At thirteen, Nathan Abramowitz asks his grandfather, "What's a good Jew?" It is a question that echoes through this satirically toned two-act play that deals with friendship, loyalty, and growing up. Its three main characters, all best friends and all named Nathan, move through twenty years of life, beginning with their adolescent preoccupations (Jewishness for Abramowitz and Glass, sex and bad jokes for Isaacs) and their league, complete with irreverent secret chants and rituals (including a scanning of the night sky with flashlights in a search for God). Their league is suddenly split up when Glass has to flee to Israel for his role in the death of an Arab boy, but seven years later, a mysterious telegram arrives summoning Abramowitz and Isaacs to a reunion at a synagogue in Spain where, after a comedy of errors streaked with dark drama, Abramowitz's question near the start of the play finally finds an awkwardly poignant answer.
Using flashbacks, a variety of settings (including a bedroom, graveyard, airplane, cab, train, café, and synagogue), and a welter of narratives, Sherman takes a multi-faceted look at what it means to share Jewish loyalties even though one's own values refuse to be uncritically aligned to ethnic, religious, and political assumptions. The three males grow up differently, with Abramowitz being the wondering, questioning liberal, half in love with biblical stories, while Isaacs is the materialist with a plaintive, redneck streak under his coarse humour, and Glass turns into a militant Zionist who opposes compassion for the Palestinians.
Sherman's examination of Jewishness eventually becomes an intense debate between Abramowitz and Glass, and their dialectic of differences is given some dramatic measure even by the rather sentimental and contrived ending which links the two to a biblical parable.
The issue of loyalty and betrayal is again dramatized through dialogue in the Governor-General's-Award-winning Three in the Back, Two in the Head, which appears to have been based on the assassination of Gerald Bull, the brilliant Canadian scientist who designed the first Star Wars system twenty years before Reagan announced his version. Bull ran afoul of the Pentagon and the CIA by his dealings with China, Chile, Yugoslavia, and Iraq. But Sherman's play is not a docudrama in any sense, for it merely uses some of the circumstances of the murdered scientist's career in order to concentrate on questions of personal and state morality as these circumscribe issues of loyalty and betrayal.
Using a string of flashbacks which are often intercut with commentary by characters who watch replays of particular moments of their past, this play (performed without an intermission) has a taut, chilling atmosphere created in part by a sense of physical enclosure (most of the action occurs in a CIA office) and in part by the sense of an inevitable, sinister fate for Jackson (the Bull surrogate), who becomes the chief scapegoat. Jackson's son, once hostile to his embittered, estranged, but ultimately broken-spirited father, seeks answers to questions about his father's assassination, but the play goes through more twists of circumstance and character than could be at first imagined, boiling down conflicts and intrigues into a struggle between political tribalism and survivalism. The characters, who beside Jackson include his wife and son, the CIA officer Doyle, and Sparrow, Pentagon head of Space Defence, are not always what they seem to be on the surface. Their actions and motives are examined so that the layered implications are folded within one another. Sherman doesn't permit his play to become an epiphany of liberal idealism; instead he thrives on his characters' hidden motives and ambiguities of attitude.
The most interesting formal aspects of this quick-witted, sometimes claustrophobic drama are the interlocking sequences and the verbal textures. Each character is individualized by a speech pattern, the most idiosyncratic of which is Doyle's faltering, broken phrases that suggest David Mamet's manner while hinting at a paradoxical combination of fear and subtle manipulation.
Keith Garebian is the author of ten books, seven of them on theatre.