In the grand roster of significant eternal warfare, “man versus woman” surely must be at the top of the list. But likely not too far behind is “Arab versus Jew,” which encapsulates only slightly less human history and is often about matters about as fundamental to everyday life. And this sad truth helps the world-premiere production of Meron Langsner’s play Over Here, appearing at the 64E4 Mainstage as part of the New York International Fringe Festival, work even when a number of elements are conspiring against it.
Though written in 2003, when the literal, emotional, and political rubble surrounding the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks had not yet fully been cleared, Over Here remains shockingly relevant in these specific days of new angst between the Israelis and Palestinians that’s been gripping Israel and Gaza for weeks (okay, technically decades). It concerns two young men, Issam (Mohit Gautam) and Gilad (Naren Weiss), who are working on preparing Lower Manhattan for the new World Trade Center tower, and discover that working with and tolerating each other, even in America, is not easy for those who have roots in the Middle East.
Gilad’s are more immediate: He’s in the United States only because of a green card, effectively hiding from conscription in the Israeli army. Issam, by contrast, has lived in New Jersey since he was six, and is for all intents and purposes thoroughly American — though it hasn’t been easy for him to convince others of that in the year or two since Osama bin Laden’s band turned airplanes into weapons, and constant news reports of suicide bombers (one of whom may have been related to Issam) doesn’t elevate matters, either. Each man has natural reasons to distrust the other, and even their natural post-adolescent playfulness, which starts with light-hearted mocking of the racial and social strife between their people, can kindle explosions entirely by accident.
But they must learn to at least endure each other if they’re ever to cart junk around the construction site, and thus make enough money to live. Doing so isn’t easy, especially given that the foreman in charge of the job (Mickey Ryan) has no fondness for either ethnicity and doesn’t expect the best — or, for that matter, much of anything — out of either. And a few shouting matches and even genuine physical brawls necessarily precede any deeper understanding that may form between them.
No, originality is not exactly Langsner’s strength here, and its schematic structure — particularly regarding the boss, who represents a tired, thinly veiled caricature of American xenophobia — is by far the play’s weakest feature. But what should be a hoary method of probing these people’s souls, using one monologue to explain each character’s unique relationship to September 11 and its aftermath, instead proves strangely touching and even serene, as director Katherine Harte-DeCoux has insisted these be delivered largely with a dispassionate disconnect that renders them as something much closer to historical fact than manipulation of the audience’s feelings.
Delving into the men’s more rational minds this way injects a genuine problem-solving urgency into the too-familiar outline, and bolsters the characters of Issam and Gilad. Even so, both are carefully drawn to show how external factors can too easily foster internal discord, and vice-versa. If the writing falls short of crafting a complete, convincing metaphor for the ongoing struggles in the Middle East, it’s strong enough to show the psychological impact it has on those tangentially related to it, even when they’re somewhere it (theoretically) should not be an issue at all.
Harte-DeCoux’s production is otherwise not vivid or even that creative, though it does evince some nice, simple charms, particularly in a final scene that finds Issam and Gilad deciding their fate (and that of their children) while sharing a drink in a bar. Also not very compelling are Ryan’s and Gautam’s performances: Both actors stick to the surface, and their lack of shading makes it difficult for us to understand why they behave as they do. Weiss, however, wields a darker, more mysterious quality that hints Gilad is never entirely on the level, and that adds some fascinating layers of possibility to a man who outwardly seems little more than afraid.
That, after all, is the conflict in a nutshell: Neither side entirely understands or respects the other, and outside observers don’t really understand either. Too often it seems as though that means, sort of epic bloodshed, no real resolution for this is possible. Langsner certainly considers that eventuality. But just as importantly, it suggests that peace is possible, if it starts with the people and moves upward. Over Here may not be dynamic enough to change governments, but under the right circumstances, it just may change a few hearts. And who knows what happens from there?