The dog days of summer might have some people down but not Martin Blank. The DC-based playwright and Artistic Director of the American Ensemble Theater is seeing one of his plays produced Off-Broadway. After productions in Israel and Maryland and a reading at the Kennedy Center Page-to-Stage Festival last September, Blank’s full-length play The Law of Return runs at the 4th Street Theatre through August 24.
Based on the famous Jonathan Jay Pollard spy case from the 1980s, The Law of Return depicts the actions of the Jewish-American intelligence analyst who was convicted of sharing secrets with Israel. Pollard attempted to elude the FBI by heading to the Israeli embassy to invoke the law of return that allows individuals to be taken to Israel. At the time, however, Pollard was rejected at the embassy and was disavowed by Israel for more than a decade. He is still serving time in a federal prison in North Carolina.
When Blank wrote the play in 2003, he was not writing it to free Pollard or take sides. “My play was never about getting him out of prison. It was an objective piece that is about a son and two father figures – Steve Harris, Pollard’s Naval Commander and his Israeli contact, Rafi Eitan, credited with the capture of Adolf Eichmann. It’s about where his loyalty needs to go. And he has both pushing him.”
As New York audiences get a chance to discover Blank’s play, the playwright talked by phone with DC Theatre Scene’s Jeffrey Walker about the play and how the Off-Broadway production came to be.
JEFF WALKER: Are you currently in New York or back home in Maryland?
MARTIN BLANK: I am in Bethesda. I went up to New York and rented a place while we were working on the play. But I am back now and will go up for some of the performances. I live in Bethesda just a few blocks from the house I grew up in. They say you can’t go back home but it seems you can.
Is the New York production a result of the Page-to-Stage Festival reading last year?
I want to work with amazing directors and Elise [Thornton] is just brilliant. I have known her for a very long time. Elise directed the reading at Page-to-Stage and wanted to do it in New York. A couple of months before the reading, it was a finalist at the Jewish Play Project in New York. Phil Newsom, who is a producer, was at that reading. His company had done a reading of the play a few years ago. After the reading at the Jewish Play Project, he started talking to Lanie Zipoy about co-producing it. They weren’t able to see it at the Kennedy Center, but they agreed to do it in New York.
Something else that came out of the Kennedy Center reading was the producers read the reviews and features from DC Theatre Scene and other Washington theatre sites.
It was really a perfect storm – the combination of Kennedy Center, Jewish Play Project and Elise. And a little less than a year later, it’s Off-Broadway.
How involved have you been in the Off-Broadway production?
I was very involved in the process. I was back and forth with a lot of meetings, casting and production meetings. What’s so great, I was telling Elise at one of the rehearsals, we have 20 people putting on this three-character play and they are all aces.
What are some of the differences in working and producing plays in our area versus New York city?
I love the DC/Maryland theatre market and, of course, this is where I have chosen to live and work. And there are plenty of aces in DC, too. Plus we have the smartest theatre audiences. They just get things other audiences don’t get.
But the difference between getting a show on here versus in New York is like this: Say there is a role you want to cast, there may be two or three actors you’d be excited to cast. But in Manhattan, you have a casting director and Equity, and the depth of talent possibilities is incredible. The level of design talent too. In Manhattan, this is their full-time job. No one working on the show has a day job. There are just so many people there who are so good at what they do and they are so driven, which you have to be to survive in New York.
Here, the trade-off is, you come to DC and you have a much nicer life and you work with wonderful people and there is less pressure, in a good way. I am totally, totally happy to be back here and I love living here, with a house and a yard. It’s so much calmer.
Has the script changed much since the Kennedy Center last year?
Dramatically. After the reading in Washington last year, Elise worked with me, and I have been re-writing since then. We had notes from after the Kennedy Center and audience reaction. And then, in the last four weeks of rehearsal for Off-Broadway, I was really re-writing and problem solving. Another person who has helped immensely was Jeremy Lee, the sound designer for the New York show. Maybe it’s because I started out in theatre as a sound designer and sound board operator, but I really responded to Jeremy’s ideas. He helped me see how to open the play up, and I added a prologue.
I also think there is more cause and effect logic in the play now and the climax and denouement are stronger … the stakes are higher.
Let’s go back to the initial writing of the play.
The Law of Return was an unusual play for me in that I sat down and wrote it in six weeks in 2003. I usually take longer. It got optioned for Broadway, which was nice, because I was able to buy a car. It premiered at Center Stage, Jerusalem, and Maryland Ensemble Theater.
At first, it was a bit of a taboo play – post-9/11. Then the Wiki-leaks scandals come along and then the NSA leaks and the news headlines re-inform this play about something that happened in the 1980s. Now we’re in a world where one person with a laptop can literally change the entire world and what we know about intelligence. How secure is our intelligence? And who decides if it is safe?
The Law of Return is about family. It looks at protecting the family and it’s definitely about information and what is a person’s responsibility to protect people. Pollard’s story is really a matter of perspective. Is he Jewish or American? Based on information he sent Israel, when bombs started hitting Tel Aviv, they were able to get gas masks for the entire population. There is this cause and effect of what he did to make Israel safe. And there is probably a cause and effect of the damage he did to the United States.
After writing a play about him, what are your thoughts on Pollard himself? From all accounts it looks like he might be finally getting released from prison in 2015.
John Kerry, this past year, used Pollard as a bargaining chip negotiating about other assets and Obama kind of skirted the issue, but implied he would not rule it out. Sadly, this is 29 years into his sentence.
This man, with no training, outruns the FBI and gets to the Israeli embassy. They have the law of return, which is in their constitution that guarantees any Jewish citizen a safe return to Israel. They threw him out and disavowed for about eleven years. Now, what I have read over and over again is that if he is released next year, he will be driven to the Israeli embassy in Washington – the same embassy he was thrown out of – and from there he will be put on a plane for Israel.
I hope he does get out and I wish him a peaceful, quiet life in Israel, if that’s where he ends up.
I notice the ticket prices, especially for New York, are very affordable.
I feel very strongly that theatre should be affordable. When I was at Theater J [he was Founding Artistic Director, 1990-1993] that was part of our mission. we had $10 tickets and we had a donor who paid for cabs to transport elderly patrons. At American Ensemble Theater, we have $10 tickets. In New York, this production falls under a special Equity Workshop agreement, so the tickets are a great deal at $18 – which is the lucky number of Judaism.
Any last thoughts on the production?
We will see how it comes out in the wash. I am just lucky to have had a great, great experience with this production. And I am very grateful.
The Law of Return continues thru August 24, 2014 at the 4th Street Theatre, 83 East 4th St (between Bowery and Second Ave), NYC.
Details and tickets.