Danger brings out the most extreme versions of our selves. In Israel Horovitz’s “Beirut Rocks,” a group of four American college students studying abroad are caught in the middle of the 2006 Hezbollah-Israeli war. As they wait to be evacuated from the hotel where they have taken refuge, the tensions among the characters, especially between a Jewish man and a Palestinian woman, spill over into violence. The play opens in New York just as a new Lebanese action film, “33 Days,” is inducing Lebanese audiences to cheer as Hezbollah rockets are slamming into Israeli tanks and to boo as an evil Israeli colonel orders the shelling of Lebanese villages.
By contrast, when “Beirut Rocks” ran earlier this year at a theater in Richmond, Va., critic Mark Blankenship of Variety lauded the play as so evenhanded that it “implicates everyone who’s trapped together, waiting for the bombs outside to stop.”
The current production, at the Flea Theater in Tribeca, is part of a trio of Horovitz one-acts staged by Ethikos Productions. “Beirut Rocks” is preceded by “The Bump,” about an encounter between two strangers in a passport office, and “It’s Called the Sugar Plum,” about a pair of characters brought together when one accidentally kills the other’s fiancé.
Directed by Mia Walker, “Beirut Rocks” begins with an American Jewish student from Middlebury College, Benjy (Hunter Thore), who is thrust by the war into proximity with a non-Jewish student from Harvard named Jake (Dan Catomeris). They are soon joined by a female student from Stanford, Sandy (Lyle Friedman) and her friend, Nasa (Julie Asriyan), a Palestinian student who has been studying English at Cambridge.
As the violence outside threatens to engulf them, Nasa accuses “the Jews” of wanting to see all the Arabs killed. Suspecting that she is wired with explosives, Benjy demands that Nasa be stripped, which leads Nasa to lay bare both her body and, ultimately, her tormented soul.
Horovitz is extraordinarily prolific; he has penned more than 70 plays, including the 1971 absurdist comedy, “Line,” a revival of which has been running continuously in New York since 1974! His break-out success came in 1968 when then-unknown actors John Cazale, Marsha Mason and Al Pacino starred in a double-bill of “The Indian Wants the Bronx,” about an Indian immigrant who is victimized by two punks, and “It’s Called the Sugar Plum.” He is also the author of the “Growing Up Jewish” trilogy, which includes “Today I am a Fountain Pen,” “A Rosen By Any Other Name,” and “The Chopin Playoffs.”
The playwright, who is currently working with a theater company in Scotland, was unavailable for an interview. But as he told the director in an interview on YouTube, the Palestinian-American student in the play is “acting out while she is trying her Palestinian identity on for size, while the Jewish kid from the Bronx starts acting out like a Zionist extremist.”
When “Beirut Rocks” ran in Richmond, it was paired with a companion piece, “What Strong Fences Make.” The latter play was penned in response to an incendiary drama by the celebrated non-Jewish playwright, Caryl Churchill, “Seven Jewish Children,” in which Jewish adults advise others whether or not to tell their children about events in Jewish history from the Holocaust to the founding of Israel to Operation Cast Lead in Gaza. Horovitz said that Churchill needed to be “taken to task” for criticizing Jews in the name of criticizing Israel.
Walker (who graduated from Harvard two years ago and is the assistant director for the current Broadway production of “Porgy and Bess”) told The Jewish Week that “Beirut Rocks” uses what occurs in the hotel room as a microcosm for the conflict that is raging in the streets outside. In rehearsal, she said, the sexual tension between the actors playing the Jewish and Palestinian students has been especially palpable, making the war zone into what she called a “battleground of the sexes” as well.
When she approached a composer about writing an original song for “Beirut Rocks,” Walker recalled, he declined on the basis that the play reinforced stereotypes about Muslim terrorists. Walker views this extreme reaction to the play as a sign of its power. “The play shows the origin of hatred and terrorist desires,” she said. “Theater should spark, ignite, challenge, provoke, scare and entertain. A polarized reaction is much better than a neutral one.”
“Israel Horovitz One-Acts” opens July 5 at the Flea Theater, 41 White St., and runs until July 15. Performances are Thursday- Sunday at 7 p.m. For tickets, $20, call (212) 352-3101 or visit www.theflea.org.