‘The Ally,’ a New Play at the Public Theater, Hashes Out the Headlines

Before his audition for “The Ally,” a new play by Itamar Moses, the actor Michael Khalid Karadsheh printed out the monologue that his character, Farid, a Palestinian student at an American university, would give in the second act.

The speech cites both the Mideast conflict’s specific history and Farid’s personal testimony of, he says, “the experience of moving through the world as the threat of violence incarnate.” Karadsheh — who booked the part — was bowled over.

“I don’t think anyone has said these words about Palestine on a stage in New York in such a clear, concise, beautiful, poetic way,” said Karadsheh, whose parents are from Jordan and who has ancestors who were from Birzeit in the West Bank.

Farid’s speech sits alongside others, though, in Moses’s play: one delivered by an observant Jew branding much criticism of Israel as antisemitic; another by a Black lawyer connecting Israel’s policies toward Palestinians to police brutality in the United States; another by a Korean American bemoaning the mainstream’s overlooking of East Asians. These speeches are invariably answered by rebuttals, which are answered by their own counter-rebuttals, all by characters who feel they have skin in the game.

In other words, “The Ally,” which opens Tuesday at the Public Theater in a production directed by Lila Neugebauer and starring Josh Radnor (“How I Met Your Mother”), is a not abstract and none too brief chronicle of our times, a minestrone of hot-button issues: Israelis and Palestinians, racism and antisemitism, free speech and campus politics, housing and gentrification, the excesses of progressivism — even the tenuous employment of adjunct professors.

Moses, 46, a Tony Award winner for his book for “The Band’s Visit,” wanted argumentation more profound than your social media feed’s. All the characters have good points to make, and — though some of them might disagree — none possess a monopoly on the truth. “I’m not interested in saying someone’s completely right or completely wrong, or someone’s a hero or a villain,” Moses said in an interview. “I don’t think it’s true. I want them all to be seductive and have their flaws.”

At the center of the opinions and harangues, and often their target, is Asaf Sternheim, a writer and teacher at an unnamed elite university. A 40-something Jewish playwright, the son of Israeli immigrants who settled in Berkeley, Calif. — a biographical sketch that matches his creator’s — Asaf is politically liberal, hip to contemporary understandings of structural discrimination. “My feelings about Israel are the reasonable ones,” Asaf says.

So when a former student wants Asaf’s signature on a manifesto protesting the police killing of the student’s cousin, a Black man, Asaf signs, despite misgivings about the manifesto’s mentions of Israel and apartheid. When pro-Palestinian student activists require a faculty sponsor to host a lecture by a Jewish historian critical of Israel, Asaf is their man.

And when a politically conservative Jewish graduate student implores Asaf to withdraw his support from these causes, accusing him of “a public self-flagellation, a performance of virtue for the goyim,” Asaf is dismissive. Or is he?

“Early in rehearsal, someone said, ‘The real tragedy of this is everyone’s right all the time,’” Radnor said. “I trust the play more because of that, because it doesn’t feel like it has some ideological agenda. It’s letting people say what’s absolutely true for them, even when there are competing truths.”

But “The Ally” opens next week in a political landscape changed from the one in which it is set and was largely written — the status quo for Israel and American Jews that prevailed before the Hamas attack of Oct. 7 and Israel’s military response. Four months and tens of thousands of deaths later, temperatures are higher. How will audiences receive the play’s enactment and exposure of enlightened debate?

Asaf “really believes in discourse,” Radnor said, “he really believes in ideas, he really believes in this kind of liberal-artsy idea of, the more ideas, the better, and if we can just hash this out as thoughtful citizens, we will get to a better place.”

Asaf, Radnor said, “has to see, in real time, that his longing to keep having a light but sincere discussion — he’s failing at this.”

Accepting that more than one person can be right came naturally to Moses growing up in a family full of compelling personalities — older sister, professor father, therapist mother. “You’re shaped to see all sides,” he said. “The way to have the most secure place in the family is for everyone to feel like you might be aligned with them.”

Several of Moses’s plays have made drama out of debates: among contestants to replace the organist in an 18th-century German church (“Bach at Leipzig”); among baseball players with different opinions about steroid use (“Back Back Back”).

“The Ally” was inspired by several developments roughly a decade ago that seemed to Moses to expose liberalism’s contradictions — “events,” he said, “where I felt myself pulled in multiple directions and was interested in that tension.”

The 2014 police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., spurred protests that highlighted “the affinity between the Black Lives Matter movement and Palestinian liberation,” Moses said. The impression was reinforced when in late 2016 a Manhattan club canceled a Black Lives Matter benefit over the movement’s position on Israel, which included accusing the country of “apartheid” and “genocide.”

The dynamic raised what Moses termed one of his play’s “trickiest questions,” namely: “whether the fight against antisemitism belongs as a coequal branch of the social justice movement.”

During the same period, a debate arose across the country at college and universities over whether chapters of Hillel International, the Jewish student union, ought to permit anti-Zionist speakers. Some campus Hillels defied national guidelines to give such thinkers a platform.

“I felt myself reflexively sympathetic with young people wanting to be able to say what they want,” Moses said of the Open Hillel movement. “But there were other people who I thought were smart and who I respected, not opposing that necessarily, but saying, ‘Well, let’s think about that.’”

The solution to Moses’s inner conflict was to grant every opinion its due and make the defining question for every character how much he or she is or is not who you expect them to be.

“My job is to be an advocate for every character,” said Neugebauer, the director. “We’re trying to do something difficult, which is invite people to listen to a number of different perspectives on subjects about which people may have tremendously entrenched perspectives that they have not entirely consciously considered.”

Moses began noodling with what became “The Ally” when Barack Obama was still president. Five years ago, it seemed bound for the Public and, following a coronavirus-related delay, its dates this winter were set last spring.

Then Oct. 7 happened. Moses put the play in a drawer for a month.

Oskar Eustis, the Public’s longtime artistic director, consulted friends, staff and his board and determined the show must go on, even if — as he acknowledged is inevitable — the play and its characters will not go down smoothly with every member of the audience.

“It’s actually more urgent than ever,” he said. “Our inability to talk about this in New York or listen to viewpoints we disagree with leads to the violence we’re seeing.”

Taibi Magar, who last year directed “An American Tail,” a musical for which Moses wrote the book and, with Michael Mahler and Alan Schmuckler, the lyrics, singled out Moses’s acuity at rewriting his plays — “a mental ability,” she said, “not required of a lot of other kinds of writing” — and connected it to his broader frame of mind.

The ending of “The Ally” has borne the brunt of Moses’s changes. The play concluded one way in a working draft the production was using earlier this month; another, slightly different way in a preview performance earlier this week; and potentially, Moses said this week, a profoundly more different third way by opening night.

Unchanged, however, is the lights’ going down with Asaf alone onstage. In addition to their close life stories, Moses conceded that he agreed with Asaf when the character says, “I’ve never been, like, a ‘mob enthusiasm’ person.”

In fact, Moses insisted he never tried to stack the deck to make sure one particular side of any argument seemed to win or lose definitively. “I just want them to make really good cases,” he said.

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