There's blood on the hands of West Bank Palestinian Khalid at the outset of Jewish Israeli playwright Ilan Hatsor's 1990 drama Masked, now getting its New York debut after over 100 productions worldwide. But almost as an act of anti-symbolism, like the big smear of blood on the set's back wall, it's only because Khalid works in a butcher shop; its back room being the play's setting.
Hatsor's sympathetic depiction of three Arab brothers trying to survive in a violent world as best they know how is, at the very least, an admirable act of empathy, as is its positive reception in the author's homeland by playgoers willing to consider all sides of the brutal conflict. What hurts the 85-minute, intermission-less play (translated into English by Michael Taub) is that you can feel the author's respectful efforts to make sure each view is clearly represented in a non-judgmental manner, as though the piece is meant to serve as a prelude to even-handed discussion and debate of Palestinian/Israeli issues. Not that discussion is a bad thing, of course, but the play, though certainly attention-grabbing and very well acted in producer/director Ami Dayan's mounting, never completely sheds the awareness that the characters are speaking lines that were written for them.
Khalid, (Sanjit DeSilva), the youngest of the three, has recently gained leadership status in the Intifada resistance and as the play opens is being paid a risky visit from Na'im (Arian Moayed), a higher-up who lives in the mountains in hiding from the Israeli army. Na'im has word that elder brother Daoud (Daoud Heidami), a family man who works in Tel Aviv, is suspected of informing the Israelis of a recently held rally, causing it to be violently broken up. In the process, their youngest brother Nidal was shot in the head, reducing him to a human vegetable.
Na'im has convinced his colleagues to let him interrogate Daoud himself, hoping to get the truth out of him and spare his life, but even blood ties are not enough to guarantee leniency. "Everything from before the Intifada is dead," Na'im declares. "Today everyone has to prove himself."
When Daoud finally arrives, it sets off a series of accusations, denials and defense of ideologies that turns both verbally and physically violent. Khalid tries to act as peacemaker as Na'im and Daoud battle their sibling love for each other in order to achieve what they feel is best for their people. (Christian Kelly-Sordelet stages the realistically executed acts of violence.) Throughout, there is the threatening presence of a single door to the outside and the danger of who may be directly behind it at any given time.
If Masked isn't thoroughly satisfying theatre, it nevertheless provides fine moments of tension and passion in an earnest attempt to use art as a peacemaking device. And it does so without making a villain of anyone.
Photos by Aaron Epstein: (top) Arian Moayed and Daoud Heidami; (bottom) Sanjit DeSilva and Arian Moayed