opening-night performances, including that of Landau, suggested that the production wasn’t ready for viewing, perhaps because of continuing rewrites during rehearsals. Director Matt August and his cast, with the possible exception of Metwally’s angry young man Mahmude, missed the mark scene after scene, so that for most of its nearly two hours the production plodded.
Because his subject matter is so serious, even incendiary, it’s now up to Kraiem to try to pull his play together. Another director might serve the script more fully.
The play, which won the Fourth Freedom Playwriting Award in 1996, obviously hasn’t benefited enough from workshops at Sundance and the Cherry Lane Alternative’s Mentor Project. It still needs considerable re-working to live up to its potential.