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A CurtainUp Review

Rite of Return
By Jenny Sandman

We are in Israel. Laws don't apply.
---Rite of Return
It's only natural that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would find its way to a New York stage sooner or later. Would that it had appeared in a more audience-friendly package.

Victoria Linchong's Rite of Return is the story of two friends, Amanda and Najwa. Amanda, a New York native, is Jewish by adoption. She desperately wants to find her birth mother and discover her "true" identity. She believes that she is somehow less of a person because she doesn't know about her real heritage or culture.

On a trip to Israel Amanda befriends Najwa, a young Palestinian girl living in the Occupied Territory. Najwa's brother was killed in the uprisings, and because of her friendship with the family, Amanda is arrested and forcibly deported. Back in the US, she renews the search for her mother, as Najwa attempts to conform to the security restrictions in Hebron.

Najwa's story shows her dignity slowly stripped away and causing her to rebel against the strictures in drastic ways. In the meantime Amanda is tormented by a recurring dream in which the dead appear to her.
These two young girls are the playwright's means for exploring the cycle of violence and retribution in Israel. It makes for an ambitious play, but too much so. Though Rite of Return shows an admirable depth of knowledge about the conflict, it is only partially successful in eliciting any compassion or understanding. Too often the drama feels like a heavy political treatise and a large dose of authorial voice all rolled into one. The play is also combative: the girls argue so much with their parents and with each other with each other that a non-argumentative conversation seems like a breath of fresh air.

The reliance on the girls' letters to each other makes for a passive way to develop the theme. It also slows down what little action there is.

The two principal actresses, Vitoria Setta as Amanda and Sanaz Mozafaria as Najwa, are the two best components of the play. The other actors are largely impassive and there's a distinct lack of ensemble chemistry. Even Setta is overly shrill; granted her character is hostile and bitter character, but the actress tends to force the audience away, rather than making viewers complicit in her rage.

The half-hearted direction kept the actors crossing back and forth across a large, empty stage. The one set element -- a weird, chunky, green block -- looked like it belonged in a 1950s Howard Johnson lobby. It was completely incongruous (and worse, distracting). A scrim and a few pieces of furniture would have worked much better.

At the opening opening night performance I attended , it was obvious that the technical aspects of the production had yet to be worked out. Scene changes took forever, lighting cues were slow and often inaccurate, and the promised multimedia never materialized. All this can be attributed e to an AWOL technical director, so it's likely that these imperfections will work themselves out during the course of the run. Hopefully, this irning out of the techical difficulties wil also resolve the clunky pace (the play took nearly three hours, despite an advertised run time of two).

In the final analysis, kudos to Linchong for tackling a difficult and often ignored subject. Perhaps her next play will be more streamlined.

Written and directed by Victoria Linchong
With Sabrina Avila, Mohamed Djellouli, A. Michael Elian, Carl Fengler, Sanaz Mozafarian, Vittoria Setta, Frank Shkreli, Anita Wlody, Jana Zenadeen
Lighting Design by Jon D. Andreadakis
Costume Design by Carla Gant
Set Design by Ryan Scott
Sound Design by Allon Beausoleil
Running time: Three hours with one ten-minute intermission
Direct Arts at Theater for the New City, 155 First Avenue at 10th Street; 212-254-1109
April 29th through May 23rd; Thursday through Saturday at 8 pm, Sundays at 3 pm. All tickets $10
Reviewed by Jenny Sandman based on April 29th performance
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