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March 19, 2004

Jewish, Arab, Israel ties

Despite a strong production, Nathans fails to incite.

One of the first questions posed in Jason Sherman's play The League of Nathans is, "What's a good Jew?"

The question is explored via the relationship of three childhood friends, all named Nathan, from the eve of Nathan Abramowitz's Toronto bar mitzvah to the trio's reunion in a Spanish synagogue years later, with stopovers in between.

The play aims to grapple with the conflicting and complex relationship of Canadian Jews to Israel. According to Sherman, "I know my work gets into political issues many don't want to confront, but I've always thought theatre was to provoke discussion and incite strong emotions."

Regrettably, the strongest reactions this play's likely to provoke are a shrug, a smile or perhaps some rolling of the eyes by those on the right side of the political spectrum. This is not the fault of a strong Touchstone Theatre production directed by Katrina Dunn.

All of the proper technical elements are in place, with creative staging and costume (by Farnaz Khaki-Sadigh), lighting (Itai Erdal) and sound (Noah Drew) that prevent the confusion that could easily result from the frequent jumps in time and place. The four actors (Andy Thompson, Josh Drebit and Nathan Schwartz as the Nathans, plus Charles Siegel as Zaydie/Harvey) are all solid. Drebit is perhaps the standout, displaying super-sharp comic timing in the roll of Nathan Isaacs, a successful Winnipeg businessman having a premature mid-life crisis.

Nathans is often funny, never boring, and not excessively pedantic (for political theatre). Perhaps it was considered daring in 1992, when the play premièred, to even suggest that a Canadian Jew might be critical of Israel. Today, that hardly seems a radical proposition.

Anglo-American playwright Naomi Wallace has suggested that political theatre "most often ... is used to mean theatre with a left-wing axe to grind." In this case, the axe being ground – but never to a cutting edge – is the sins of Israel and its uncritical supporters. These sins are represented by Nathan Glass (Schwartz), who is involved in the murder of an Arab boy at age 20 and, by 33, is a humorless, Uzi-toting, Israeli settler.

In Sherman's world view, Jews in the Diaspora are confused and aimless at best, weak and victimized at worst. Those in Israel, on the other hand, seem to be either fascists (represented by Glass) or those who seek to defend Judaism from the evils of Zionism (represented by the silver hip flask of a saintly offstage former rabbi).

Director Dunn comments that she likes Nathans "because it doesn't answer questions – it just asks them." One of the play's deeper insights is that to be a good Jew is to ask questions, to challenge authority – illustrated by contrasting Abraham (who argues with God in order to save Sodom) with Noah (who neglects to argue for humanity in the face of the flood). But Nathans fails to wrestle with the deeper questions, to reflect upon – rather than merely reflect – the characters' views: What makes a Jew demonize Israel by equating Zionism with fascism? What makes a Jew demonize Arabs by justifying the murder of an innocent boy?

Countering conservative orthodoxy with the liberal version is no more of a genuine wrestling match than a WWE bout.

Touchstone Theatre's production of The League of Nathans is at the Vancouver East Cultural Centre, 1895 Venables St., through March 20. Tickets are $16-20 and available from Ticketmaster at 604-280-3311 or

Lauri Donahue is an award-winning playwright and the rebbetzin of Beth Tikvah Congregation in Richmond.