Some wars are fought more in the bedroom than on the battlefield. In Tuvia Tenenbom’s new play, “Saida,” the aging leader of the Palestinian secret service (Robert Tekavec) and his young Israeli counterpart (Sergei Nagony) vie for the hand of Saida (Anita Clay), the most beautiful woman in Tunisia. An allegory for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, “Saida” opened last weekend at the Kraine Theatre in the East Village. Jeffrey Coyne and Adam Shiri are also featured in the cast.
Tenenbom grew up in Meah Shearim as the grandson of a chasidic rebbe before being educated in America and forging his own iconoclastic path as a journalist and then founder of a theater company, the Jewish Theater of New York. His many previous plays, which include “Love Letters to Adolf Hitler,” “The Last Jew in Europe” and “Love in Great Neck,” typically take an absurdist, often crude approach in satirizing everything from Nazis to Islamic suicide bombers to suburban American Jews. However, “Saida” is Tenenbom’s most conventional play to date, without the foul language and nudity that are his trademarks.
Directed by Tenenbom himself, the hour-long “Saida” was inspired by a trip that the playwright took to Tunisia two years ago. At the time, he was invited by the Tunisian government to interview Roger Bismuth, a wealthy businessman and senator who is the only Jewish elected legislator in the Arab world. Bismuth is the spokesperson for a Jewish community that has dwindled from more than 100,000 at the time of Tunisia’s independence in 1956 to only about 1,500 today.
Tenenbom returned to the country last year, just a few months before the “Jasmine Revolution” in January that ousted long-time dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. Knowing that Tunisia granted refuge to Yasir Arafat and several hundred of his followers after they were ousted from Lebanon in the early 1980s, Tenenbom expected to encounter anti-Semitism. In order to conduct his research, Tenenbom, who speaks a Lebanese dialect of Arabic, pretended to be a member of the Lebanese secret service.
In the style of a commedia dell’arte play, but without masks, the 69-year-old Palestinian and the young Israeli in “Saida” vie for the attentions of the girl with promises of love, money and all manner of gifts. As in Carlo Goldoni’s 18th-century commedia masterpiece, “The Servant of Two Masters,” the two main characters in “Saida” outwit and manipulate each other. The charms of the girl fade before the desire to triumph over the adversary and win the auction.
“It’s a parable of the Middle East conflict,” Tenenbom told The Jewish Week. “We’ve forgotten what it’s really about. Both sides have become so extreme that they are fighting for the sake of fighting.”
Does “Saida” mark the debut of a kindler, gentler Tenenbom? “At the end of the day, you do shows for the people,” he said. “You can only give what people can take. You don’t need all this kind of extravaganza.” As a result, he added, “Saida” is “more accessible than my other plays. It’s very different from what you have seen.”
“Saida” runs through June 26 at the Kraine Theater, 85 E. Fourth St. Performances are Monday evenings at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoons at 3 p.m. For tickets, $36-$49, call OvationTix at (212) 352-3101 or visit www.ovationtix.com.