He’s been called the Franz Kafka, the Kurt Vonnegut and the Woody Allen of Israeli fiction. But Etgar Keret is in a class by himself. His film scripts, short stories and graphic novels are slangy, slick, and surrealistic, with a plethora of impossible things perpetually happening to high-strung, raw-nerved, world-weary Israelis. A collection of Keret’s short stories, “Suddenly, a Knock at the Door,” has now been adapted for the stage by playwright Robin Goldfin. Directed by David Carson, the play has just kicked off a two-week run in the East Village.
While this is the first stage adaptation of Keret’s fiction, his work has been frequently transformed into other media. A Sundance black comedy, “Wristcutters: A Love Story,” released in 2006, was based on one of his novellas. The Pilobolus Dance Company worked with him in 2014 to develop a modern dance piece, “The Inconsistent Pedaler,” about a girl whose family can only stand up when she is “powering” them with her feet. And, to top it off, the writer is himself the subject of Gur Bentwich’s 2013 documentary, “Etgar Keret: What Animal Are You?” which takes its title from a short story in the “Suddenly” collection.
Keret’s sixth and most recent collection of short fiction, “Suddenly,” was originally published in Hebrew in 2010. Reviewing the English-language translation for The New York Times, Steve Almond lauded Keret’s ability to limn the “chaotic inner life of his countrymen.” “To Keret,” Almond wrote, “the perils of modern Israel — the free-floating rage, the anguish of occupation, the sudden and senseless violence — are not national dramas so much as existential dilemmas.”
Goldfin, who grew up in the Philadelphia area, has written a number of Jewish-themed plays, including “The Ethics of Rabbi Hymie Goldfarb,” about an eccentric Orthodox rabbi who lectures about art. In an interview, Goldfin told The Jewish Week that when he read “Suddenly,” he felt that the stories begged to be staged; he was delighted to get the green light from Keret to write a theatrical version, which he did, working, at Keret’s insistence, from the Hebrew original.
The playwright chose eight of the stories to dramatize, beginning with the title story, in which a writer is forced at gunpoint to tell stories to his captor, to a pizza delivery man and to a survey taker who show up at his apartment. Other memorable characters include a magical talking fish, a man who fools random people who have been stood up at a café into believing that he is the one whom they were supposed to meet, and a woman who is asked to identify the corpse of a husband whom she had not seen since their wedding. In many of the tales, events start to spiral out of control only to find a sudden resolution that leaves profound and unanswered questions.
While the Arab-Israeli conflict certainly impinges upon Keret’s characters’ lives, Goldfin explained that Keret “has a very light touch with the politics and there’s always a humanity underneath his work.” Goldfin confessed that he is especially enamored of Keret’s use of language; he compared it to the Book of Genesis in its “deceptive simplicity.”
In directing the work, part of which was first seen at a short play festival at Artistic New Directions on the Upper West Side in 2012, Carson said that he is aiming to take the audience to a primal place, one filled with a sense of both comfort and menace. “It’s like sitting in a cave telling stories to pass the night,” he explained, “but with contemporary stories in which threats, interrogation and terror keep you both engaged and constantly off balance.”
Carson praised the psychological depth of Keret’s work, his “willingness to leave reality and go into a magical realm, but one still tied to honest emotions and real situations.” Keret, he pointed out, “has a vision unlike anyone else — he goes into fantasy, but instead of becoming dark, it becomes buoyant. He is always optimistic.”
Oren Neiman is an Israeli musician who created what he called the “soundtrack” for the production, which is heavily based on guitar. In accordance with the playwright’s stage directions, Neiman and another guitar player, Gilad Ben-Zvi, who is left-handed, hold up the necks of their instruments in order to make a door through which the actors enter. Neiman, who is in his 30s, called Keret the “representative voice of my generation, one of the first Israeli writers to use a contemporary voice.” Guitar music is meant to evoke Tel Aviv, he said, although he allowed that the stories are so universal that they “could be happening anywhere.”
In an email interview, Keret told The Jewish Week that he has tried a few times to adapt his stories for the stage but has been stymied each time. “Somehow theater flows more with the logic of poetry than that of a plot-driven story,” he mused. Then again, “I often speak my stories out loud while I’m writing them, so having actors speak them out loud on stage makes perfect sense.”
Keret observed that non-Israelis — his works have been translated into more than 30 languages — often read his work differently than Israelis do. “They give emphasis to some things that Israelis would nonchalantly overlook. When a reader reads a story as grotesque, while I’ve tried to write it as hyper-realistic, it tells me something really important about the reality that I live in.”
In general, he characterized Israelis as “more extreme and less politically correct,” so that they can “laugh at things that a North American, for example, could find awkward.”
Unfortunately, Keret said, non-Israelis are often eager to find a reflection of the Arab-Israeli conflict in his work. He called this tendency “very natural, since the Middle East is known overseas just for conflict.” But he feels that this reading “can be very reductive because it tends to block so many other interpretations and ambiguities that these texts can offer.”
“Suddenly, a Knock at the Door,” runs through Sunday, June 19 at Theater for the New City, 155 First Ave. Performances are Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. There are added performances this Sunday at 7:30 p.m. and Saturday, June 18 at 2 p.m. For tickets ($18, $15 for students and seniors), call SmartTix at (212) 868-4444 or visit TheaterForTheNewCity.net.