December 17, 2018

Shifting sands of truth unravel in ‘The English Bride’

As the play “The English Bride” begins, the audience is immediately thrust into a near cataclysm with a burst of police sirens and an announcement over a loudspeaker: “Attention! Attention! All passengers on El Al flight 1540 to Dusseldorf and Tel Aviv. The flight is canceled.”  

The play, now being presented at the Road Theatre in North Hollywood, is based on a foiled 1986 plot to bomb an El Al Airlines plane flying some 375 passengers from London to Tel Aviv. The original incident involved Jordanian Nezar Hindawi, who, unbeknownst to his pregnant fiancee, hotel chambermaid Anne-Marie Murphy, had planted a bomb inside the suitcase she was carrying on the flight to Israel, believing she was going to meet his family before their wedding. Hindawi had apparently told her to travel ahead of him, claiming that he, as an Arab, would need some time to get a visa. After he left her at Heathrow, he learned Israeli security personnel had discovered the explosive in her luggage, so he went to the Syrian embassy for help, then inexplicably turned himself in to the police soon afterward.

Playwright Lucile Lichtblau, who won the Susan Glaspell Prize and the Israel Baran Award for “The English Bride,” said she has long been haunted by the Hindawi affair. “I kept thinking about it over the years and finally realized that I had to write about it. What kept me going back and back to it was the idea of betrayal. I wanted to be able to understand, or at least conceptualize, how a man could make love to a woman, impregnate her with his child and then plot to kill her in cold blood.”

Lichtblau’s play follows many of the facts surrounding the 1986 case. There is a would- be Arab terrorist, Ali Said (Steven Schub), who has planted a bomb in the suitcase of his unsuspecting pregnant lover, Eileen Finney (Elizabeth Knowelden), before she is scheduled to board an Israeli airliner bound for Tel Aviv. Much of the story is told in flashback through scenes between the lovers, in monologues addressed to the audience and in sequences where the lovers are interrogated separately by a Mossad agent known as Dov (Allan Wasserman), the one character who, according to the playwright, is entirely fictionalized.

“There may have been an Israeli agent involved in the original (event), probably there was, but I never read about one,” Lichtblau said. “My Dov is a complicated person. He really wants to know, much as I wanted to know, how such a thing as this betrayal could happen. Of course, he also has an official job to do. He wants straightforward, factual information, and he has a political job to do, because he wants to pin this incident on Syria. He is caught between wanting to understand, wanting to know and wanting to manipulate.

“Eileen became more and more complicated as I wrestled with writing her. She was pathetic at first, then garrulous, needy, funny, charming and, finally, a survivor.”

Lichtblau continued: “Ali is the hard one to pin down. He is secretive, a liar without question —  so are they all — but even he changes as the play develops. He may even fall in love with Eileen, it’s hard to say for sure, but he is trapped in his own plot and is unable to stop it from happening.”

While the bare facts of the scheme are clear, the motivations are constantly in question, and many statements by all three characters are later contradicted. For example, Finney claims in a speech to the audience that she was a virgin prior to her affair with Said. Later, she tells Dov that she got the money to move to London before meeting Said, after sleeping with a man she met in the pub where she worked and then taking his wallet.

Lichtblau explained that the sands in her story are constantly shifting. “I look on this play as a kaleidoscope in which you see the characters one way, and then as you turn the scope you see them another way. Your point of view changes as the scenes change and as the play progresses,” she said. 

She added that, though her play deals with a very specific incident, she is also examining universal issues.

“First of all,” she said, “I think we all lie to some extent, not only to other people, but also to ourselves. This makes getting at the truth of any situation extremely difficult.  

“Betrayal is also universal. At a talkback in Philadelphia, the director of the play asked how many women in the audience had been the victim of a betrayal by a lover. Virtually every woman’s hand shot up — including the director’s.”

Lichtblau described herself as a practicing Jew who goes to synagogue every Saturday morning with her husband. “The two of us are part of a group that leads the Torah service, a job I love,” she said. “My family was not very involved in Judaism as I was growing up. I did go to Sunday school, however, and my identity as a Jew was forged in my grandmother’s kitchen where my relatives gathered on a nightly basis to drink coffee and discuss Hitler and the growing menace in Europe. We had relatives in Poland that they were worried about. I never knew who these relatives were, but I do remember when my uncle got a letter saying that they had made it successfully to England with the money our family had sent.” 

Lichtblau concluded by saying that she hopes audiences leave her play “with an understanding of the complexity of human relationships, and an understanding that each of us is the sum of our contradictions, our needs and our desires.”

The English Bride,” The Road Theatre on Magnolia, NoHo Senior Arts Colony, 10747 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood. Performances through April 26. Thursdays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 3p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m.