Israel’s war-punctuated political history is the incendiary backdrop for Israeli playwright Motti Lerner’s “The Murder of Isaac,” but it’s modern theater history that arguably plays an even greater role in this angry drama. A measure of the play’s nervous topicality is that it has not been produced in Israel, but premiered in Germany in 1999 and now receives its U.S. preem at Baltimore’s Center Stage. For all the serious issues it raises, the play itself is a talky and tedious exercise that’s more likely to wear you down than get you riled up.
The playwright is structurally indebted to Peter Weiss’ “Marat/Sade,” because Lerner’s institutional setting is an Israeli rehabilitation center for victims of post-traumatic stress disorder. These patients have been physically and psychologically scarred by events as far back as the creation of Israel in 1948 and as recent as the 1995 assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
Set in 1998, the play concerns a demographically varied group of patients who decide to put on a play in which they’ll portray Rabin, his killer and others on the political scene. The patients act out scenes, comment on their thesping and address the audience as if it were attending an actual asylum performance.
It’s a highly dubious therapeutic procedure, to be sure, and one that doesn’t seem much more promising in a theatrical context. The playwright has burdened the script with so many self-reflexive references that a better title might be “Pirandello in Palestine.”
There are yet more modern theater mannerisms involved, as overtly theatrical curtains are pulled back and forth, the performers shout out cabaret-style polemical tunes by composer Eric Svejcar and the alienated spirit of Bertolt Brecht seems to hover over the Middle East.
Although the venerable theater history influences are justifiable under the politically charged circumstances, the creative team led by director Irene Lewis assumes the captive audience in the Center Stage asylum automatically will be jolted by what in fact are overly familiar staging tactics. All the shouting in this in-your-face production tends to dull rather than sharpen the senses.
As might be expected from such a large ensemble piece, more emphasis is placed on environmental immersion than on narrative thrust. Still, there is a bit of storytelling spine as the characters present debate-oriented scenes culminating in the assassination.
This storyline is providential in terms of this particular production, because the patient impersonating Rabin, Binder, is portrayed by David Margulies in a heartbreakingly nuanced perf that really stands out in a cast where most of the actors zealously overact. Among other actors who transcend the strident norm is Mia Dillon as Lola, a volunteer worker at the institution who has her own touching story of personal loss.
Despite the potentially compelling stories that all the characters relate, their heated rhetoric seems likely to meet with a cool audience response. Surely one reason for reacting to an important subject with near-indifference is that the characters often are shouting across a vast and barren common room designed by Christopher Barreca. The evocation of institutional coldness unfortunately also induces a cold dramatic distance.
Similarly, Candice Donnelly’s costumes, Mimi Jordan Sherin’s lighting and other tech credits convincingly place you inside an asylum you can’t wait to escape. There’s no need for bored theatergoers to glance at their watches, because a large functioning clock on the institution’s back wall keeps agonizingly accurate time.