Wednesday, March 13, 2024

The Ally (the Public Theater)

By Harry Forbes

Playwright Itamar (“The Band’s Visit”) Moses’ latest work is a provocative drama concerning university writing teacher Asaf (Josh Radnor) who signs a social justice manifesto on the urging of his student Baron (Elijah Jones) after the death of the latter’s cousin at the hands of the police. But his action ignites a a firestorm as the document equates the #BlackLivesMatter situation with that of Palestinians by Israelis. 

As Asaf is of Jewish descent, his involvement raises the particular ire of Judaica student Reuven (Ben Rosenfield) who bursts into Asaf’s office and passionately defends the Jewish side, and excoriates Asaf. And later, when Asaf decides his name should be removed from the manifesto after all, he comes under fire from both Palestinian student Farid (Michael Khalid Karadsheh), who argues the other side just as intensely and persuasively, and Asaf’s ex-girlfriend, Nakia (Cherise Boothe) who, in fact, wrote the manifesto. 

Moses is, like Asaf, of Israeli descent, and his play is a smart summation of all the arguments of the Middle East conflict. Both sides receive balanced, highly charged airings, and Rosenfield and Karadsheh are superb in their lengthy monologues as they argue their respective positions. No one applauded after either of these superbly acted speeches, as if cheering histrionic virtuosity might be mistaken for allegiance to one political side or the other. Or so it seemed.  

The play is a lengthy two hours and 40 minutes, but by the end, there is no actual resolution, as indeed the never-ending conflict in the Mideast seems to bear out. So, too, it was written before the Hamas invasion of Israel on October 7, and all the horrific carnage that followed, so there’s no reference to any of that, but the arguments remain pertinent, and no less potent.

Director Lila Neugebauer who did such a fine job with the current “Appropriate,” keeps the action fluid, and one scene morphs into another without pause. She draws fine performances from all, including Joy Osmanski as Asaf’s wife Gwen, a community relations administrator at the college which is planning to expand its campus; Madeline Weinstein as student Rachel who, though Jewish herself, joins with Farid to sponsor a campus lecture by a best-selling author espousing anti-Zionist sentiments. 

Radnor is ideal as the ever well-meaning Asaf who gets embroiled in such a maelstrom of controversy. Never less than likable, he earns the audience empathy from the start and retains it throughout.

The profusion of ideas is intriguing certainly, though “The Ally” frequently seems less a play than a stimulating debate. But, in fairness, there is a surprising amount of humor amidst the heavy arguments, and just enough domestic conflict in the scenes between Asaf and Gwen, and later, Asaf and old flame Nakia to keep us involved. 

(The Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street; or 212-967-7555; through March 24)

Photo by Joan Marcus: Ben Rosenfield and Josh Radnor

Print this post


Post a Comment