Theatre Exile continues its mission to present unique and original drama with its world-premiere production of New Jersey playwright Lucile Lichtblau’s intriguing The English Bride. It’s a play full of questionable truths; the one fact we can be absolutely certain of is the historical incident that inspired the playwright in the first place.
On April 17, 1986, a pregnant Irish woman named Anne-Marie Murphy was arrested at London’s Heathrow Airport after an explosive device was discovered in her suitcase moments before she was scheduled to board an El-Al 747 bound for Tel Aviv. Murphy’s fiancé, Nezar Hindawi, was accused of putting the device in her luggage without her knowledge. Hindawi was convicted of attempting to kill all 347 people aboard the Israeli airline and sentenced to 45 years in a British prison.
The twisting tale, with its potential link to state-sponsored terrorism, is rife with dramatic possibilities, but Bride is not a play about international espionage and terror in the sky. Instead, Lichtblau explains in the show’s program that her reasons for writing Bride were two-fold: “I wanted to see if I could make sense out of a situation that, at first, seemed incomprehensible to me. I also wanted to depict the character of the Arab man as a human being, not as a villain.” We do come to see the attempted murderer (who, in Bride, is named Ali, sharply played by veteran actor J Paul Nicholas) as a human being, albeit a villainous one. And while it is impossible to justify the killing of innocents, Lichtblau makes a compelling case for how the chain of events that led to a bomb in Murphy’s luggage might have occurred.
The English Bride focuses less on the crime than the relationship between Ali and an Irish woman named Eileen (Corinna Burns). The play’s third character, an Israeli inspector named Dov, is noticeably underdeveloped and serves more as a device than a fully formed character, despite a fine performance by Damon Bonetti. But in Ali and especially Eileen, Lichtblau gives us two of the season’s most interesting figures.
Directed with careful attention to detail by Deborah Block, the play depicts an Ali whose air of confidence borders on arrogance. Beneath his conceit is a conflicted and uncertain man whose desire to embrace Western modernism is at odds with his Middle Eastern upbringing. What makes Ali such a tricky role to play is that he often lies, a character flaw shared by Eileen and even Dov. If he is to be believed, Ali wants to murder Eileen because her pregnancy would “kill” his mother; the detective sardonically notes that perhaps Ali’s solution is “a bit over the top.”
While Nicholas’ Ali is undeniably enigmatic, it is Burns’ Eileen that most captures our interest. Burns gives a heartbreaking performance as a woman who describes herself as “plain,” stuck in “a dead-end job and dead-end life.” “Never trust a man who smiles because there’s nothing to smile about,” her unseen mother advises, but her mom’s cynicism only makes Eileen more desperate to find someone to share a life with. She is so intoxicated by Ali’s show of affection that she converts to Islam and even agrees to fly alone to the Middle East ostensibly to meet his parents. While Ali is guilty of attempted murder, Eileen’s only crime is the desire to be loved.
So, why did Ali plant a bomb in his fiancée’s suitcase, believing it would blow her and everyone else on the plane to smithereens? The English Bride doesn’t offer any easy answers. Then again, maybe Eileen’s mother is correct when she tells her daughter that “the world is full of wickedness.”
Through Dec. 2. $20-$34. Theatre Exile’s Studio X, 1340 S. 13th St. theatreexile.org