NEW YORK – Last week, as New York entered an ice age, Iddo Netanyahu sat in a cafe on the Upper West Side, cupping a warm mug of coffee. Usually, he commutes to New York from Jerusalem a few times a year to work as a part-time radiologist at St. James Mercy Hospital. It’s a strategic arrangement that for the past two decades has allowed him ample time to pursue his passion for writing. On this visit, it was his writing that brought him back to the city.
Netanyahu had arrived for the final rehearsals of his play “A Happy End,” which begins previews at the Abingdon Theatre Company on Friday, and officially opens on March 11 for a two-week run. These performances mark the playwright’s Off-Broadway debut, and are the latest stop on the play’s rather unexpected global route since premiering in Italy in 2008.
“A Happy End” is set in Berlin in 1932, as the Nazis were beginning to suffocate German society. It follows Leah and Mark Erdmann, a well-to-do, well-integrated Jewish couple grappling with whether or not to remain in Germany or flee to the United States. Netanyahu said he chose this time period so that the audience knows the correct answer. It is, thus, a story less about a certain historical moment than about our inability to look frankly at the ominous reality that surrounds us.
“What causes them to not understand things that are obvious, that should be obvious?” asked Netanyahu of his characters. “When reality’s there, you see it but you don’t see it. You see it and then maybe you interpret it the wrong way, using all the logic in the world.”
“A Happy End” was commissioned for European Holocaust Remembrance Day, with little thought to a future beyond its Italian debut. But someone found out about it and gave the manuscript to someone else with a theater in northern Israel, who gave it to a famous actor (Netanyahu brushed through this chain of events with the verbal equivalent of a wave of the hand), until it landed at the prestigious Beit Lessin Theater in Tel Aviv. “They accepted it, and they didn’t know who wrote it,” he said, which is an important distinction, given his fraternal relations.
The liability of the Netanyahu name
One of the first things you notice about Iddo is that he sounds more than he looks like his older brother, the prime minister of Israel (though there is a clear physical resemblance as well). Like Benjamin, Iddo speaks a quick and flawless English, with just the whiff of an accent. But whereas his brother, the politician, projects with force and gravity, Iddo’s voice stays calm and close to home. He doesn’t whisper, but you have to lean in to catch his words, lest they dissipate in the clatter of silverware.
Netanyahu has published several books, including a collection of short stories, a novel, and a heavily researched inquiry into the famous raid on Entebbe that took his brother Yonatan's life in 1976. In recent years, he has become consumed by playwriting. “It’s a process,” he said of the format. “It’s evolving, it’s alive. There’s something I find exhilarating about playwriting.”
Asked whether his family name is a liability for his plays, he responded quickly. “In theater? Of course, there’s no question,” he said. The director of Beit Lessin admitted as much in a TV interview, in which she said that she honestly didn’t know whether she would have produced the play had she known the author beforehand – suggesting, in other words, that the liberal world of Tel Aviv theater is no place for a Netanyahu. To this, Netanyahu shrugged, accepting that his name both opens doors and closes them. “Which is life,” he said. “It’s okay.”
Given Netanyahu’s discomfort with his work being erroneously connected in any way with his brother, it’s ironic that “A Happy End” should arrive in New York a few days before the prime minister is set to deliver a highly contentious address to Congress about the Iranian nuclear threat.
Two weeks later, Israelis will go to the polls to determine if he will keep his job. The Abingdon Theatre Company decided to produce “A Happy End” over a year ago, before John Boehner extended his divisive invitation and before the Knesset was even thinking about elections. And Netanyahu, the playwright, has no patience for those who raise their brows at this coincidence.
“Those who see the play will not see a correlation,” he said. “Those who don’t know the play, maybe they will write something silly about the timing. It has nothing to do with art, nothing to do with what I’m trying to say and achieve.”
Echoes of European anti-Semitism
But one parallel he can’t escape are the chilling echoes of anti-Semitism rising in Europe once again. Targeted attacks against Jews and Jewish institutions in France, Belgium and Denmark in recent months imbue “A Happy End” with a frightening urgency.
Netanyahu acknowledges the relevance while simultaneously resisting it, concerned perhaps that the story will seem too obvious a parable given today’s headlines and the heightened debate over whether Jews should emigrate to Israel.
“The timing is always relevant,” said Netanayhu. “This is not something new. It’s coincidence that there’s more happening in Europe now in the past month than there was a year ago, which maybe is good for people coming to see the play, maybe it’s bad. Maybe it will fill the seats, maybe it won’t.”
Though the story he tells in “A Happy End” is an explicitly Jewish one, Netanyahu insists that it speaks to themes that non-Jews can relate to as well. To demonstrate, he took out his phone and scrolled through his inbox to retrieve an email from Nabi Abdurakhmanov, the Muslim director of the play’s current production in Tashkent, Uzbekistan (a predominantly Muslim country).
“'A Happy End' is going on now,’” he read from the email, skipping through sentences. “'It’s unbelievable how your words are getting more and more actual because of what’s happening in the world.’ He’s referring to the Muslim world,” Netanyahu explained, then added: “I write about Jews because this is what I know. I hope and really believe that it has a relevance to every society [Abdurakhmanov] put on the play because he’s concerned about what’s going on in Uzbekistan. That’s what he told me.”
Against political sermonizing
It’s a tricky tightrope that Netanyahu walks: tackling clearly political themes, but backing away from political readings of his work – as if trying to stay as far away from his brother’s turf as possible. Or at least neutralize and generalize his work in such a way that it can neither be read as an endorsement, nor a critique of Israeli policies. He condemns such writing as “sermonizing.”
“I don’t believe in extending explicit political messages,” he said, picking at a bowl of berries. “Let people think what they decide, let them think what the danger is. But your view of the dangers is probably opposite to mine. It doesn’t really matter. I don’t like art that directly politicizes things. It’s primitive, almost. It’s boring.”
His next project is a two-man play chronicling a series of meetings between the physician Immanuel Velikovsky and Albert Einstein. It will open in Tashkent in April, followed by a production in Russia, where “A Happy End” is also opening in March – in Makhachkala, on the Caspian Sea, and then in Bitola, Macedonia, in May.
Netanyahu is big in that region thanks to an Israeli drama showcase a few years back where several theater directors from Russian-speaking countries attended an excerpt of “A Happy End” and subsequently became champions of his work. “Life is coincidence,” Netanyahu said of his peculiar geographic popularity. “That’s all it is.”
The Off-Broadway production of “A Happy End” is not the play’s U.S. premiere – it was first staged in Boulder, Colorado (again, sent to a director there without Netanyahu’s name attached) in 2012, and received a reading in Los Angeles later that same year.
Netanyahu is genuinely surprised that his play has grown such sturdy legs and is still being shown internationally, seven years after its debut. He is proud that it has earned a spot in New York’s often insular theater scene, and hopes the journey isn’t yet over – both in America and, more importantly, back home.
“I’m hopeful that the production here will allow me to function to a greater extent in Israel,” he said. “It’s not so easy to penetrate there. It’s hard anywhere, but I would say in Israel it’s not easy.”
“A Happy End” begins previews on February 27, opens March 11 and runs through March 29. Tickets at www.abingdontheatre.org.