New Play About Middle East Terror Incident Avoids Politics, Lacks Intrigue
Based on the true story of the 1986 Hindawi affair, The English Bride is about a young Israeli Arab named Ali (Steven Schub) and his unsuccessful attempt to blow up an El Al flight from London to Tel Aviv by sneaking explosives into the luggage of his unsuspecting pregnant fiancee, Eileen (Elizabeth Knowelden). We know that she is genuinely smitten with him. Whether he was ever really in love with her is the central issue in Lucile Lichtblau's play, now receiving its West Coast premiere production from North Hollywood's essential Road Theatre Company.Both Ali and Elizabeth are questioned—or, in Ali's case, interrogated—by the grandfatherly Dov (Allan Wasserman), a dapper Israeli security officer who looks like he's momentarily stepped away from teaching a university philosophy seminar to squeeze the truth out of both of them. As Dov separately elicits both of their stories, we watch the couple meet, fall in love and plan a life together.
Or do we? Repeatedly in the course of their exchanges, we learn that all three of these figures are willing, when they deem it necessary, to lie about their pasts and their motives. As the thwarted perpetrator of mass murder, of course, Ali has the most to hide, but Dov and Eileen also find reasons to mislead their interlocutors.
The basic dramaturgical problem here, though, is that since the lies they tell never matter all that much, even this trio of unreliable narrators can't generate much intrigue or suspense. How important is it whether or not Eileen was a virgin when she met Ali? Not very. How many kids does Dov really have? Who cares? But Licthblau and director Marya Mazor treat the discovery of this minor bit of information as if it were a critical "reveal." More importantly, none of these lies ever substantially misdirects us in the audience for more than a moment. We get the trappings of a mystery, but no surprises.
Of course the big question is whether Ali's display of love and commitment to Eileen throughout their relationship, and most of the play, up until he sends her and their unborn child off to die with hundreds of others, was ever real. At the beginning of the play, we have no idea. And at the end... we still don't. You'd think that in a play about a Middle East terror plot there would have to be at least some allusion to Middle East politics. But after an obligatory initial spit at Dov when he first mentions he's a Jew, Ali never suggests that, say, a sympathy with the Palestinian cause, antipathy toward the west or any other ideological sentiment has ever animated him.
The one genuinely interesting character is Eileen in Knowelden's powerfully complex and moving performance. A homely young woman from an unhappy family in Leeds, Eileen describes how she seized her one shot to escape to London, and now we see her desperately, but not pathetically, grasping at the possibility of lasting romantic and even domestic happiness with Ali. She knows she's taking a chance on the staying power of his attentions, but she resolves to pursue her best hopes, compromising but never relinquishing her own independent spirit. She shrouds her face in a black veil in anticipation of meeting Ali's parents when her plane lands in Israel and even declares it sexy, but insists that the daughter she is expecting will be an Engishwoman through and through. In the end her heartbreak is real, and her indignation is also ours.
Production set designer Kaitlyn Pietras neatly contrasts the spareness of the playing area with a series of atmospheric projections against the back wall. Sound designer John Zalewski's subtle, but persistent, quasi-musical sonic undertone throughout the play adds a tension that The English Bride's events don't create on their own.
The English Bride plays Thursdays and Sunday evenings and Saturday afternoons through April 26 at The Road on Magnolia. Full-price tickets $38, $19.50 for students and seniors ($34 and $17.50 at the door). Discount tickets available online for $21.75 and $21.