Sixteen Wounded by Eliam Kraiem. Directed by Garry Hynes. Set and costume design by Francis O'Connor. Lighting design by James F. Ingalls. Original music and sound design by John Gromada. Special effects by Gregory Meeh. Fight direction by Thomas Schall. Dialect coach Stephen Gabis. Starring Judd Hirsch, Omar Metwally, and Martha Plimpton, with Waleed F. Zuaiter. Also starring Jan Maxwell.
Forget lengthy negotiations, peace talks, and decades of political maneuvering - Eliam Kraiem is sure that the best way to solve the problems in the Middle East is over a nice loaf of bread.
Well, maybe not quite. But in his new play Sixteen Wounded, which just opened at the Walter Kerr Theatre, Kraiem has no qualms about redirecting decades of strife through an Amsterdam bakery, where the Dutch, Russians, Jews, and Palestinians can meet on equal ground and commiserate over the one thing that draws disparate people together: baked goods.
One could argue, perhaps successfully, that strong allegiances have been built on far less, but for a play it's seldom enough. And for Kraiem, who never takes Sixteen Wounded far beyond that level, that's certainly the case. The play is solidly written, nicely directed (by Garry Hynes), and thoughtfully acted, but good intentions do not great theatre make; Sixteen Wounded proves almost completely ineffective at shedding new light on a conflict that never strays far from the front page.
Kraiem's method is a typical playwright's solution: distill a large problem to its simplest component elements so that the story can play out on a more manageable scale. For that to work, the argument at the play's center must be an important one, compellingly dramatized; Kraiem provides no fresh ideas or perspectives on the Israel/Palestine problem, and lacking these basic teeth, Sixteen Wounded has almost no bite.
The power players here are Hans (Judd Hirsch), the Jewish bakery owner, and Mahmoud (Omar Metwally), a Palestinian who comes crashing through the shop's window one day, apparently after an altercation with a group of Jews. Hans conceals his background from Mahmoud, but tends his wounds and offers him a job in the bakery to help pay for repairing the window. Mahmoud accepts the offer, and begins working as Hans's apprentice.
Though Hans and Mahmoud share certain ideological differences, the two men become closer as the days, weeks, and eventually months pass. It soon becomes clear, though, that neither man is exactly what he appears to be, and their pasts threaten to re-emerge and haunt them. Complicating matters for Hans is Sonya (Jan Maxwell), the stylish prostitute for whom he's developed passionate feelings, and another bakery employee named Nora (Martha Plimpton), who becomes intimately involved with Mahmoud and helps him create some ties that might not be easily broken.
It's tidy playwriting, but never preachy - Kraiem has a good ear for dialogue, and his characters all sound like people rather than symbols. But he doesn't avoid implementing clichés in his writing. By the time Hans has revealed his ties to the Holocaust (apparently for the purpose of comparing Hitler's extermination of Jewish people to the treatment of Palestinians), you've already become emotionally immune to such dramatic devices, and Kraiem is far from finished utilizing them.
Regardless, Hynes has done a fine job of directing the play, and doesn't allow the production's pace to drag even when the script does. Francis O'Connor's set, depicting the front and back areas of the bakery, and costumes are fine; James F. Ingalls's lighting is well designed and implemented; and John Gromada's original music and sound design help bring some of the play's more subtle (and occasionally not-so-subtle) details to the foreground.
The acting is good, too, with Hirsch hitting all the right notes, and Metwally making an impressive Broadway debut as the conflicted Mahmoud. The two have good chemistry together, and bring some real tension to their scenes that is all too infrequently present in the dialogue. Maxwell and Plimpton also do well with their roles, though Sonya and Nora are defined in less explicit terms than Hans and Mahmoud, and often feel more functional than essential. Waleed F. Zuaiter makes a brief but effective appearance as someone from Mahmoud's past likely to impact his future.
Good as some of its elements are, Sixteen Wounded ultimately ends up as less than the sum of its parts. A play this prosaic, with stock characters and plot developments easily predictable many scenes in advance, must work that much harder to provoke. Sixteen Wounded never gets that far; Kraiem's work is structurally sound, but little more. The dialogue (one example from Hans: "Yeast is a living thing and must be treated with kindness"), blasé characterization of the potentially interesting female characters, and the not exactly surprising ending help make this a very by-the-numbers work.
It's fitting that one of the first things Hans and Mahmoud do together is play backgammon (another playwright's device to establish character), which Mahmoud refers to as "a game of patience." Sixteen Wounded could be considered much the same, though waiting for this appreciably professional yet unexciting play to become invigorating may test one's patience a trifle too severely.