Some stories never get old, and the most time-honored of all may be the tale of the star-crossed lovers. Romeo and Juliet echoes into modern-day Israel with Night Blooming Jasmine, in which a young Israeli Army officer and a beautiful teenage girl from an Israeli Arab family meet and fall in love.
This telling presents a variation on the theme: When David (Ari Stachel) rescues Jasmine (Alissa Razzano) during a demonstration gone violent, her shyness and her perfect Hebrew combine to keep from him the fact that she’s not the Orthodox Jewish woman her kerchief suggests she is.
Predictably, after nature takes its course, things blow up. But in this version the explosions are literal as Jasmine’s radicalized brother grows fatally impatient with their father’s accommodating attitude toward the army’s oppressive tactics in the Arab community.
It’s a plot-driven play, old-fashioned in its unsubtle march from scene to crisply written scene toward what we worry will be a tragic end. Crucially, the characters are not stereotypes, but complex and vividly drawn people trying to live normal lives as best they can in the midst of the seemingly perpetual trauma of terror and small-scale war.
The technique of having each actor (except those playing the lovers) play two roles, one from each clan, effectively if obviously points out that the warring peoples aren’t so different (only “two degrees of separation,” as Jasmine notes with sincere feeling if blurry logic). The staging neatly shifts the players between their dual characters, from the Jewish home to the Arab home and other settings, with practically no props except for blatantly fake machine guns.
The moral center is Yusuf (Joseph Barbarino), Jasmine’s father, who skirts two difficult lines. The first runs between the repressively anti-feminist side of Islamic tradition and the modern trend towards female assertiveness and careerism. Jasmine studies Shakespeare at the university and uses her proficiency with Hebrew to assist Yusuf, yet he can’t reconcile himself to the way he has allowed his virginal daughter into the wide world outside the family. The other is between the urge to resist and the necessity to accommodate a system that renders him and his family second-class citizens. Barbarino handles all this with a mournful gravitas that makes Yusuf’s inability to keep control of his family feel almost tragic.
The rest of the cast is strong as well, with Razzano’s Jasmine particularly magnetic. Director Artem Yatsunov smoothly carries off all this emotional and physical action in the tiny confines of the UNDER St. Marks Theater. Like all timeless stories, this one resonates in any time and place. It was first produced in 2000 – before 9/11. Despite being updated with a line about the Arab Spring, this production and this play could speak to any generation, on the strength of both its story and its storytelling. We’re lovers, we humans, but we’re also clannish, and too often, we’re killers.
Night Blooming Jasmine runs through Sept. 15. For tickets call Smarttix at 212-868-4444.