A Tough Act to Swallow

Robin Soans' culinary take on the Arab-Israeli conflict is a bit too filling.

The first thing you need to know about the TheatreFIRST production of Robin Soans’ The Arab-Israeli Cookbook is that if you don’t eat before the show, you’ll be miserable. In the first act alone, there’s lavish discussion of fattoush, hummus, stuffed zucchini, stuffed vine leaves, marinated chicken, Greek salad, falafel, mushroom quiche, beetroot salad, apples and honey, and Thai noodles with veal. Even Campari is glorified in Soans’ documentary-theater-style exploration of modern Israel. And no, while the actors do cook onstage, that food doesn’t magically show up in the lobby at intermission.

Much like Traveling Jewish Theatre’s recent Blood Relative, this show illuminates the Arab-Israeli conflict by introducing characters who go beyond the Arab/Jew dichotomy: Greek Orthodox, urbanites, villagers, gay couples, etc. Both shows grew from interviews with people in Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank. But while TJT’s creative team then developed a varied group of fictional characters and slotted them into a coherent narrative, here actor and writer Soans presents his people verbatim as he met them, in a much looser form. And while Relative‘s characters talked about history, faith, and politics, the ones here mostly talk about food — which is a clever way to get past abstraction and chest-beating. There is much about the concept that works, but it starts to feel limited by the end of the first act. Soans clearly fell so love in with the people he talked to that he wasn’t as merciless in his editing as the piece needs.

The work successfully highlights how stressful day-to-day life is in Israel and the Occupied Territories. In the Yemenite Falafel Shop, the owner and customers are like family, laughing and teasing, until a stranger leaves his bag on the floor and everyone panics. An older couple explain that they tend to stay home watching Hitchcock films because it’s easier than going out, when just visiting the husband’s brother requires a ninety-minute wait at a military checkpoint. Ditto the bus driver explaining his company’s policy about what drivers must do if the bus in front of them gets blown up (keep driving, no matter what), or the hummus shop owner who can’t get the tahini he needs because the family that makes it is on the other side of an Israeli-built wall.

Of those people, college student Fadi (Baruch Porras-Hernandez) has one of the most interesting voices. His riff at the beginning of the second act about how hard it is for him to get tan is hilarious and unusual, as is an earlier rant about why Israelis order Greek salads (apparently they’re “fashionable”). He squarely faces the politics of food, explaining that before the Israeli crackdown, fridges in Arab homes were full of fresh food. Now they have only fattoush, which is made from leftovers, “while the Israelis — and the Arabs who can afford it — are eating sushi.”

Fadi is juxtaposed with equally outspoken Rena (Anne Hallinan), a Jewish transplant from New York who rhapsodizes about the figs her Arab gardener brings her and the variety in Israel’s restaurant scene. She has great lines, describing Ashkenazi dishes as “food with a strong whiff of antimacassars and mothballs.” Other characters are equally distinct. The shopkeepers, shy Hala exclaiming that “I have a confession to make — I wear contact lenses and eat a lot of chocolate!”, a man talking about how much he loves beer. But some are completely superfluous; the bus driver’s wife seems to exist solely to prod her husband to tell his hair-raising story.

The sad thing Soans brings out is that so many discussions, no matter where they start, end with tales of bombs or shootings. The gregarious felafel shop owner pounds his stomach with both fists to emphasize how a bomb in his shop that killed only the kid who brought it in taught him that “I have a life! My life!” A young Arab kitchen assistant explains that she’s slow at food prep because Israeli gunfire destroyed her elbow. A Jewish woman tells of an abortive grocery store trip; she compulsively details what she had on the conveyor belt when the bomb went off, as if to stave off the memory of what else she saw.

That sort of detail is evident throughout the script, and it gets distracting. The first act suffers this fate more than the second, featuring a monotonous discussion of wine and its production that might conceivably please the hardcore Sideways crowd. Other than the detail about how orthodox Jewish vintners get around a certain restriction and an explanation of why kosher wine from Israel is often so sticky sweet, this section lags.

There are nice interactions, such as a man talking about looking for a photo of his old girlfriend, and his wife gritting out, “You … won’t … find … it.” And there are points where overlapping stories create some narrative tension. But overall it doesn’t feel as if the writer has a firm hand on the reins. The structure needs to be more obvious; as it is, this piece meanders, without giving an audience the sense that it’s going anywhere in particular. It’s also plagued by the inherent difficulty in doing anything around this conflict. Responsible theater artists are working so hard to be balanced, to present every side, that the resulting work is ungainly despite their best efforts. There’s powerful stuff here, but Soans could have gotten more impact into a smaller package. As Nadia says of her stuffed grape leaves, you don’t want to put in too much filling — the rice swells and the dish won’t cook properly. While it’s sweet and unexpected, The Arab-Israeli Cookbook could still stand a little less as well.

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