Two years ago, I found his correspondence with my mother and wrote Metronome Ticking, a docudrama about the Third Reich and the Holocaust. Sitting inside Philadelphia’s intimate Interact Theatre and witnessing the clashes of Jewish parents and their children in Israel and the United States, I was powerfully reminded of the struggles of ideologies among siblings, among fathers and sons in this world premiere of Larry Loebell’s House, Divided, a play about two brothers and their sons who are divided by faith, yet held loosely together by blood.
I realized very quickly that this play goes way beyond a struggle among people of one ethnic or religious minority; rather, a House, Divided is the youngest successor to the old struggle of Titans that we know from Greek mythology, where the Titanic Elders—a race of powerful deities—ruled during the legendary Golden Age before being overthrown by a race of younger gods, the Olympians, a Greek borrowing from the Ancient Near East, which included (modern) Israel and Palestine.
Loebell’s deeply challenging play shows two primeval characters: Doug Goldstein (Paul Meshejian), a liberal director of Amnesty International, who sees himself as a citizen of the world, trying to bring together warring factions in Israel and Palestine, and his brother Lou Goldstein (David Howey), who left the United States at a young age to live in Israel, where he became a militant Zionist, joined the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), and after retirement, works as a tour guide, arguing his version of history to American tourists. Both these Titan brothers see their Jewish identity in dramatically different ways:
Doug married a Catholic woman, and despite Lou telling him “that this isn’t a Jewish house,” desperately tried to keep the relationship with his brother and father together, feeling terrible that neither of them had anything to do with him and would not even attend his wedding to a non-Jew. His brother Lou remained as inflexible as the old Greek Titans and brought up his son Oren (Davy Raphaely) to become an ardent defender of Israel as a young soldier in the IDF. Back in the US, Doug’s son Paul (Dan Hodge)—who is neither Jewish by birth nor by upbringing—leads the life of a modern American twenty-something with very few traditions and with computer science becoming his religion, at least at first glance.
Like the best of Johann Sebastian Bach’s music, Loebell composed his latest play with rich detail and an almost mathematical construction, reminiscent of Leibniz’s insight that music, like a good play, “is a secret exercise in arithmetic of the soul.” Loebell probes deep into those two souls by showing their younger selves, who appear physically onstage in a filmic device that flashbacks over 30 years ago to show the young Doug (Noah Herman) and young Lou (Robert Daponte) clashing as they slowly begin to discover those ideologies that will shape their values and fuel their actions and reactions for the rest of their lives.
Following the fate of the Greek Elders, those Titans who appeared all powerful but who were challenged and eventually replaced by the younger Olympians, Doug and Lou each seem invulnerable only to discover eventually that their two sons are challenging their fathers in unexpected ways. Doug’s son Paul—the ultra-modern American with no values other than a belief in technology—not only irks his father’s pacifist tradition by designing violent video war games, but in spite of his father’s refusal to raise him in the Jewish tradition, later longs for some Jewish identity that will ground him, stunning the audience with an unexpected shift in his allegiance.
Similarly, the militant Zionist with Orthodox Jewish values and a firm belief in Jewish traditions—that goes so deep that he would not even attend the funeral of his sister-in-law—suddenly discovers that his son Oren, like the Olympians of old, challenges those power positions by beginning to sympathize with the Palestinians after he has been ordered to participate in collective punishments, the destruction of houses, and arrests on no evidence. His conclusion: the IDF only creates bitterness and anger for Arabs, Palestinians, and Israelis alike.
When Lou’s son Oren realizes that “it is impossible for anyone in our esteemed military to see resistance as anything except a mental deficiency,” he tries to desert the IDF by fleeing to the US. In response, his inflexible father hurls this almost Biblical threat at his confused son: “If you do not come back now, you will never again be allowed into Israel. You will never be able to come home.”
In one of several challenges to his father, young Oren asks, “Didn’t you teach me there’s a civic duty to resist evil? What we blame the average German for. Not resisting the evil of Hitler?” Outraged over such a comparison, the father slaps his adult son hard: “How dare you suggest . . . We have no concentration camps. We’re not exterminating.”
