Bread is the tie that binds in "Sixteen Wounded," Eliam Kraiem's earnest dissection of the friendship between a young Palestinian radical and an aging Jewish baker in Amsterdam in the early 1990s.
This bleak play, which opened Thursday at Broadway's Walter Kerr Theatre, slowly, almost glacially, examines the relationship between the two men. For much of the time, it is dramatically listless, not coming to life until the final inevitable confrontation between the protagonists.
"Sixteen Wounded" begins, though, with a bang when Mahmoud, being pursued by thugs, crashes through the window of a bakery owned by Hans (Judd Hirsch).
At first, Mahmoud, played by Omar Metwally, is hostile to the older man. Yet they soon find common interests. Soccer. Backgammon.Baking. Before long, Mahmoud, up to his ears in flour and kneading, seems to be ordering everybody about. He's also romancing Nora, Hans' shop assistant, a would-be dancer portrayed by an appealing Martha Plimpton.
Kraiem spends much of the first act detailing Mahmoud's transformation. Metwally's carefully shaded performance, ranging from angry to affable, is a definite plus, but it can't mask the production's lethargy. Director Garry Hynes focuses on the minutiae of daily life in the bakery. In short, static scenes, these small events seem interminable.
It's not until the appearance of Mahmoud's older brother (Waieed F. Zuaiter) that you get some sense of where "Sixteen Wounded" is headed. Mahmoud, banished from Gaza after bombing a bus in which Israelis were killed, is being ordered to commit another terrorist act, this time in Amsterdam.
His dilemma forces a showdown with Hans, who, by now, has grown fond of his eager apprentice. "You and I have no conflict," the older, emotionally reserved man says. "We are trying to be bakers."
But Hans has his own baggage, too. A concentration camp survivor, he is overwhelmed by guilt and for many years denied his own Jewishness. Now he is trying to repair his humanity, partly by reaching out to Mahmoud and partly by connecting with Sonya, a world-weary prostitute (Jan Maxwell) with whom he has weekly assignations.
Hirsch, star of such Broadway hits as "I'm Not Rappaport," "Talley's Folly" and "Chapter Two," gives a restrained, almost understated performance. His accent may drift but his rock-solid portrayal at least gives the evening an anchor. And Maxwell is lovely as a savvy woman who would rather have "an arrangement" with a man than get caught up in romantic flights of fancy.
Designer Francis O'Connor has carefully divided the stage, creating an enticing art nouveau shop on one side and a grim, utilitarian kitchen on the other. But it's the division between the two men that Kraiem wants to underscore, particularly in a final emotional harangue by Mahmoud that stuns Hans - and the audience as well. Too bad that potency isn't present in more of the play.
Eliam Kraiem's "Sixteen Wounded is a mechanical play about subjects that are anything but mechanical.
Fleeing street thugs, Mahmoud, a young Palestinian in Amsterdam, crashes through the window of a bakery run by a Holocaust survivor (Judd Hirsch). Immediately he declares his virulent anti-Semitism, which offends both the baker and Nora, his assistant (Martha Plimpton.)
Somehow, though, between scenes three and four, Mahmoud softens toward them and they toward him. He and Nora begin an affair. The baker adopts a paternal tone.
Even then, he argues with the baker about the equivalency of the Palestinians' situation and that of Jews under Hitler. What his argument lacks in logic it makes up for in shrillness.
Midway through the second act Mahmoud's brother arrives, making the play's outcome even more predictable.
Doubtless the producers imagine a play that makes a Palestinian sympathetic, especially in New York, would be controversial and relevant.
If the character were more fleshed out, it might. But none of the characters here goes beyond type.
Omar Metwally is extremely appealing as Mahmoud. Hirsch is surprisingly subdued as the baker. Plimpton is fetching in her undersketched role. The estimable Jan Maxwell is wasted as Sonya, a Russian prostitute.
Garry Hynes' direction never pushes the play beyond arid. Francis O'Connor's set, especially the Art Nouveau restaurant, has charm.
The play purports to address serious contemporary issues, but it only uses them as an intellectual patina for a conventional, unsatisfying melodrama.
A Jew, a Palestinian and a baker's shop . . . it's either the start of a bad joke or the beginning of a tragedy. Stop me if you've heard it before.
Yet there is plenty of potential for drama in Eliam Kraiem's "Sixteen Wounded," which opened last night at the Walter Kerr Theater.
