Swiftness marks a good thriller; the sting of precision marks a literary one. Night Blooming Jasmine, the first play by the seasoned writer and concert pianist Israela Margalit, embodies the pull and speed of a fine literary mystery, leaving the overflowing audience at the Tribeca Playhouse on Sunday afternoon not suffering for the lack of an intermission.
Several terra cotta blocks occupy the otherwise bare stage. Situated on a dusty floor and surrounded by aqua walls crossed by pale, colorful stripes, the blocks' shapes suggest a dream, or the ruins, of a city. The set's simplicity and adaptability serve the contemporary story, collecting events and characters and moving inextricably towards a sharp, complex ending that addresses the question: What happens when an Israeli soldier and an Arab woman fall in love?
Two families, one Jewish and one Arab, live not far from one another in the northern part of Israel--the Jewish family, the Hernicks, in Kadima, and the Arab family, the Rafids, in El Riyad. The similarities between the two families become immediately apparent: Both are led by a moderate, affectionate father, both have an angry son who despises the enemy, and both have a more curious, less pugnacious child--who falls in love. David and Jasmine, a Jewish soldier and Arab college student, are the two characters who can tolerate difference. When a tussle on a Jerusalem street brings the two together, their attraction is immediate, palpable, convincing, and consequential.
Before David and Jasmine meet, Margalit sets up the domestic and public worlds of the two characters. When the Hernicks appear, they laugh, embrace one another, and talk vivaciously, revealing differences in political opinions, which in turn indicate differences in personalities. For example, the mistrust of the grandfather Zev towards Ely, a Sephardic Jew from Morocco, shows his old-school perspective. Young Gabe decries the Arabs just as his older brother David, the soldier and hero, strives to find peace with fellow Israelis. Similarily, in the Rafid family, Ibrahim is the son who longs for freedom at any price, while his father Yusuf warns against violence and points out the positive aspects of their family's experiences.
There is also an individual in each family who likes to tell allegories and old jokes. These anecdotes function as the play's decorative touch in the absence of elaborate character development. The constant presence of guns in the house and explosive noises outside extinguish any thought that domestic melodrama could contain these families' destinies. The civil war governs the narrative as a surgeon would--with an unflinching eye which examines the terror and confusion which besets characters surrounded by the conflict between Jewish and Arab neighbors in Israel.
Assigning the same actors to play both the Arab and Jewish families (aside from the lovers David and Jasmine) is an aesthetic as well as economic decision, which gives deeper meaning to Jasmine's comment that her father is "just like them," the Jews. The acting is on the most part extremely strong and consistent, and Jeremy Dobrish's direction is excellent. Ian Khan stands out in his performance as David, the decisive, confident, and virile soldier. Khan's maturity and eloquence finds nuance in his lines and ushers forth an old-fashioned hero--commanding, mature, and dismissive of easy irony. Frances Anderson's likable, beautiful Jasmine, who wants a more expansive life than her female ancestors and relatives, reveals her character's final surprises with aplomb. Thom Christopher shines as the loyal, saddened patriarch in each family. The American visitor has few but hilariously banal lines, and Tricia Paoluccio nails the New Yorker's reckless glibness.
In Night Blooming Jasmine the characters' primary desires fuse with the harsh political realities and complicated memories to form a suspenseful, compelling tale that does not ignore the subtle changes wrought on personalities by civil war. The story's main flaw lies in the representation of the Rafid family; while the Hernicks enjoy each other with much vitality, depth, and enthusiasm, the Rafids' home is always somber and muted. Overall, however, Margalit's knowledge is as impressive as her sensitivity to the Hernicks' heated relationship to the word "security" and to the Rafids' plight as second-class citizens.