By James Bartholomew
“Sacrifice is a two-sided coin,” shouts Niv Petel, writer and performer of “Knock Knock.” Sacrifice is a crucial part of any soldier’s story, fictional or otherwise, but the families of those soldiers are often sacrificing just as much. Illuminating this “other side” of sacrifice is Mr. Petel’s focus in “Knock Knock,” and it’s one that he hammers home with shocking pathos and remarkable beauty.
Centered around Ilana, a liaison officer in the Israeli army and a single mother, “Knock Knock” sees her raising her son from infancy through adulthood. No stranger to the burden of armed service, Ilana has the solemn duty of informing the families of fallen soldiers of their loved ones passing with a knock at their door and a few words of condolences. And while that constant reminder of the terrors of war is unrelenting, she is nevertheless taken by surprise when her son, Elad, decides to serve in a combat unit of the Israeli army, risking his life and the only family Ilana has ever known.
Each of the many scenes that compose the piece show Ilana and Elad’s relationship evolving as they grow older. She swaddles him as a newborn, takes him to the beach when he is a child, and argues about his stuffy, cluttered bedroom when he is a teenager. When he is called to service, as all Israeli citizens are when they turn eighteen, she is unable to stop him from fighting on the frontlines and waits restlessly for his return thirty‑six months later.
To say any more would be to give away the ending, but with a setup this tragically ironic, “Knock Knock” doesn’t exactly make its finale difficult to guess. That predictability is perhaps the one flaw to the production; most of the play is spent waiting for Elad to make his choice, and once he has, there’s another wait for his fate to finally be revealed. Of course, there are other surprises in store throughout “Knock Knock.”
What is far more surprising, and quite pleasantly so, is Mr. Petel’s brilliant performance as Ilana. Dressed in a white t-shirt, camouflage pants and army boots, Mr. Petel is hardly the picture of femininity, but his mannerisms and vocal touches are convincing enough to the contrary without ever feeling cliché or patronizing. That costume, out of place though it might seem, keeps the looming presence of the military palpably clear, even as Ilana and Elad build sandcastles at the beach or fawn over a basket of baby chicks.
A play of near-constant dialogue, “Knock Knock” isn’t afraid to keep Mr. Petel on his toes as a performer. Virtually all of the play’s scenes are constructed as conversations, mostly between Ilana and Elad, but rather than play out both halves of the scene, Mr. Petel only voices Ilana’s dialogue, leaving the audience to puzzle out what exactly she’s responding to.
Thankfully, Mr. Petel is a skilled writer, able to weave the most necessary exposition into his scenes with subtlety and grace. Regardless of the circumstances, Mr. Petel succeeds in capturing a mother’s love for her son above all else, while still laying enough foundation for his audience to follow the action. In doing so, he makes Ilana’s struggle the centerpiece of a story that might otherwise feel like a coming-of-age story about a young boy joining the army. Instead, every second of “Knock Knock” feels like Ilana’s show and keeps that second side of the coin of sacrifice polished to a mirror sheen.
Despite a story that’s both bare-bones and foreseeable, Mr. Petel’s sheer command over his stage and the thematic unity of it all makes “Knock Knock” a play that’s easy to recommend. The naturalistic way that Mr. Petel structures his dialogue, and they way he cuts himself off and meanders around his point, feels so unmistakably human that it’s hard not to find the whole affair sympathetic and relatable.
And while it has quite a bit to say about soldiers and the innumerable things their countries ask of them, “Knock Knock” avoids getting mired down in politics or the ethics of conscription. There is no judgment passed on these people or the predicaments they find themselves in, just a sincere acknowledgement of their willing struggle. Hyper-focused and artfully crafted, “Knock Knock” is an eye-opening look at sacrifice, from all sides of the coin.
Written and Performed by Niv Petel
Nov. 12 at 7:30pm
Artistic Advisor & Co-Director: Maia Levy
Original Lighting Designer: Oliver Bush
Set and Costume Design: Rhiannon White
Photo: courtesy of the production
United Solo 2018
410 West 42nd Street
New York City
JAMES BARTHOLOMEW is a writer and musician living in New York City. He is an administrator of the Fordham University Theatre Program and an avid lover of the arts.