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Judd Hirsch and Omar Metwally in Sixteen Wounded
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Since policy-makers far and wide are struggling with solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian problem, it isn't surprising that a playwright intent on joining the deliberations would find himself in a similar situation. That's where Eliam Kraiem is with Sixteen Wounded, an attempt to tackle the issue on a man-in-the-street level. To some extent, Kraiem doesn't get much farther in his endeavors than the sweating diplomats currently losing all ground gained in the 1993 Oslo accords or the incensed combatants decimating one another at a devastating rate.

In one of the most attention-getting entrances in recent seasons, Mahmoud (Omar Metwally) hurtles through the window of an Amsterdam bakery owned by Hans (Judd Hirsch). On the run, the Arab lad is bloody but not unbowed and so is initially reluctant to accept ministrations from a Jew. But, sooner than might be expected of someone who's blown up a bus in Jerusalem, Mahmoud apprentices himself to the older man. Eagerly giving himself over to frosting cakes and preparing tarts, he even moves in with the other baker's helper, Nora (Martha Plimpton), and impregnates her. (The Hans-Mahmoud bonding is reminiscent of the Jewish boy-Muslim man relationship in last season's Mister Ibrahim and the Flowers of the Koran. Such an unlikely pairing almost always, and too easily, has heart-warming allure.)

Before long in the 1992-94 scheme of things, there are inklings of a microcosmic family-of-man union that for a few moments might even include Hans's longtime prostie liaison, the disillusioned but gallant Sonya (Jan Maxwell). But, not surprisingly, the characters' pasts are not so easily abandoned. Mahmoud's brother Ashraf (Waleed F. Zuaiter) arrives unannounced to remind Mahmoud of obligations to his people and, particularly, to a third brother who'll suffer dire bodily harm if Mahmoud doesn't do what's required with a package that's about to land in his path.

In summary, it may sound as if Sixteen Wounded has all the ingredients needed to bake a melodrama. But the curious thing is that, for an act and a half, Kraiem -- who's workshopped his play since the late '90s and has been mentored by Michael Weller -- gives the impression that he's looking to make a sitcom sale. Once Hans and Mahmoud decide they like each other, the odd couple settles into the kind of give-and-take relationship that promises little more than minor complications, nothing that can't be worked out in 22 minutes. Hans is the kind of understanding and lovable curmudgeon that began to be developed on television back when Menasha Skulnick lent his name and endearing shuffle to the Menasha the Magnificent series.

But Hans's accepting behavior is a problem. That he takes everything in stride and thereby becomes an appealing role model for Mahmoud is a convincing trait. Hans is as "out there" as the mezuzah that hangs by the front door of Francis O'Connor's handsome bakery set with its art-deco café and well-equipped kitchen. Kraiem has more to say about Hans's equanimity, though, and it goes beyond the older man's learning an Arabic prayer to whisper into the newborn's ear in godfather capacity. Turns out that the 50-ish Hans isn't as calm as he seems but has, instead, constructed a façade to cover deeper feelings about himself and his Holocaust experiences. The info is disclosed in a bit of awkward dramaturgy; it's almost too much, almost too late.

Once Mahmoud has gotten Hans to disclose the reasons for his ambivalent attitude toward Judaism, and once Hans has cracked Mahmoud's convictions about his avenging responsibilities, Kraiem gets where he's wanted to go all along. He fires off a crackling scene between the men that covers the frustrating points made in most rancorous Arab-Israeli debates about territories often regarded as occupied, and the writing here is so cogent and so filled with dramatic fervor as to make audiences properly itchy. In an argument that eventually involves a weapon, Hans and Mahmoud venture into political gray areas that succinctly drive home the difficulty of assigning right and wrong and the need for discovering common ground. The entente they reach doesn't preclude a less-than-happy ending.

Omar Metwally and Martha Plimpton
in Sixteen Wounded
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Sixteen Wounded takes place over a period of approximately two years and is composed of many scenes, all of which unfold either before or after business hours. (This helps explain why no one but the principals ever enters Han's inviting shop.) During the course of the action, there is a wide range of weather -- snow falls and rain courses over the bakery windows, thanks to special effects man Gregory Meeh. The quick vignettes are a mixed blessing since they underscore the sitcom feel of the piece but also bolster the characters' growing relationships. Director Garry Hynes, with lighting designer James F. Ingalls and sound designer John Gromada aiding extensively, has found an agreeable pace for the production. She allows for breathing space without compromising what momentum there is, and she adds to that momentum when it reaches runaway proportions during the denouement.

Needless to say, the show rests on the shoulders of Judd Hirsch and Omar Metwally. Because Hans is closed to self-expression that extends beyond the genially humble, Hirsch has reasonably chosen to give a genially humble performance. He withholds the gruff edges he's shown in his two Tony-winning performances (I'm Not Rappaport, Conversations With My Father) until playwright Kraiem calls for them in the belated second act flare-up. For much of the action, Hans is likeable without being particularly interesting. The lean and lithe Metwally is filled with pressure-cooker rage, which works well in the head-butting sequence. He has more trouble in a sticky patch where he has to talk to an uncooperative machine.

Martha Plimpton, sporting a cropped blonde hairdo (and costumes by Francis O'Connor), speaks with the accent of a Dutch woman trained to speak English well. This actress is so good at everything she does that her versatility often goes unsung; she really makes something of the perceptive mother-to-be Nora. Jan Maxwell, blonde hair whipping around and Russian inflections flying, achieves equally fine results with Sonya, who also minces few words but wishes that she could. Both women's roles seem only slightly this side of expendable; nevertheless, guided by director Hynes and dialect coach Stephen Gabis, they make their presence welcome. In his short but pivotal appearance as Ashraf, the broad but compact Waleed F. Zuaiter displays the lubriciousness of someone committed to a cause above all personal concerns. It's there in the hardness of his black eyes.

An observer sits through Sixteen Wounded wondering about the title's significance and also worrying more than a little. Kraiem doesn't reveal its meaning until quite late; like much else in this play, he holds off until he's surrendered its full impact.

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