Play about terror of October 7 opens in New York amid massive security

“The world should never forget the stories from October 7. That’s why we wrote this play.”


Airport-style metal detectors. Meticulous bag checks. Armed security guards. It’s no typical opening week for an off-Broadway play. There are no A-list celebrities gracing the stage, yet October 7: A Verbatim Play is the only theatrical production in Manhattan under intense New York Police Department protection.

October 7 features heart-wrenching eyewitness accounts from Israelis who were at the Nova festival or near one of the kibbutzim bordering Gaza on Simchat Torah when armed Palestinians rampaged through southern Israel, butchering more than 1,200 people and taking hostage some 250 more.

Less than a month after October 7, investigative journalists Phelim McAleer and Ann McElhinney, both of whom are Irish Catholics, visited Israel to interview dozens of individuals directly involved. Their play is an abridgement of those testimonies, but every single word uttered onstage was taken verbatim from first-hand accounts of survivors or witnesses in Israel.

Producing the play was one hurdle. Securing a venue was another. With a dozen rejections, the playwrights settled for Actors’ Temple, a non-denominational synagogue and theatre minutes away from Times Square. “It was the only place in New York that would rent to us for this play,” McAleer told the JC. “For an industry so fond of giving themselves awards for bravery, they run a mile when actually asked to do something brave – and honest.”

As audience members filed into the sanctuary, a handful of actors, clad in music festival apparel, glitter and sunglasses, danced blissfully onstage to electronic music, with their backs to the spectators, as if unaware that they would soon be victims of the deadliest concert attack in history and the largest massacre of Jews since the Holocaust.

The lights dimmed. What followed was 90 minutes of dexterously staged chaos, with actors running in terror on and off the stage, and a desperate sense of urgency choreographed by director Geoffrey Cantor to reflect the unimaginable horrors of that day.

Biliya Michal, a grandmother from Ofakim, survives a face-to-face encounter with a Hamas terrorist after “his weapon jams”. Her son, Ariel, was murdered, but she and the rest of her family survived the onslaught by hiding on the neighbour’s roof under the solar panels.

Dennis Danyishuv, an off-duty IDF soldier born in Azerbaijan, survived five gunshot wounds by three different terrorists who invaded Ofakim. “I’d been shot so many times the medics thought I was hit by a missile,” Dennis said. “They didn’t have enough equipment or bandages to help me.” Yasmin, a Muslim doctor at Soroka Medical Centre in Beersheba, recalled reports of patients being admitted “with their organs…their limbs in bags”.

She treated people, even kids, with gunshot wounds to their arms and legs and smoke inhalation and carbon monoxide poisoning from being trapped in bomb shelters, or “death cages” as she described, with terrorists waiting outside and throwing grenades at them.

To Yasmin, the horrors of October 7 represented a division not between Judaism and Islam or Israelis and Palestinians, but between good and evil. “Whatever was done was not part of Islam,” she said. “Evil has no religion. They’re not fellow Arabs. They are terrorists. There’s nothing that connects me to these people…The division is not between Israelis and Palestinians…The division is between people who believe that violence is the answer and people who believe in humanity, kindness, good and peace.” The dialogue is replete with confusion, fear and even humour as people tried to make sense of the bedlam around them.

Nova festival-goer Shani Arditi, 25, spent hours hiding in a bush concealed by a large tree as bodies dropped and bullets whizzed around her. “Maya, I think I was shot…it really hurts,” Shani cries to her friend, Maya, pointing to her behind.

“Yeah, it makes sense,” Maya reassures her. “You have a huge thorn in your ass.”

For McAleer and McElhinney, October 7 is as much a homage to those who witnessed the worst of humanity as it is an indictment on those who were quick to diminish, justify or even deny what happened. “There would be no war in Gaza now without October 7,” McAleer said. “We wanted people to realise and not forget what happened.”

For platinum-selling rock singer John Ondrasik, also known as Five for Fighting, the response by the broader entertainment industry has been deplorable. “MLK Jr. said that silence in the face of evil is complicity,” Ondrasik said. “Tragically, there’s been a hell of a lot of complicity in the music and theatre business since October 7 in artists’ refusal to condemn the evil that is Hamas. That’s a historic stain that will never wash clean.”

As members of the audience and cast converge outside after the show, Paris-born actor Nathan Vincenti sits on a fire hydrant breathing a sigh of relief.

For him and for his castmates, this was no ordinary endeavour of line memorisation and flawless acting. “We’re speaking the exact words these people spoke,” he says, proud of his first New York theatrical production.

“There is an intense responsibility to get every word of the script right.” Nearby, a group of teenage girls cautiously approach playwright McAleer, and ask a probing question. “We don’t mean to sound rude,” one of them begins, “but are you Jewish?”

McAleer replies instantly with: “No, my wife Ann and I are not and have no connection to Israel or the Jewish people.

“But the world should never forget the stories from October 7. That’s why we wrote this play.”

The limited-run play continues in New York until June 16, at which point McAleer and McElhinney plan to take the production on tour across college campuses in America, including Harvard, Columbia, UPenn, UCLA and Berkeley.

“The decision [to take this to universities] came after former Harvard President Claudine Gay and others talked about ‘context’ at the congressional hearings,” McAleer said. “We thought if they want context, we’ll give them context.”

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive