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The Art of Revenge

Date: Sep 08, 2009


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It might be easy to sympathize with the characters in the The Retributionists, but should it be? That question runs through Daniel Goldfarb's play as it follows a group of underground militants who are plotting to murder millions of people.

You might wonder how you could ever root for such a plan, but here's the catch: The militants are European Jews in 1946, and they're aiming to kill one German for every Jew who was massacred in the Holocaust. Goldfarb has based his play, now in previews at Playwrights Horizons, on an actual group that called itself the Nokmim, or the Avengers, and for many people, their story will sound like a heroic tale of justice being served.

Sometimes, Goldfarb thinks they're heroes, too. "There's more than part of me that buys into that quest for revenge 100 percent," he says. "But then that makes me think, 'Oh, that's what people in other parts of the world are taught to think about us.'"

 Goldfarb sees The Retributionists as more than just a historical drama about Jews fighting back: It's also a statement about the consequences of vengeance, no matter how necessary it seems.

 The script is structured to make the four main characters, all Holocaust survivors, seem justified when we first meet them. They speak elegantly about their reasons for poisoning Germany's water supply, and we see how their plan unites them in love and friendship. "If the play is working, I want you to be really behind them in act one," Goldfarb says.

 But then in act two, we meet a few Germans. They aren't saintly or even friendly-in fact, they're racists and thieves-but the play forces us to question whether they deserve to die. One taut moment, which plays like something from a noir spy thriller, even invites sympathy for a German woman who becomes an unwitting target of Jewish rage. "The German characters remind us that there are human beings behind this anger, and that can help us examine our own anger," Goldfarb says.

 The play's ideas obviously resonate with the present day: Many Americans still thirst for retaliation against the terrorists who destroyed the World Trade Center, and many non-Americans believe our country has committed punishable crimes. "This is as close as I'm ever going to get to writing a 9/11 play," Goldfarb says. "I don't want to sound like a pacifist or sound too airy-fairy about it, but the need for revenge on both sides has created a big mess for us right now."

 To make those ideas more theatrical, Goldfarb blends ideological arguments with lover's quarrels, often vacillating between passion and politics in a single scene. Meanwhile, the scene about the endangered German may be thematically relevant, but it also delivers pure, nail-biting entertainment.

 "Balancing those moments is a challenge," says director Leigh Silverman. "We have to balance the thriller with the emotional play with the political play. Sometimes, it just has to do with putting people closer together or moving them further apart, and sometimes there's a lot of work to be done with finding the rhythm of a scene."

 As complex as they are, however, Silverman feels the fluid tone and dense politics are necessary. "It creates a very human way of looking at terrorist acts," she says. "I'm not saying those actions are warranted, but the refusal to side with anyone and to keep asking questions could lead to a different way of understanding."

Mark Blankenship has written for The New York Times, Variety, The Village Voice, and many others. He also edits The Critical Condition, an award-winning pop-culture criticism blog. (