When Philip Roth met with David Hare in the mid-1990s, the American novelist urged the British playwright to visit Israel, Gaza and the West Bank.
The area’s passions and contrasts would provide any writer with great material, Roth contended. When Hare responded that Roth, as an American Jew, was perhaps better qualified for the job, the latter quipped, “No, no, there are enough lunatics there for both of us.”
So, Hare went in 1997 and, the following year, transformed what he saw and heard into a 90-minute, uninterrupted monologue and play, titled “Via Dolorosa” — Way of Suffering, referring to the path trod by Jesus toward his crucifixion in Old Jerusalem.
Hare himself enacted the role in London and on Broadway, and the Southern California Jewish Repertory Theatre has now revived it in the oddly named Missing Piece Theater in Burbank.
The traveler, identified as The Author, now is David Bryan Jackson, a transplanted Brit, and he shares his encounters and experiences with the sensibilities and dry wit of a well-meaning and educated Englishman trying to understand the diverse passions and arguments of the natives.
He quickly discovers that in addition to the overriding Israeli-Palestinian divide, each side is divided into internal factions whose adherents despise each other even more than they do the official enemy.
The Author first visits hedonistic Tel Aviv, “the f—-ing capital of the world.” He meets with author David Grossman and quickly realizes, with some envy, that an Israeli grapples with more emotions and experiences in a day than an Englishman does in a year.
Next, it’s on to Shaarei Tikvah, a West Bank settlement, where the visitor, expecting to find a muddy wild West frontier town, instead encounters something akin “to Bel Air or Santa Barbara.”
His hosts are an observant couple, transplanted Americans Danny and Sarah Weiss, who explain that the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was a government conspiracy, in which Rabin himself participated, to discredit the religious community.
The Weisses have little sympathy for American Jews, who support Israel as an insurance policy if things should go wrong. The difference between life in the United States and Israel, Sarah says, is that on Memorial Day the whole Israeli population stands in silence for one minute, while in America the day is an occasion for discount mattress sales.
When The Author mentions that he, a Christian, is married to a Jewish woman, he gains no points but is scolded as the husband of an “assimilationist.”
On to Ramallah, the de facto capital of the West Bank, where Palestinian historian Albert Aghazerin acknowledges the past suffering of the Jews but likens the current situation to a man jumping out of a burning building, landing on a passer-by and breaking the passer-by’s neck. When the injured man complains about the broken neck, the jumper also breaks his arms and legs to make the other man shut up.
Another meeting is with Arab director George Ibrahim, famous for his production of “Romeo and Juliet,” in which the Capulets are played by Palestinians and the Montagues by Jews. The actors needed no encouragement to portray the hatred between the two families.
Crossing Israel, the Englishman enters Gaza, a passage which strikes him as “driving from California into Bangladesh,” for a visit with respected politician Haider Abdel Sharif.
Reversing the Jewish observation that if the Arabs were smart they would give Israel a few years of peace and then watch the different factions tear each other apart, Sharif notes.
“We [Palestinians] are a society without rules. If the Israelis were smart, they would return the land to the Arabs and then watch them f—- it up.”
Finally, on to Jerusalem — “where the angry face of God broods over the city” — and meetings with politicians Benny Begin and Shulamit Aloni, who despise everything the other stands for.
A sadder, if not necessarily wiser, traveler returns to London late at night and mourns the drabness and lifelessness of his countrymen, compared to the passions and vitality of the people he encountered on his trip.
“Via Dolorosa” has something to offend and please anyone with an emotional stake in the Middle East conflict. It also casts a fresh and iconoclastic eye on the old and endless arguments, which, unfortunately, have changed little in the 12 years since Hare wrote the play.
With no props other than two chairs, which he occasionally moves from one side of the stage to the other, and with a few gestures and changes in intonation, Jackson brings to life the 33 people he met on his trip.
Seeing the play is an intellectually bracing experience and deserves a larger audience than the 14 people who attended on a recent Saturday night.
“Via Dolorosa,” produced by Alan Friedenthal and directed by Patricia Lee Wilson, continues through Nov. 7, with performances Friday and Saturday evenings and on Sundays at 3 and 7 p.m.
The Missing Piece Theater is located at 2811 W. Magnolia Blvd. in Burbank. For reservations, call (800) 838-3006, or check www.scjewishrep.org.