A socially inept and abrasive man with a compulsion to tell tales about his ties to the Mossad lands a job with a vital and shadowy American military intelligence agency. True to fantasy, he searches out Israeli agents to receive top-secret intelligence and devises a way to game the Navy’s most sophisticated lie-detection tests. When finally confronted by his superiors, he outraces a legion of FBI agents in a car chase from Dupont Circle to the Israeli Embassy on International Drive NW, where he seeks refuge and citizenship for himself; his wife and accomplice, Anne; and the family cat.
This is the true story of Jonathan “Jay” Pollard’s espionage career, and dramatizing it in The Law of Return didn’t require much embellishment, says Bethesda-based playwright and director Martin Blank. A writer of comedies and lifelong fan of spy novels, Blank stumbled across Pollard’s story as he was gearing up to write a comedy about spies in D.C.
“It was in a book I got from the library, something like One Hundred Great Spy Stories of Our Century,” the 40-year-old says. As an amateur race-car driver himself, Blank couldn’t get Pollard’s high-speed chase out of his head. “You’re a determined fellow if you can outrun the FBI on Connecticut Avenue,” he says.
The rest of Pollard’s story didn’t disappoint, either. “I discovered that the facts were my friends in writing this,” Blank says.
Befriending the facts took plenty of research. “I normally spend a year on a play, but this one took three,” he says. Many prominent details of Pollard’s spying career—such as what information he leaked and what the Israelis did with it—remain in dispute. So Blank went to some secret sources. “I’d be remiss in saying who I spoke with,” he says, “but people at the National Security Council, people in the Navy, and the intelligence community were very helpful.”
But Blank shied away from Pollard himself. Although The Law of Return tells Pollard’s story, it is Blank’s play, and he wanted to keep it that way. Though fascinated by his script’s unkempt, arrogant, and loose-lipped protagonist, Blank resisted the urge to consult him.
Similarly, Mikael Johnson, who plays Pollard in the play, decided he was better off reconstructing Pollard’s youthful recklessness on his own. Betrayed by the Israeli Embassy into the hands of the FBI, Pollard was found guilty and given a life sentence. “The guy spent his first 10 years in prison in solitary confinement,” Johnson says. “I’ve heard that he’s a bit more eccentric [now] than he was even back then.”
Instead of adapting Pollard’s story into a straight documentary play, Blank distilled it into a three-man cast, with Pollard bouncing between two minimal sets, one inhabited by a member of the Naval brass (Anthony van Eyck), the other by a grizzled Israeli spy handler Rafi Eitan (Allan Kulakow). He belongs in neither world, a feeling Blank hopes the audience will recognize.
“Obviously, not everyone who’s going to see it is Jewish or a spy,” Blank says. “But we all face situations where we’re stuck between two loyalties, and if a character tells you that they believe in something, you want to throw rocks at them to see if they really do.”
That theme took Blank a long way from the comedies he usually writes—and a lot closer to commercial success. It’s put him on the map with a number of theater companies, he believes, and it was optioned by David Singer for Broadway in January 2003.
“[I’m] really close to what I want, which is to tell good stories to a bigger audience,” he says. And though he was disappointed when Singer eventually let the option lapse, it’s hard to complain when “you’re trying to hit a home run, and it bounces off the wall for a double.” —Jeff Horwitz
The Law of Return runs through Saturday, July 30, at the Maryland Ensemble Theatre, 31 W. Patrick St., Frederick, MD. For more information, call (301) 694-4744.