June 16, 2010

Prophecy: Passion but Unfulfilled Promise

I had trouble sleeping the night before I saw Prophecy, the new political melodrama that is playing at the Fourth Street Theater through June 20. I tell you this because despite seeing the show at the end of a very long day and on less than four hours of sleep, it held my attention throughout its two and a half hours running time.

It’s not really a good play but I’m always grousing about how few plays deal with contemporary politics and this one jumps in with both feet.  It deals with the legacy of the Holocaust, the lingering wounds from Vietnam, and the more recent damages of the Iraq War; with terrorism and the radicalization of young Muslims; with the redemptive power of art, particularly theater, and the responsibility that Americans bear for the problems in the Middle East.  It also throws in references from the Bible and Greek mythology and invokes Freud and maybe Jung too.

And I haven’t even gotten into its domestic traumas.  The play revolves around a middle-aged woman named Sarah. She’s an acting teacher who is drawn to a gifted but troubled male student recently returned from serving in Iraq. At home, she’s having problems with her longtime husband Alan, who runs an organization for refugees. There is an ill-fated affair, an illegitimate child, domestic abuse and expository flashbacks to the 1970s and 1980s.

It’s all too much, of course. My husband K laughed out loud when he read the plot summary in one of the several negative reviews the show has drawn. Playwright Karen Malpede does herself no favor by serving as her own director. Another set of eyes might have helped focus the piece. As it is, the coincidences in the plot strain credulity, some of the dialog creaks and the set was obviously done on the cheap.

And yet, Malpede and her cast, lead by the always reliable Kathleen Chalfant (does any actor working today have a more mellifluous voice) and the young actress Najla Saïd (whose late father Edward was this country’s leading advocate for the Palestinian cause) throw themselves into this production with the fervency of true believers (click here to listen to them talk about the derivation of the play and what it means to them)

I applaud that kind of commitment and passion but they can be an unpredictable mix. They may hold your attention, as Prophecy did mine, but, again as in this case, they often don't know what to with it once they've got it. 

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