But while it outrages Lou when his son makes a Nazi comparison, thirty years earlier, Young Lou clearly wanted to use Hitler for his own purposes when he said to his brother Doug about his Catholic fiancée: “If you marry this woman and you have children with her, your children will not be Jewish. You annihilate thirty five hundred years of history in one generation. You annihilate yourself just as surely as if you had let the Nazis do it. If you marry her, you finish Hitler’s work.”
Loebell takes his audience on a rollercoaster journey into Hades. Several times during the play, members of the audience gasped and made comments, especially during the scene in which Oren describes how he was “ordered to remove a woman from her house . . . So I had to drag her–with her baby, into the street.”
At that moment, an elderly lady in the second row shouted, “oh, bullshit.” The play clearly was getting under the skin of a number of people in the audience, demonstrating, literally, a house divided, hopefully leading to many fruitful discussions about our actions as human beings, often based on deeply seated, hidden values. Loebell’s play relentlessly shines a light on almost every corner of this divided house, for example, when he has the young Israeli soldier confess to a brutal treatment of Palestinians: “I was holding his wife prisoner while our soldiers, my friends, shot her husband. I was expected to shoot her if she ran. He hadn’t done anything but run away in fear. We were doing business as usual.”
Just as Bach used a highly calculated approach to musical composition, Loebell presents an almost mathematical balance of different views and ideologies in his play, but with a conversational, intuitive writing style. He fills his script with an extraordinary mixture of poison and counter-poison, of understanding and misunderstanding, of love and hate, of foolishness and wisdom, and often shows these aspects through facts and insights that are based on talking with countless people, many years of studying modern history, and visiting Israel (commissioned through a grant from the Foundation for Jewish Culture).
For example, Loebell has the Zionist brother present a view that hits the audience hard with this statement: “All those years Arafat promised compromise in English he was saying death to Israel to his followers in Arabic. And they [Westerners] loved him because he lied to the West and proved you [Americans] foolish.” Later, Doug, the liberal American pacifist who gave up on following Jewish traditions, let alone religious practices, gets equally challenged by his brother and near the end of the play, by his own son in ways that stunned this reviewer and most likely, the audience.
Although House, Divided spans three decades across two nations separated by thousands of miles, on the small stage at the Interact Theatre, Seth Rozin’s staging created a battlefield on which the two Titans could clash, almost non-stop and from the very beginning. The production was supported by Dirk Durossett’s scenic design, costumes by Susan Smythe, and the dramaturgy of Rebecca Wright who, according to Loebell, had strongly impacted the play’s development by asking a number of helpful, challenging questions from the very beginning. Additionally, Loebell told me that the actors all contributed to the final version of his play.
In spite of the clashing ideologies and the age differences, the actors formed a balanced ensemble with well-developed characters, strong giants with clay feet, giving the actors a chance to show fine nuances.
Howey showed a very aggressive Lou, who relentlessly hammered away at everyone who did not share his views, especially the more balanced Meshejian, who got rattled by his brother and allowed himself to get drawn into the verbal fights. I was particularly impressed by Hodge’s natural portrayal of the young American Olympian who seemed a computer nerd at first but who transformed into a very committed man, a role played without any signs of effort. Similarly, the Israeli-born Raphaely’s performance as Oren showed a subtlety of feelings and thoughts that suited this role perfectly, almost developing his character into an Israeli Hamlet, a young man unsure of which choice to make.
I left the theatre still hearing the many voices in Arabic, Hebrew, English, German and other languages that at the conclusion of the show created a cacophony of radio and television comments, each drowning out the other one. Out of the depth of these voices, I heard my father, the man who hated Jews until he witnessed a mass execution in Russia in 1944 and then wrote: “Read more than my letters, read that which I did not write, read that which could shatter my heart.”
Just as I, as a non-Jewish person, am struggling with my own identity, dethroning those old German Titans of the Third Reich, I strongly identify with Loebell’s play, which most likely will shatter many perceptions that people might have of Jewish people. I am convinced that this play will be performed and studied not only in Israel and in the US, but in many other countries. Even though I am aware that we live in a fractured world, through Loebell’s play, the house divided can perhaps become a house united, or at least become a place where peaceful inquiry on all sides is made possible.
The World Premiere of HOUSE, DIVIDED
Written by Larry Loebell
Directed by Seth Rozin
May 23 - June 22, 2008
intimate Interact Theatre 2030 Sansom Street • Philadelphia, PA 19103 • Phone: 215-568-8077