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Thursday, January 11, 2007

Theater as Russian Roulette, With a Blast That's Soon to Sound
November 17, 2006

Theater as Russian Roulette, With a Blast That's Soon to Sound

A subgenre of suicide-bomber theater and film has been percolating for the last few years, most of it one-dimensional: a central character is revealed to be — gasp! — a fully wired suicide bomber; will he or she press the button?

Iris Bahr, though, has a wholly different approach in "Dai (Enough)," her extremely unnerving one-woman show at the Culture Project. Bombing isn't a possibility, it's a fact of life, and if nothing else this production gives you a visceral sense of what it must be like to live in Israel, Iraq or any other hot spot where death strikes quickly and often.

The play is set in a Tel Aviv cafe, and we all know what inevitably happens at Tel Aviv cafes. Ms. Bahr, who wrote the show, portrays 10 different customers in the restaurant, as well as the hard-bitten British newswoman whose interviewing assignment is the framing device that allows them to tell their stories.

Ms. Bahr gives us just enough of each character to set up a small storyline and sketch in a personality; then terrorism intercedes in jarring fashion. Will Pomerantz, the director, and Frank Gaeta, the sound designer, have no interest in subtlety when it comes to these moments of reckoning. It's theater as Russian roulette, waiting for the shattering noise. It ultimately becomes a distraction, intruding on Ms. Bahr's performance, but it also registers at the gut level. This is one show you are likely to be feeling for days afterward.

The play, though, isn't merely about lives cut short. The fickleness of death, whether by terrorist act or tsunami or car crash, is hardly a new theme. The real issue is whether Ms. Bahr's characters — all impressively drawn, though a few sometimes speak too quickly to be understood — have anything new to tell us in their brief onstage lives.

When the subject is the Middle East standoff, they don't. Though Ms. Bahr, who was born in the Bronx but moved to Israel at 12, dutifully covers the full range of viewpoints, her script naturally slants pro-Israel. It would have been better if she had not also sprinkled it with phrases that read as gratuitous propaganda. ("Did you know Israel has more biotech companies than anywhere in the world outside Silicon Valley?" a Palestinian professor asks for no particular reason.) The question of balance, though, hardly matters; the weariness of all of these arguments does. As the title says, enough.

Far more interesting is a thread Ms. Bahr works about whether Israel is a homeland that Jews come to or a place that Jews flee. For some of her characters, New York is the promised land. Others, though, find themselves drawn to Israel in spite of themselves, and in spite of the danger.

Half of Ms. Bahr's cafe customers are not local, and by the end of "Dai" you start to suspect that the characters were determined by what the actress had in her bag of accents. The play begins to feel like a "walks into a bar" joke: a gay German, a Russian prostitute, a Southern Bible-thumper and a Puerto Rican actress walk into a cafe. ... Artificial or not, however, the play has a literal and figurative jolt that's undeniable.

"Dai" is in an open-ended run at the Culture Project, 45 Bleecker Street, at Lafayette Street, East Village; (212) 307-4100.

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