“Baking is mostly patience,” according to the flour-dusted fellow at the center of “Sixteen Wounded.” A corollary observation: Sometimes theatergoing is, too. Eliam Kraiem’s drama about the emotional bonds forged between a Jewish Holocaust survivor and a Palestinian exile explores potentially volatile, painfully topical territory. And yet, despite the eventual presence of an explosive device onstage, this “issue” play is not exactly incendiary. Scrupulously directed by Garry Hynes, “Sixteen Wounded” features a subdued Judd Hirsch as the gentle baker who tries to win his fiery young apprentice over to the cause of life. The play is intelligent, honest, admirable in its sensitive yet straightforward exposition of thorny moral questions — but it’s also dangerously low-key, a little creaky and manifestly unlikely to burn up the Broadway box office.
Hirsch’s Hans, who lives above his cozy old-world bakery in Amsterdam, has just bidden goodnight to his paid female companion, the elegantly weary Russian prostitute Sonya (Jan Maxwell), when he receives an unexpected visit from a young stranger. Mahmoud (Omar Metwally) is fleeing violent persecutors — a gang of Jews, he announces. Hans takes this news mildly and offers the rattled, injured kid a refuge.
Somewhat improbably, they soon are embroiled in a friendly game of backgammon and trading opinions on soccer teams. Still more improbably, by dawn Hans has offered Mahmoud a job as his apprentice, despite the youngster’s obvious arrogance, abusive references to Jews and air of secrecy (he bridles when Hans suggests they call the police). Before the bakery has opened for business, Hans is initiating his new employee into the alchemies of baking under the quizzical but affectionate eye of the spunky Nora (Martha Plimpton), who runs the front of the shop.
There are many revelations but few surprises as the play unfolds softly and sedately over the course of a couple of years and a couple of hours.
Mahmoud’s curiosity about Nora quickly turns into something more serious. As he becomes happily engaged in the life of the bakery, the anger that lends a cutting edge to his youthful confidence slowly seems to ebb away. Only occasionally do Nora’s gentle attempts to pry into his history spark the kind of speeches from Mahmoud that signal the play’s brow-furrowing, consciousness-raising undertones: “Do not pretend that talking about our feelings is going to change anything. It will not. It will not give my brother a real school to go to, or put shoes on his feet. It will not bring a doctor to my mother or free my friends from the jails they rot in.”
The play’s overriding but (thank heavens) unforced metaphor derives from baking, naturally. The yeast of human hatred — or love — may be planted in all souls, but both require nurturing in the right environment. Hans and Sonya have let their hearts wither slowly in the absence of an enduring romantic relationship. And away from the poisonous atmosphere of Palestine, Mahmoud’s humanity, brutalized by years of witnessing the indignities (and worse) visited upon his friends and relatives, begins to ferment again.
But when his brother arrives with a dangerous commission, preaching Mahmoud’s responsibility to his oppressed people — and whispering of blackmail — the young man is forced to choose between his new life and his old, between the prerogatives of an age-old antagonism and the demands that new bonds of affection have placed upon him.
This reckoning brings him, naturally, into conflict with his mentor and friend, who has his own secret history. At the play’s climax the two go mano a mano in a debate sprinkled with (somewhat unconvincing) physical violence.
Sadly, the theatrical payoff is, like much else in the play, disappointingly tepid. Hynes and her actors tactfully mask the writing’s potentially stale or sensational ingredients — the dusting of sentimentality, the occasional bouts of pontifical eloquence.
But the meticulously naturalistic production (the theater gradually fills with the smell of bread baking; Francis O’Connor’s set is rich in specific detail), the understated acting and Kraiem’s generally restrained writing combine to minimize both the melodramatic potential (a good thing) and visceral engagement (not such a good thing). Despite Kraiem’s sincere attempts to give all the characters layers of complex emotional history, they come across as less than full-blooded — even the brooding Mahmoud, who is played with eye-catching energy by Metwally, making an impressive Broadway debut.
As a result, it’s easy to watch the dramatic showdown between Hans and Mahmoud with one eye on the clock. You can cluck inwardly at the ugly historical ironies that have brought these two sympathetic souls together only to wrench them so forcefully apart. You can muse anew on the seemingly intractable Middle East conflict, silently mourn the continuing bloodshed or bitterly note how it has come to spread violence and hatred across the globe. But these will not be new preoccupations for anyone with even a cursory interest in global politics.
Although it dramatizes its ideas with a friendly, old-fashioned competence that is indeed rare on Broadway these days, “Sixteen Wounded” will bring revelations only to audiences who have been ignoring obvious truths for a long time.