A conversation with playwright Martin Blank and director Elise Thoron
There’s plenty to be excited about in the upcoming Page-to-Stage Festival at the Kennedy Center, but one play that’s drawing attention from theatregoers and political watchers alike is American Ensemble Theater’s free staged reading of Martin Blank’s The Law of Return, which will be held at 7:30 p.m., Saturday, Aug. 31 in Rehearsal Room 1.
The drama originally premiered at Center Stage Theatre, Jerusalem in 2004 and was produced the following year by the Maryland Ensemble Theatre. It was also optioned for Broadway in 2004.
The story draws inspiration from the real-life actions of notorious United States Naval Intelligence analyst Jonathan Jay Pollard, who while based in Suitland, Md., removed thousands of classified documents from the Navy’s Anti-Terrorist Alert Center and turned them over to Israel.
“I actually happened upon a book of the greatest 100 spy stories and this was one of them and I read more and more about it,” Blank says. “I was really intrigued by Jay’s universal need to have a safe home and this dilema he goes through. He is a servant to two masters—the U.S. and Israel.”
The title of the play derives from the law stating that any Jew who presents himself at an Israeli embassy seeking asylum, must be taken. Once he was discovered, Pollard desperately fled to the Embassy of Israel to seek asylum, leading police on a wild goose chase throughout D.C.
“The play doesn’t preach whether what he did was right or not, but it’s interesting to see that someone can be right on both sides or wrong on both sides at the same time,” Blank says. “How do you decide where loyalty goes and how do you make your home safe for you and your family? At the end of the day, this guy wanted a safe home and he thinks this was the way to do that.”
Blank currently serves as artistic director for American Ensemble Theater. His one-act comedy, Avenue of the Americas, was produced Off Broadway at the Tank Theater, and he’s also received new play commissions from the American Jewish Theater, Theatre Ariel, and the Georgetown Theatre Company and is published by Smith & Kraus.
The Law of Return
by Martin Blank
Directed by Elise Thoron
Saturday, Aug 31 at 7:30pm
Reading by American Ensemble Theatre
Cast: Anthony van Eyck, Rick Foucheux and Slice Hicks
Rehearsal Room 1
2700 F Street, NW
Washington, DC 20566
The Law of Return is gathering interest again because Pollard is scheduled to be released from prison in November of 2015, after serving what will have been 30 years for his crime. Throughout the past three decades, many advocacy groups have worked on his behalf to garner early release, and notable figures such as lawyer Alan Dershowitz, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have spoken on his behalf.
“When President Obama was in Israel, the prime minister brought up his name,” Blank says. “You are going to see his name pop up in the New York Times or Washington Post every few months now, because this is a story that won’t go away. As we move towards his release, you will see folks from the CIA fighting to see him stay behind bars.”
For the Page-to-Stage reading, Blank called on old-friend Elise Thoron to direct. Thoron, who is the associate artistic director of The American Place Theater in New York City, calls the play “stage worthy with a wonderful future.”
“He sent me this amazing play and I read it and I was very interested in directing it,” Thoron says. “It feels incredibly contemporary. This question of how information is used and who has rights to it, and all the ethical issues around that is at the forefront.”
Thoron admits that when she read it, she wasn’t aware it was an actual historic event, but regardless, knew the drama stood on its own. When she learned the true facts of the case, she found the play even more powerful.
“It’s very compelling in these times,” she says. “I do a lot of work developing plays, and often many that are very early in their development, and honestly, it was just a pleasure to get involved with this really great drama.
The three-person cast includes DC stage vets Anthony van Eyck, Rick Foucheux and Slice Hicks, who Blank single-handedly chose for the roles.
The Law of Return is a reading so Thoron only had a week to work with her actors, but she enjoys the concept of doing the performance in this way, as it puts focus on the text and let’s the actors work on language.
“Sometimes it can be a more enjoyable experience than when you have a lot of production value,” she says. “To hear this play in the air, I feel will touch the imagination of what the production could look like.”
Since its initial limited productions almost a decade ago, Blank has continued working on the script and it has continued to find life. A theatre in Portland workshopped the play last year and it was also a finalist in the Jewish Plays Project in New York City.
“The play all of a sudden is getting a lot of attention,” he says, adding that he is fielding calls from New York and London theatres and feels that interest in the play will remain strong as Pollard’s release date grows nearer. So far, as a result of the upcoming reading at the Kennedy Center, there will be another reading at the Northern Virginia Jewish Community Center on Sunday, Nov. 10 at 6 p.m.