Theater J and the Spy Museum (one cent)

Theater J, the professional theater associated with the DC Jewish Community Center, and the Spy Museum, a highly touted, relatively new museum in downtown Washington DC, have little in common other than their proximity to each other, and the fact that I enjoy attending lectures and performances at both venues. (Truth is that, as to the Spy Museum, I have never gone through the museum itself.)

I subscribed to a four part series of lectures given during February at the Spy Museum. I previously briefly reported on the first of these programs, focusing on Larry Chinn, who, while a CIA official, spied for China for thirty years, his discovery and his capture. The second lecture was given by one of the investigators in the Navy’s investigation of Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard (this one I missed; my wife went instead). The third lecture was about the extremely weird case of Kendall and Gwen Myers. Kendall was a long time State Department employee, a descendant of Alexander Graham Bell and Gilbert Grosvenor, who with his wife spied for decades for Cuba, presumably solely on ideological grounds. And the final lecture focused on the ten spies for Russia (our friend, Russia) last summer, including the attractive Anna Campbell (who now apparently has a TV show in Moscow and is thinking of running for the Duma). As opposed to the first three cases, it is difficult to determine whether any of these spies accomplished anything as a result of their activities. Also, the speaker at the final session was not involved in the discovery or pursuit of the Russian agents, but rather is the chief historian of the museum itself – so his lecture did not focus on how the Russians were discovered, pursued, or apprehended, but rather their individual backgrounds, and how intelligence agents tend to be trained and how they tend to operate. All three of the talks I attended were very interesting.

And it prepared me for a separate program at the museum on Monday, when Mosab Yousef spoke at a program built around the publication of the paperback edition of his book, “Son of Hamas”. Yousef’s father was one of the founders of Hamas (though not a member of its military wing), and Yousef worked closely with him, until he was arrested by the Israelis and jailed. In jail, he says, he eventually realized how dangerous Hamas was, and how Hamas did not work for the benefit of the Palestinian people, but for its own benefit, as he claims most other Arab jihadist organizations do. He decided to cooperate and become an agent for the Shin Bet, the Israeli intelligence service. He claims to have been instrumental in the identification of or capture of several high ranking Hamas officials. His father and family are very much in opposition to what he has done, but he claims they remain supportive of him as a family member. He has converted to Christianity.

Well, gee. Whatever a spy tells you, you must take with a gran of salt. Is his story true? The Israeli press (Haaretz) has written about him, as if everything is fact, as I understand it. But the Shin Bet and Israeli government has remained silent, I am told, and his family (and Hamas in general) have denied the accuracy of his claim.

The one thing you learn from attending these programs at the Spy Museum is that spies are deceptive and tricky, and patient. Am I being overly skeptical of The Son of Hamas?

No such questions about the Theater J performances, where I saw the final performances of this year’s Festival of a Changing Middle East, and attended the annual benefit, a staged reading of Neil Simon’s “The Sunshine Boys”, with Theodore Bikel and Jim Brochu.

There were two remaining festival readings, both one man shows – Aaron Davidson’s “Wrestling Jerusalem” and David Hare’s “Via Delorosa”, performed by David Bryan Jackson. These pieces are similar, and equally compelling, involving trips to Israel and portions of the West Bank by, in one case, an American Jew and, in the other, a British playwright. Challenging messages, excellent writing, beautiful performances. They get you thinking.

Jim Brochu played Zero Mostel in a one-man show last year at Theater J, and Theodore Bikel has been in several shows, and performed musically there as well. They got together for “The Sunshine Boys” earlier this week. While “The Sunshine Boys” is not a perfect play, it is perfectly enjoyable. “Lewis & Clark”, played together on the vaudeville circuit for decades, and then had one too many disagreements, and hadn’t spoken to each other in over ten years. Now, aging, ill, and in financial distress, they are persuaded to get together for one more performance, as a part of a CBS vaudeville retrospective. They decide to do one of their time tested routines – “The Doctor is In”.

Much of this play is fairly well engraved in my memory – the scene discussing the comic virtue of words with a “k” sound, the surprises in the obituaries (followed by disagreements of who the dead guy really was), the skit itself. As corny (“k” sound) as it is, it always make you smile.

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