By Hillel Mitelpunkt
Directed by Sinai Peter
Produced by Theater J
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
The Accident is a good counterpart to Synetic’s Dante, in that you can spend your time wondering about to which circle of Hell Adam (Michael Tolaydo) and his cohorts will be assigned, and whether you will be going with them.
Adam, his friend Lior (Paul Morella) and Lior’s wife Tami (Becky Peters) are self-involved liars, cheaters, and, if need be, killers. They also, as a profession, judge the morality of others – Adam as a documentary film producer who seeks to tar the Israeli army with the despicable acts of four soldiers, Lior as an advertising agent for a ridiculous Benneton-type company which proposes to bring about world peace through the use of its clothing line; and Tami as a scientist who predicts that nations with nuclear weapons will inevitably use them, out of “curiosity.” Along with Adam’s shrewish, resentful wife Nira (Jennifer Mendenhall) and his daughter Shiri (Eliza Bell), who has dark secrets of her own, they are the avatars of modern civilization – sleek, charming worshipers at the altar of the Self.
I will not detail all the infidelities, lies, evasions, and cruelties these folks undertake as naturally as they breathe. Suffice it to say that when Lior, driving drunk at 130 klicks (about 80 mph) in Adam’s car while Adam, even more drunk, sleeps in the back seat, plows into a Chinese immigrant on a remote country road at 3 a.m., it is merely an extension of their operative morality to leave the victim’s lifeless body on the road while they creep back to their warm homes.
How, then, has Mitelpunkt managed to make these awful characters so attractive, so sympathetic? Even Nira, who wields her self-righteous disapproval as a weapon against her husband and daughter, can melt your heart. To a certain extent, it is due to the dialogue which is ruthlessly authentic (with a few exceptions, noted below); in part it is due to the uniform excellence of the cast. But the largest part of it is the fact that the sins of these characters are also our sins.
Lior was wrong to drive drunk, of course, and Adam and Tami were wrong to let him, but the crime we watch is their decision to leave the victim’s body on the road as they drive home without accepting the consequences for what they have done. After all, admitting to vehicular manslaughter would not bring the victim back to life. It would just disrupt things for them, and they are doing very important projects! – raising money for the documentary, and making a presentation in Barcelona for the advertising campaign, and giving a lecture! And at the bottom of it all is this: the victim was a Chinese immigrant, unloved, uncared for, and undocumented by anyone within a thousand-mile radius. His death will be on the bottom of the police priority list. If they leave the scene of the crime, it is not likely they will ever be caught.
When Shiri discovers the truth, she tells her mother – not in order to find justice for the dead man, but to win her mother’s comfort, which she wants because of a failed affair with a married man. Nira, in turn, is furious with Adam – not for his criminal act, but because he didn’t tell her himself. Once in possession of the information, Nira uses it to flail Adam for his numerous infidelities. Honor, honesty and dignity are all casually sacrificed to the cause of self-protection and self-advancement.
Mitelpunkt wrote this play for Israeli audiences, but its moral truth is equally applicable here where, for example, people appear to be willing to be honest about the amount of tax they owe only if they are nominated to a cabinet-level position. (The IRS estimates that in 2007, Americans owed $345 billion more in taxes than we actually paid). Our present economic calamities have been set off by selfish borrowers getting loans they couldn’t repay from selfish lenders who didn’t think they’d have to pay the consequences of default. We’ve seen – and I bring this up only because it’s an example with which everyone’s familiar – a President lie under oath and on national television because telling the truth would have been a mighty inconvenience. There’s a reason that Jon Lovitz’ “pathological liar” character is so universally identifiable: he’s so common.
We pity Mitelpunkt’s characters because they are us in ways we can readily tell. Mitelpunkt has a hard truth here, and he brings his prey down relentlessly, and with wisdom. Regrettably, he – or translator David Berkoff – salts the play with a half-dozen or so clunkers which pull us out of the fictive dream every time we hear them. “If Hell has a special place reserved for yuppies, (Lior), you have been upgraded to the electric chair,” he makes Adam observe, neglecting to explain what mode of dispatch awaits Lior if yuppies are more generally distributed in the underworld. To a certain extent a fine cast – and this is an excellent one – can downplay or smudge over bad dialogue, but Derek Jacoby himself couldn’t do anything with lines like that.
This production offers us a feast of pleasures, not the least of which is the fabulous Mendenhall, who at the end of the first Act gives an acid bath of a monologue which etches the plot, and the characters, in such high relief that they will be hard to forget. Peters handles a difficult role convincingly. It is wonderful to witness her emergence as a top-drawer actor. The technical work is excellent and Tony Cisek’s set, a divided highway with a glassy backdrop, is a functional marvel. Director Sinai Peter uses it to great effect, frequently utilizing the divided yellow line to set up physical and emotional divisions. His pending return to Israel will be a big blow to Theater J, and to Washington theater generally.
The Accident is a hard, bracing look at a culture awash in self-importance and self-indulgence. It is meant to be Israel, but it could just as well be us. As we sift through the rubble of our most recent economic disaster, it might be useful to watch The Accident, and consider how we could live more purposeful lives.
Running Time: 1:45 with one intermission
When: Until March 8th. Wed and Thurs at 7.30 pm; Sat at 8 pm, Sundays at 3 pm and 7.30pm ; also Wednesday, February 25 at noon.
Where: DC Jewish Community Center, 1529 16th Street NW, Washington, DC.