Theater Review: Dai by Iris Bahr

Shrapnel in the front row

During the war between Hezbollah and Israel last summer, I called my cousin who lives in a small suburban town north of Tel Aviv. "It is surreal," she said. "The children are going back and forth from the bomb shelter to the pool."

Israel's paradox is well known — on the one hand, it is a war-scarred nation in a region increasingly populated by religious extremists who own explosives. On the other hand, it is a place with exceptionally good weather where kids play in the pool while their parents sip iced coffee and discuss Almodovar's latest. On a bad day, the two realities collide.

Collision is at the heart of Iris Bahr's masterful new theater work, "Dai" ("Enough"), at Culture Project in New York. Appropriately, "Dai" is staged in the same theater that gave birth to Sarah Jones' "Bridge and Tunnel," the solo piece that went on to a Tony Award-winning Broadway run.

Artistically and thematically the pieces are identical twins — a series of immigrant tales told through simple costume changes, dialect humor, and both gender and racial role-plays.
Both women talk fast, have talent to burn and know how to vacillate between humor and pathos before you realize that you've been taken for a ride. Like "Bridge and Tunnel," in "Dai" the personal becomes political, and you are sucked in by the energy, the stories, the language, and the performer.

But while Jones' work hung on a poorly constructed back-story regarding the police and a Pakistani family, Bahr's work is rooted in the visceral, explosive premise that all her characters are about to be obliterated in a suicide bombing. This device, in a lesser play, would seem like an easy way to draw loose ends to a resolution. But under Will Pomerantz's superb direction each thunderous death of a character is a minor revelation. Bahr creates and destroys an Israeli woman visiting home from her exile in Long Island, an Israeli kibbutznik father, a newly Israeli solider from Manhattan, an opinionated Orthodox woman with seven children, a shrewd Russian Israeli prostitute, and a spunky Israeli ecstasy dealer.

More interesting, though, are the non-Israeli characters she places in Tel Aviv. She plays a half-Syrian BBC reporter, a gay German furniture designer, a Latina actress, a divorced Palestinian college professor, and a Southern-twanged American Evangelical. Bahr, who has guest-starred on HBO's "Curb Your Enthusiasm," had the audience doubled over in laughter throughout the show.

Only the American Evangelical comes off as a caricature. (It is clear that Bahr wants him in the story, but is having a hard time finding a way to identify with him.) But all the other characters that populate the Tel Aviv coffee shop have depth and texture — you feel for them, you want to hear more from them.

So what does one take away from a show in which such a mix of characters spill their life stories? Bahr does not leave you with a political vision for the Middle East. But like all solo performers who successfully take on multiple roles, the implicit political message is that we can embody and understand one another.

Bahr, who served in the Israeli Army, understands Israel — Israel as the refugee camp and the high-tech hub, the promised land and the war-torn wilderness — and her artistic brilliance is that she can bring us into that understanding in the context of an 80-minute romp in a mythical cafĂ©.