Jonathan Jay Pollard is currently serving a life sentence in a U.S. federal prison for the crime of delivering sensitive national secrets to the Israelis. Martin Blank takes an astute if somewhat fantastical look at Pollard's story in his play The Law of Return, which is now making its New York premiere at the 4th Street Theatre. It's as satisfying as any spy movie and twice as smart.
The play opens on Jonathan Jay Pollard (Ben Mehl), an intelligence analyst for the U.S. Navy. As he slicks back his hair and flairs out his collar to the sound of arena rock music, you know how cool he thinks he is. Listening to him speak for more than a minute, however, lets you know that he's little more than a dork playing James Bond. When Navy Commander Steve Harris (André Ware) gets approval for an anti-terrorist alert center, Pollard jumps at the opportunity to become his lead analyst. "I'm the best intelligence analyst you've got," he tells the commander with dramatic gusto. He gets the job and immediately sets up a meeting with his hero, Israeli master spy Rafi Eitan (Joel Rooks). Since Israel and the US are allies, it's no big deal if he passes along a few classified documents, right? After all, Israeli lives can be saved by American information.
In Blank's version, Pollard is driven out of a sense of ideological conviction, even though evidence suggests his motives were far more mercenary. He tells his wife Anne, "If someday we're blessed with children, they can't be safe in Israel…unless I stay here." In his mind, he's singlehandedly keeping the planet safe for the world's Jewish population.
Mehl endows his performance with the messianic fervor of a true believer. Every shift of the eye and inflection of the voice suggests a man playing for the cameras, living in his own private Robert Ludlum film. This makes it all the more tragic and pathetic when the game blows up in his face. Throughout, Ware plays the military workhorse. He's not enchanted by the world of intelligence (like Pollard), but sees it as a necessary evil for his safety and livelihood.
Rooks is stunningly authentic in his portrayal of Eitan, using a soft approach to achieve his hard objectives. He's like a kindly Jewish grandfather, offering the star-struck Pollard a box of matzo during a clandestine meeting in the park. He later wows Pollard with stories about the capture of Adolf Eichmann in a ploy to convince him to give up U.S. Navy locations. If you can't trust the man who brought one of the masterminds of the Holocaust to justice, who can you trust? In turns out, Pollard was unwise to trust anyone.
Since this story is based on reality, you can see Pollard's ruin coming a mile away. Still, director Elise Thoron amazingly keeps us on the edge of our seats for the full 75 minutes without the aid of a suspenseful plot. A mixture of highly theatrical design and cinematic dialogue does the job just fine. And through his often cheesy prose, Blank is able to raise a lot of intelligent questions about the nature of trust and duty.
Alexis Distler's brilliantly simple set, consisting of sliding white panels, suggests a sterile government office in Maryland. The back wall thrillingly slides forward to represent the gates of the Israeli Embassy through which Pollard is turned over to the FBI when he attempts to claim asylum.
The title of the play references the 1950 Israeli law that enshrines the right of every Jew to immigrate to and settle in Israel, a sacred promise that Pollard counted on to secure his escape and that the Israeli government promptly violated in favor of maintaining good relations with the United States. While Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has frequently advocated for the release of Pollard (an Israeli citizen in absentia since 1995), it seems likely that the spy will serve out the remainder of his sentence. Blank's story is that of a smaller country subverting one of its foundational principles in order to secure the sponsorship of a superpower. One suspects that, as long as this relationship continues, the Pollard case will not be the final instance of that compromise of national ideals.