The difference between art and an op-ed is thrown into sharp, unflattering relief in Theater J’s production of Boaz Gaon and Nir Erez’s Boged (Traitor): An Enemy of the People, an Israeli update of Henrik Ibsen’s 1882 indictment of the fickle nature of public opinion and the fragility of the democratic process. Ibsen’s story, about a whistleblower condemned by his neighbors when he tries to expose a public-health menace, is knowing and tragic but also populated by inconstant, complex characters—qualities that seem to have been boiled out of this bloodless, utterly unpersuasive translation.
In the program, Gaon recalls the “outraged silence” Boged’s premiere production garnered in Israel two years ago. But translated (by Gaon) into a histrionic dialect of English usually reserved for movies on the Lifetime network—and uprooted to the U.S., where we routinely ignore ecological cautionary tales far more entertaining than this one—the silence Boged engenders isn’t one of righteous indignation but of bemusement: How could something this clunky have slipped through Theater J’s usually steadfast quality-control filters? The whole thing looks and feels like it was written with the caps-lock key down.
Boged concerns a P.R. battle over responsibility for toxic runoff in the Negev desert, which accounts for two-thirds of Israel’s land. With the country’s more fertile regions overcrowded and increasingly unaffordable, expansion into the desert is a necessity. Only (we’re told) with the help of rich companies like Ekstein Industries—a fictitious stand-in for the manufacturers whose plants occupy Isreal’s real-life Ramat Hovav Industrial Park—can the government muster the resources to make the desert inhabitable.
When Tommy Doany, a professor of some unspecified science, finds evidence that pollutants from factories have seeped into the groundwater, making both schoolchildren and soldiers at a nearby military base ill, he tries to go public, but his brother—a pragmatic pol campaigning for his third term as mayor of a small desert city—and chop-licking industrialist Moddy Ekstein (a badly miscast Sarah Marshall), both conspire to discredit him. Oh, and the TV news reporter persuing the story is also dating Tommy’s daughter, a teacher whose young charges are all being exposed to toxic vapors because the windows at the school are broken. These personal/professional overlaps shouldn’t feel improbable in a story set in a small community, but because the characters lack any hint of a life beyond the page, their decisions and predicaments all come off as contrivances.
None of the abundance of wrong here is the actors’ fault. As Tommy, Michael Tolaydo does his darndest to invest his role—which includes a closing sermon wherein he literally steps into the aisles to lecture the audience—with some trace of recognizable human behavior. But even an actor as gifted as Tolaydo, or Marshall, or Brian Hemmingsen (as the mayor) can only do so much with a script as gleaming with unearned rectitude as this one. Emphasizing a video wall (through which a propaganda video for Ekstein Industries opens the show) and a little land mass on the floor of the stage that, spoiler alert, splits into pieces just before the climax (because THIS COMMUNITY IS TEARING ITSELF APART!!!!!!!!!!!!!!), Robbie Hayes’ set suggests a TED talk more than a play set in the Israeli desert.
The fundamental tragedy that Ibsen observed 130-odd years ago warrants frequent repetition: Even when the facts are on your side, you still have to come up with a disarming or amusing way to deliver your message. Tommy fails not because he’s wrong, but because he doesn’t think he needs to engage his opponents in the language of the media.
In other words, being right doesn’t free you of the obligation to be captivating. Gaon and Erez should’ve heeded their own lesson.