February 13, 2008

The Bravery of "Betrayed"

The War in Iraq may not be popular with Americans but it seems that art about the war has been even less so. Movies with war-related themes have tanked at the box office, even when starring big names like Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts. On TV, the get-the-terrorists-by-any-means-necessary series “24,” is now on tenterhooks over how much jingoism audiences will continue to accept. The Broadway revival of the World War I drama Journey’s End played to nearly empty houses and closed on the night that it won a well-deserved Tony.

So, you’ve really got to admire the folks down at the Culture Project, who continue to produce show after show exploring the U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. Its “documentary theater” productions have included Guantánamo: Honor Bound to Defend Freedom, Baghdad Burning: Girl Blog From Iraq, Guardians, a Scottish import about how journalists have covered the war, and Eve Enslers’ The Treatment about a traumatized soldier.

The latest offering is Betrayed, journalist George Packer’s adaptation of his 2007 article in The New Yorker about the plight of Iraqi interpreters who are regarded as traitors by many of their countrymen and as potential terrorists by the American government which has been reluctant to grant them asylum in this country, marooning them in a no-man’s land. (Actually, as both the article and play observe, many end up in Sweden, which has taken in some 20,000 Iraqi refugees, far more than any other European nation and five times as many as the U.S.)

Writers at the New Yorker seem to be stage struck. The magazine’s theater critic John Lahr wrote the book for Elaine Stritch at Liberty. Last year, staff writer Lawrence Wright turned his brilliant history of Al-Qaeda, “The Looming Tower”, parts of which appeared in the magazine, into the one-man show My Trip To Al-Qaeda that also played at the Culture Project and later at Town Hall. I missed that one and the other Iraq shows too but, having read and been moved by Packer’s article about the
interpreters (click here to read it yourself), I was determined to see Betrayed.

I recruited my old college classmate Lisa, who has studied peace and reconciliation issues and has a keen interest in topics like this, to be my comrade in arms and we made our way down to the Culture Project’s theater on Mercer Street. We found an SRO crowd that included Sarah Jessica Parker, who sneaked in and sat at the back. Over half of the audience also stayed on after the show for a talkback session with both Packer and Wright. It was an intellectually stimulating evening. I just wish I had found the play more involving as a dramatic work.

I don’t fault the actors. Aadya Bedi, Sevan Greene and Waleed F. Zuaiter, who played the three interpreters, are all top-notch, and how nice for such fine actors to get starring roles that don’t call for them to be terrorists. But Packer, who is also the author of “The Assassins' Gate,” the award winning chronicle of the early days of the Iraq war, is a rookie playwright and his characters are a bit one-dimensional, his narrative tilts more towards message-carrying than storytelling. Still, in the end, the plight of the interpreters can’t help but be moving. And maybe this play will help bring the urgency of their situation home to those who can do something about it.

“It’s take-you-medicine theater,” said Lisa as we sat with glasses of wine at the cozy old Soho bistro Félix after the show ended. “But sometimes, you need medicine to make things better.”


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the interesting observations. And congrats on the first anniversary of your blog. Looking good!

jan@broadwayandme said...

And thank you, Anonymous, for the kind words and good wishes.