The setting is Amsterdam, 10 years ago. Judd Hirsch plays Hans, a crusty Jewish baker drifting into old age with an ironic and suppressed anger. One night, a young Palestinian named Mahmoud (Omar Metwally) literally crashes into Hans' shop, through a plate-glass window.
Vibrant and attractive, Mahmoud is eventually taken on as an apprentice and soon becomes more like a son.
Hans teaches Mahmoud the art and craft of bakery -just as Hans, many years ago, was taught by an old Dutch baker after he'd escaped a Nazi camp and broken into that same bakery.
The brash young newcomer is attracted to Hans' shop assistant, Nora (Martha Plimpton), and soon they are living together.
As a Jew, Hans doesn't care much for Mahmoud as a Palestinian, and as a Palestinian, Mahmoud hates Hans as a Jew. But Hans - cranky, self-absorbed and unfulfilled - believes nevertheless that they can make it together as bakers.
Mahmoud would like to feel that, too, and at times convinces himself that he does. But Mahmoud has a secret: in his earlier life, he blew up a busload of innocent people.
Mahmoud is - as we might have guessed, for otherwise there'd hardly be a play - a terrorist. Or, at least, he was one. Can he make a fresh start? Should he be permitted to?
The most remarkable thing about Kraim's play is that it doesn't take sides. Even at its most impassioned it remains fairly neutral.
Hirsch, grizzled, grumpy and lovable (perhaps just a shade too lovable) is a gem, and his final confrontation with Metwally - who makes an electric Broadway debut as Mahmoud - shows steamroller power. The rest of the cast is excellent.
"Sixteen Wounded" is an overly schematic but honest play from a young playwright we should hear much more of in the future. You'll be glad you caught his handsomely staged Broadway debut.
From the moment in the first scene when the fiery young Palestinian crashes through the shop window of the curmudgeonly old Jewish baker, life moves at a disorientingly fast clip in Eliam Kraiem's ''Sixteen Wounded,'' the political melodrama with the pace of a sitcom that opened last night at the Walter Kerr Theater.
After meeting cute, if bloody, amid shattered glass in Amsterdam in 1992, Hans (Judd Hirsch), the baker, and Mahmoud (Omar Metwally), his unexpected visitor, sit down to a cozy game of backgammon and almost instantly develop a friendship that bridges a vast ethnic divide. Oh, sure, there are some rocky moments early on, as when Mahmoud realizes that Hans is a Jew and spits on the mezuza nailed to the old guy's door.
But they both get over that uncomfortable episode quickly as Mahmoud, a medical student, agrees to keep working for Hans in the bakery shop where the grumpy but warm-hearted old fellow has cloistered himself. Even when weightier things come between them, like a time bomb, they're able to reach inside themselves and discover their abiding mutual affection. That's just the way these lovable if tragic lunkheads are. And when Nora (Martha Plimpton), Hans's spunky and sexy employee, shows up, you know it's just a matter of very limited time before she and the hunky Mahmoud fall for each other.
Basically, there's not a major emotional reversal -- and they happen with head-spinning frequency in this play, directed by Garry Hynes -- that couldn't be clocked with an egg timer, with a minute or two to spare. Yet as the characters race through their frenzied, predestined dance of friendship, love, loss and destruction, the overall effect is of a turtle race in slow motion. And while the theme of Arab-Jewish relations is normally guaranteed to whip up passionate feelings, ''Sixteen Wounded'' generates less urgency than your average episode of ''Friends.''
These are sad tidings to report in a season when Broadway is suffering from a drought of new plays, and especially of works with the courage and honorable intentions of this one. After 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq, it has been heartening to see how many American dramatists, from John Patrick Shanley and Craig Lucas to A. R. Gurney and Tim Robbins, have felt compelled to address the terrifying state of international politics today.
But these works have all been staged in theaters other than the palaces of Broadway, where only the presence of a movie star -- preferably naked and of tabloid notoriety -- can promise success for a nonmusical. Though ''Sixteen Wounded'' does star Mr. Hirsch, popular to television audiences from ''Taxi,'' its cachet is, first and foremost, its topicality. Which means that to draw crowds it needs to be garlanded, through word of mouth as well as critical reviews, with adjectives like searing, unflinching, shattering and revelatory, all followed by exclamation points.
None of these words apply to ''Sixteen Wounded,'' previously staged (in a somewhat different version) at the Long Wharf Theater in New Haven. For his Broadway debut, the 30-year-old Mr. Kraiem has boldly taken on a subject that has baffled masterminds of world diplomacy. And it's fair to say that he does not undervalue the Gordian complexity of that subject. ''Sixteen Wounded'' fully acknowledges that any debate about the Middle East among ardent partisans is going to produce no winners.
But for politically themed, slice-of-life theater like this to work, you have to feel emotionally invested in the individuals who are shaped and manipulated by historical forces. And aside from the always excellent Jan Maxwell, who plays a prostitute with whom Hans shares a Sunday kind of love, the performers here are hard pressed to make you care about the people they embody.
The production has gone to some trouble to create an authentic environment, from the designer Francis O'Connor's hunger-inspiring, fully stocked baker's kitchen to the convincing showers of rain and snow created to evoke the changing seasons. But even doing in-the-moment activites like kneading dough or playing backgammon, the cast members register mostly as mechanical cogs in a clockwork plot. (The five-member ensemble also features Waleed F. Zuaiter, who appears in the second act to hurry along the play's inevitably unhappy denouement.)
This sense of affectlessness has much to do with the shortcuts that Mr. Kraiem takes in pushing his characters into relationships. Though Hans advises the restless young Mahmoud that patience is necessary in all things, from the game of dominoes to the art of baking, ''Sixteen Wounded'' does not itself practice this virtue. Structured as an elliptical series of black-out vignettes that take place over two years, the play works on the assumption that the audience will fill in a lot of blanks on what's occurred among these characters in the time between scenes.
Yet even within a single episode, characters are asked to exchange deep secrets, to process that information and then come to terms with it, switching psychological gears in ways more suited to Jim Carrey at his most manic. Perhaps this accounts for the odd disjointedness of Mr. Hirsch's performance, in which lines seem to erupt from him at different pitches like a scale of stylized belches. Mr. Hirsch is an actor of probing intelligence, and presumably he is trying to convey the detachment of a man who has buried his real identity, as he reveals in the second act.
But the ultimate impact of ''Sixteen Wounded'' rests entirely on your belief in the familial love that develops between Hans and Mahmoud and, to a lesser extent, between Mahmoud and Nora. While Mr. Metwally is a handsome and engaging young actor, he never conveys the hair-trigger intensity and feverish warmth Mahmoud is said to possess.
The usually first-rate Ms. Plimpton here lets her mask of a European accent do most of the work in creating her character. (It is supposedly a Dutch accent, but to me she sounded like Ingrid Bergman with a megaphone.) And Ms. Hynes, who brought such gooseflesh-making verisimilitude to ''The Beauty Queen of Leenane,'' appears at some point to have simply given up on forging credible connections among the characters.
It is to the play's advantage, by the way, that it begins with Ms. Maxwell alone on the stage as Sonya, the Russian prostitute who has just finished her weekly assignation with Hans. As she zips up her boots with grim, bored efficiency, Sonya radiates the compelling weariness of someone who has come to see life as a matter of just going through the motions, of surviving from day to day.
Whenever Ms. Maxwell and Mr. Hirsch are alone onstage together, you began to feel inklings of complexity in their characters, a sense of lonely people forced by circumstance to detach themselves from their core identities and deepest feelings. Mr. Kraiem's point seems to be that even in the homey isolation that Hans has created for himself in his baker's shop, there's no escape from a vicious world of conflict, where to feel too much of anything is to court infinite pain.
This premise could be the basis for a seriously moving play. But it's an idea that registers fully only when Ms. Maxwell is around. That her character has the least to do with the play's central plot tells you a lot about how far ''Sixteen Wounded'' remains from achieving its admirable ambitions.
When producers dare to open a serious play by a new writer on Broadway these days, it feels almost ungracious to be disappointed. When the drama includes a sympathetic depiction of a militant young Palestinian, we feel almost guilty to be bored. And since bloodshed between Israelis and Palestinians is never old news, we are perplexed by the sense of emotional distance between the headlines and the stage at the Walter Kerr Theatre.
But Eliam Kraiem's "Sixteen Wounded," which opened last night with the reliable Judd Hirsch as the Jewish baker and an impressive newcomer named Omar Metwally as the Arab, is too conventional for its topic, too lethargic for its payoff.
We understand the metaphor when Hans, the baker, keeps telling Mahmoud, his exotic new apprentice, that baking takes patience. When the conflict doesn't grip us until the last 10 minutes, we also understand that, theatrically, patience cannot be counted on as a virtue.
Kraiem, American son of an Israeli father and American mother, has an admirable, even-handed way with the intimate humanity behind the crushing warfare. But he unspools the stories of his four characters too slowly, spoon-feeding us each confrontation until that final unpredictable finale.
We can't help wondering why Kraiem set this timely American story in Amsterdam in 1992-1994. Are we so fragile that we need to be physically separated from the issues by a decade, a culture and an ocean? By wimping out on location, he mutes the impact of the little connections that are meant to add up to big ones. When Hans and Metwally bond over games and sports, the men share their enthusiasms for backgammon and soccer.
Then there is Garry Hynes, the fine Irish director who won the 1998 Tony Award for her raucous staging of "The Beauty Queen of Leenane." Far be it from us to diminish the benefits of internationalism, but we have an Irish woman leading three mainstream American actors - Hirsch, Martha Plimpton and Jan Maxwell - in a story that desperately needs not to suggest a Dutch charade.
Hirsch has his usual hokey-folky confidence as Hans, who, though claiming "I am not a Jew, I am a baker," naturally has a Holocaust secret. Plimpton, her hair chopped into a blond Peter Pan, is pleasant as the former dancer who works in the shop and falls for Metwally. But the character has no history, beyond a wistfulness about having gotten too old and fat to dance. We don't know who she is, except that she comes to adore the mysterious man who has literally fallen into the shop and stayed to work.
Metwally's Mahmoud is a prickly fellow, which just makes him more charming to Hans, who practically adopts him, and to the shopgirl who bears his child. The actor with alert eyes, jabbing fingers and wiry comfort in his own presence, creates a conflicted, vulnerably complicated exile. He can only ignore his responsibilities until his brother (Waleed F. Zuaiter) tracks him down.
Maxwell moves in and out of Hans' bed and the plot as a Russian hooker with the heart of you-know-what.
At least her character has the courage of her lonely convictions. When Hans asks her to marry him she knows enough to distrust happy endings.
Basically, this is a problem play that, for all its intended toughness, includes such dubious verbal dynamite as "You have a right to be angry; you don't have a right to kill people!" and "I used to think there were things good and things bad. I used to think I knew the difference. ... "
The evening is divided into short scenes, separated by spirit-draining blackouts accompanied by sensitive music. Characters seem always to be closing up the shop and opening it again. Francis O'Connor's set nicely divides the cozy art nouveau caf6 from the adjoining flour-dusted kitchen, though the high ceilings make us even more aware of a small story rattling around a big theater. O'Connor's costumes are nicely observed, except that some people dress for winter and Metwally goes out wearing only his T-shirt. We know Bob Dylan said we don't have to be weathermen to know which way the wind blows. In this case, however, it might help.
You could hardly define 30-year-old playwright Eliam Kraiem as a radical in terms of his political philosophy or dramatic approach.
Yet the premise of Sixteen Wounded (* * * ½ out of four), Kraiem's eloquent, acutely moving new work, is one that may seem subversive to some in our current political climate: Not all people or impulses can be written off as either good or evil.
That lesson is learned by Mahmoud, a young Palestinian living in Amsterdam, when he befriends Hans, a Jewish baker, in the play that opened Thursday at Broadway's Walter Kerr Theatre. The two meet in the early 1990s, an innocent time in retrospect before "suicide bomber" had entered the common vernacular and when a peace accord between Israel and the Palestinians seemed more feasible than a sci-fi movie.
But the camaraderie between Kraiem's protagonists is, predictably, a troubled one. Each man has witnessed and endured debilitating oppression because of his heritage. "I can be whatever I want," Mahmoud tells Hans, but it's the wishful boast of a man trying in vain to escape the legacy of a haunted past.
What that past entails won't surprise many theatergoers. But Kraiem articulates the challenges, desires and obligations that both bind and divide Hans and Mahmoud with such unaffected poignancy and insight that the effect is never tedious or pedantic.
Under Garry Hynes' sensitive, adroit direction, Wounded also is beautifully played. Judd Hirsch's deceptively weary Hans is a study in marvelously nuanced character acting, while Omar Netwally plays Mahmoud with riveting vulnerability and charisma.
The leading men are ably assisted by Jan Maxwell as a weathered beauty with her own tortured history and Martha Plimpton as young dancer Sonya who, for a while, offers Mahmoud a fresh lease on life.
It's fair to say that Mahmoud and Sonya don't ride off into the sunset at the end. But however distressing the developments in Wounded might be, Kraiem's tender humanism leaves room for hope, even in a world more complicated than some would like to acknowledge.